STAGE TO SCREEN: Sweeney Todd and The Iceman Cometh

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREEN: Sweeney Todd and The Iceman Cometh After writing so many times about the possibility of a Sweeney Todd film, I decided to go right to the (secondary) source and find out what Stephen Sondheim had to say about the idea.
Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

No, I did not contact Sondheim directly. Rather, I stumbled onto the topic while reading Mark Eden Horowitz’s "Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions." If you haven’t seen this book, it’s pretty much indispensable. It’s equal parts discography of every Sondheim recording ever (Horowitz is a music specialist at the Library of Congress, so he knows what he’s talking about) and series of transcribed interviews about how and why Sondheim writes what he does. Many of the interview questions are pitched at a dauntingly high musicological level—lots of talk of inversions and tonal centers and block harmonies and such—but the book provides dozens of useful insights into Sondheim’s writing process.

It also includes the occasional bit of dish, as when Sondheim mentions a possible movie of Sweeney Todd. Bear in mind: These interviews were conducted in 1997, long before "Chicago" got everyone interested in movie musicals and DreamWorks joined Marty Richards in lobbying for the rights to Sweeney. But what his comments lack in topicality, they make up for in concision and perspective.

The topic comes up fairly late in the chapter on Sweeney, when Horowitz and Sondheim are talking about the song "Ladies in Their Sensitivities." Sondheim mentions how he had originally intended to use the song to play up the tension of Judge Turpin potentially coming home to find Anthony and Johanna together. He rather off-handedly mentions that he’d hope to structure the song in the movie version as a suspenseful sequence that cross-cuts between the two. A few questions later, Horowitz follows up on the topic:

MH: You mentioned the idea of a film of Sweeney...? SS: Apparently, Tim Burton fell in love with the show when he was in London in 1981 and saw it ten times. And so he wants to do it. At the moment, it’s been optioned by, I think, Columbia, and Burton still wants to do it. Although I now hear he’s doing "Superman Twelve", so...

MH: You stated before that you think film musicals usually don’t work, unless they’re the Astaire/Rogers style, or something like that.

SS: Absolutely.

MH: Do you conceive of "Sweeney" as being something that could work?

SS: I don’t think it’s going to work for two seconds. … No, I don’t know. The only time a musical on the screen’s ever been sung through, because it’s a whole opera, is "The Medium." No, there’s the "Umbrellas of Cherbourg," which I don’t think works for a second. It’s just Burton’s enthusiasm; and I thought: Well, why not try it, what’s to lose? I used to think that if you put out a bad movie of a show, it’ll hurt the show, but it doesn’t. I won’t mention chapter and verse, but there have been many, many bad movies of musicals, and the musicals still keep playing in summer stock, and it doesn’t hurt. I can mention one, because all the people are dead and it won’t hurt anybody: "Guys and Dolls." It’s a terrible movie musical. It hasn’t hurt the show one ounce. So, if this works, then I’m wrong; I’ll eat my words—happily. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll say: You see—well, I told you so. So I can’t lose.

(reprinted with permission from "Sondheim on Music" by Mark Eden Horowitz, Scarecrow Press, 2003)

Shortly thereafter, Sondheim expresses his displeasure with "Wait"—he calls it "the song that’s the least satisfactory in Sweeney"—and suggests changes that he’d like to make in it for the movie, including perhaps turning it into a duet.

Anyway, the pleasures of "Sondheim on Music" go way, way deeper than movie gossip. So I decided to pass on the germane bits here and encourage you to seek out the rest.

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Saving "The Iceman Cometh" for last in my traversal of the first batch of American Film Theatre DVDs had more to do with laziness than anything else—it’s twice as long as any of the other four entries. It’s also hands-down the best of the lot. Legendary director John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate") singled it out as "the best creative experience I ever had," and it’s easy to see why. Setting a four-hour movie in one dingy, indoor setting may sound like aesthetic suicide, but Frankenheimer and the relatively unheralded cinematographer Ralph Woolsey work wonders. And the cast!

