ON THE RECORD: Take Flight and the "Sweeney Todd" Soundtrack

By Steven Suskin
07 Jan 2008

SWEENEY TODD [Nonesuch 368572]
If Chicago can make it to the silver screen 27 years after its Broadway bow, it seems just a drop less remarkable that Sweeney Todd can do it after 28. Although few people, I suspect, saw this one in the cards. And now we have a singing and dancing demon barber slashing away at screens across the world.

For those of us who know and love Sweeney as it was, back when Sondheim, Wheeler, Prince and Tunick ushered it into the Uris, there is little use in comparing film to show. Two different animals, altogether, with different methods and different goals. The newly released soundtrack album soars in its own ways. It will not supplant memories of the 1979 original Broadway cast album, which this reviewer places near the top of the list. Even so, it is a fine Sweeney insofar as it goes.

The major differences are — well, major. Director Tim Burton and his cohorts saw fit to omit the chorus, for reasons that make a whole lot of sense. That leaves us, for beginners, with a Sweeney without "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." "God! That's Good," the pie-lovers paean, is reduced by two-thirds; what we get is a duet version, with Mrs. L. and Toby bridged by instrumentals. I miss all that stuff, most certainly, but do people watching the movie need it? I think not.

What's more, would the presence of a chorus slow down Mr. Burton's film, turning the thing into a picture-log of Londoners singing down the lane as in "Oliver!"? I believe so. So let's chalk this all up as a way for the world at large to get to know (and love?) our Sweeney. Right this moment, perhaps, there's a fellow who's never seen a musical driving along in his car, humming "Johanna" or "By the Sea" or maybe even a snatch of Pirelli. More people watched "Sweeney Todd" during its opening weekend, I suppose, than have seen it in the last 28 years. Mr. Sondheim is to be congratulated, and many of his fans no doubt see the reaction to the film — which is turning up on top ten lists across the land — as vindication of their decades-long love affair with this tale of this barbarous barber.

Two other major changes in the musical handling are worth noting. The main roles have been cast in a manner quite opposite to what we have become accustomed to. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter are so unlike every Sweeney and Lovett we have seen that even after watching the film they seem like startling choices. Burton, of course, has worked with the pair so frequently that he clearly knew what to expect from them. Mr. Depp remains an unlikely candidate to play the role on stage once, let alone eight times a week. But he is, perhaps, the key to the success of the film. The same can be said for Ms. Carter and the Judge Turpin of Alan Rickman. Burton has also surprised us with his Pirelli — Sasha Baron Cohen, of all people — and his chosen Toby, a lad of about fourteen named Edward Sanders. A child Toby? Of course; that makes perfect sense, although on stage the use of a minor in this role might prove squeamish for a large portion of the audience.

The final difference that should be pointed out is in the orchestration department. A theatrical orchestrator's most difficult job — especially on an extra-musical show like Sweeney — is to do a lot with a little. In 1979, Jonathan Tunick had only 26 players to work with, including five reeds, one horn and a mere dozen strings. (The Most Happy Fella, a comparably musical musical, had 36.) How do you give the composer every sound, every color that he needs? Tunick is the master at this game, with any number of exceptional examples to his credit. (Of late, they have been hiring him to reorchestrate his old scores with half the players, but that's another discussion.)

Here, in Hollywood (or, technically, London), Tunick has been given all those extra musicians he didn't have on Broadway. And what a difference; when those strings soar on the soundtrack, they truly soar. So while this new "Sweeney" CD is severely truncated, this extra layer of instruments enhances what we are used to hearing. And Tunick, being so very good at what he does, knows the value of retaining the quieter moments as well. Tunick and conductor Paul Gemignani, who have been with Sondheim for 35 years, know precisely what to do — and precisely how to do it.

So here we have Sweeney of sometimes symphonic proportions, which can be seen as a counterbalance to the ten-actor/musicians in John Doyle's recent Broadway mounting. I don't expect the '79 orchestration ever to be bettered, at least to my taste, but I suppose someday we'll hear the thing — somewhere — with merely a piano and a drum. And if the production is good, the music will work just as well. Because the magic of Sweeney Todd, at root, is in the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)