When I heard Tim Burton was going to direct a film of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," I thought, "Of course: The demon barber of Fleet Street, a lost soul who was horribly wronged, who cuts peoples' throats in his barber chair: Burton's "Edward Scissorhands," grown up and out for revenge!! Forget the topiary, bring on the blood!"
Filming Sondheim, though, is no cakewalk. His musicals are dense and brooding, never in-your-face.
Only two have made it to the screen. The first was his most audience-friendly, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," which ended up choppy and frantic. One Sondheim colleague compared it to being hit by a truck that backs up and runs over you again.
In 1978, Sondheim's longtime stage collaborator Harold Prince filmed "A Little Night Music" with Elizabeth Taylor. I can't give you a final assessment since I never made it past the first hour. I felt I owed it to Sondheim to flee.
But "Sweeney Todd" is a happier story. Once you get past the fact that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter don't have powerful voices - which is hard - it's spellbinding.
Most film directors open stage musicals up and add meaningless busy-ness to make them more "cinematic." Burton constricts the space and concentrates the melodrama. It's like minor-key chamber music, except with gouts of bright blood that geyser out against the monochromatic backdrops. [I can't show that to you while you're still digesting breakfast.]
Now, Depp doesn't have a bad voice, just thin. But Burton shoots him in loving close-up, and mad Johnny has the right intensity, the right morbidity.
As Mrs. Lovett, who has the frugal idea of grinding up Sweeney's victims for her meat pies, Bonham Carter is both ghoulish and erotic. If there were a Playghoul magazine, you'd want Burton to do the centerfolds.
Like Mrs. Lovett's pies, "Sweeney Todd" is not for every taste. But Sondheim, our greatest living theatrical composer and lyricist, has never been so deliciously served.