Theatre buffs will feast on the opportunity to see the original James and Edmund Tyrone (Fredric March and Bradford Dillman, respectively) take on another of Eugene O’Neill’s soul-searing marathons. They’ll love seeing March and Robert Ryan (another memorable James Tyrone) cap off their careers with the unbeatable roles of Harry Hope and Larry Slade. And they’ll enjoy the sight of Tom Pedi in the role of Rocky, the reluctant pimp, a part he created in Iceman’s 1946 premiere and reprised in the 1960 TV-movie version. (Sorrell Booke, best known to my benighted generation as Boss Hogg on "The Dukes of Hazzard," played Hugo in both filmed versions.)

They may have a tougher time accepting Lee Marvin in the central role of Hickey. I admit to having problems with him for the first half or so. Part of the problem may be his size: Jason Robards may have been tall, but Lee Marvin is just massive. As a result, his repeated cajolings come off as a bit too bullying. You have to believe that the denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon like Hickey as much as they fear him, and you don’t really see that here. That said, I was completely hooked less than five minutes into Hickey’s devastating Act III monologue. An absurdly young Jeff Bridges does a fine job as Parritt, and Robert Ryan is phenomenal in the notoriously hard role of Larry. Anyone who dismisses Ryan as that guy from all those World War II movies will rethink that notion after seeing this.

So the first set of AFT releases ended on a high note, so much so that I can almost forgive "Rhinoceros." (Not forget but forgive. I may never forget "Rhinoceros.") And this brings me to a crossroads. A fair number of readers have written in about the AFT series, so I thought I’d put the question to you. Should I keep reviewing the other two batches? On the way are starry productions of "A Delicate Balance" and "The Three Sisters," not to mention a few musicals ("Jacques Brel..." and "Lost in the Stars") and Harold Pinter’s "The Homecoming" starring most of the original stage cast. What do you say?

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Cutting-Room Floor: This generation’s "Kindergarten Cop," aka "School of Rock," has a somewhat ambivalent relationship with musical theatre. It takes the usual cheap shots at show tunes as the rock-ignorant tykes belt out numbers from Annie and Cats, but it also features Adam Pascal (Rent, Aida) as Jack Black’s rock-singer nemesis, with Lee Wilkof in a smaller role. (Speaking of "Kindergarten Cop," anybody want to place bets on Jack Black’s political future?) … Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch score knocked me down, but I admit that I had pigeonholed him as a rock composer. I stand pleasantly corrected: His score to "The Station Agent" is every bit as eccentric, old timey and delightful score as the movie itself. … My last column mentioned "Off the Map," starring Joan Allen and based on a Joan Ackermann play. It was scheduled for release earlier this month but has since been pushed back to March 2004. … Little Shop of Horrors fans should keep their eyes peeled for "The Cooler" (Nov. 19 in limited release), featuring Ellen Greene, the original stage and screen Audrey. Wallace Shawn appears in "The Haunted Mansion" (Nov. 26). And if Taboo doesn’t scratch your Leigh Bowery itch, a documentary on the flamboyant Britishdesigner/musician/presence opens in New York on Nov. 21. "The Legend of Leigh Bowery" includes interviews with Taboo composer/librettist/costar Boy George.

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My Favorite Thought: The opening-weekend response to "Die Mommie Die!" was solid but not necessarily enough to put it over the top—it made about $50,000 in only ten theatres, the biggest of the four Sundance Film Festival releases—and readers have been pretty favorable. Here’s a sample letter by Terry:

"I saw ‘Die Mommie Die!’ on Monday at a preview here in Chicago and I thought Charles Busch’s style played very well on screen. Oddly enough, I think his performance is well suited to film and the subtleties of the camera caught very minute bits of the ‘Lana Turner/Crawford/Davis’ persona that may have been lost on stage. In short, his ‘camp’ was more subdued than I expected it to be. It didn’t overpower either the screen or the other actors—which, frankly, going into the film, is what I expected."

Your Thoughts: My hunch is that "Die Mommie Die!" will have to be content with cult-hit status, but who knows? Maybe word of mouth will continue to nudge it along. Now, any thoughts on Sondheim’s Sweeney ideas? Is Tim Burton the right guy to tackle it? And I’m very curious to know if you’re American Film Theatre-d out. I’m happy to keep reviewing them and happy to stop right here. Lemme know.

Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.