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

By Steven Suskin
January 7, 2008

This week's column discusses the original London cast album of the new Maltby-Shire-Weidman musical Take Flight and the soundtrack album of the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp version of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

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TAKE FLIGHT [PS Classics PS-859]
Composer David Shire has been writing shows since Off-Broadway's The Sap of Life in 1961, with little concrete to show for it. I haven't heard his scores for How Do You Do, I Love You or The Love Match neither of which made it to town nor his incidental music for Peter Ustinov's The Unknown Soldier and His Wife. Shire's two later musicals, though, make evident the quality of his writing. The 1983 Baby has an impressive and lovable score, which almost succeeded in carrying the show past the shoals of its unfortunate flaws. Big was even more problematic, with the problems in conception and execution extending to the songwriters. Still, there is some first-rate music there. Shire has also been represented by two Off-Broadway revues, Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer Than Ever.

If Shire's theatre output is limited, he has countered with an extensive Hollywood career. He got his start, in part, due to nepotism his then brother-in-law, Francis Ford Coppola, hired him to score "The Conversation" (1974). His work spoke for itself, leading to a busy and lucrative career with titles including "All the President's Men," "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3," "Norma Rae," "'night, Mother" and "Saturday Night Fever." Still, he has always returned to the theatre, in search of that elusive hit.

Shire's collaborator Richard Maltby, Jr., has found considerably more stage success, with not one but two massive smashes. In 1976 he directed and co-conceived Ain't Misbehavin'; in 1991 he provided English-language lyrics and additional material for Miss Saigon. Maltby has most recently been represented by Ring of Fire and The Pirate Queen.

At any event, Maltby and Shire went to London in July, accompanied by librettist John Weidman, for Take Flight. The Menier Chocolate Factory is what you might consider a quality venue, with their acclaimed production of Sunday in the Park with George due next month at Studio 54. Take Flight is the first original musical to be mounted by the Menier, which can be seen as something of a coup. Still, one supposes that the London premiere was in lieu of something more local. The authors have direct relationships with Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, Roundabout, New York Shakespeare Festival, the Goodman, and on and on. Did nobody else want to Take Flight?

Let me interrupt this history by noting that the new original cast album, from PS Classics, reveals a strong and enjoyable score with perhaps the finest lyrics Maltby has given us. If there are flaws that were revealed by the Menier production, Take Flight makes a fine and highly listenable CD.

The show, it turns out, has been kicking around since at least the turn of the century. An early version, with book by Marsha Norman, was presented at the O'Neill Conference in 2001. This with a cast headed by Daniel Jenkins and Christiane Noll, under the direction of Jerry Mitchell. By 2004, Maltby took over libretto and direction, with workshops presented in Florida, Australia and Russia (!). This activity culminated in a major New York City workshop that fall, with a cast headed by Kelli O'Hara, Christian Borle and Patrick Cassidy. This led precisely nowhere, although Weidman Maltby & Shire's collaborator on Big apparently saw the workshop and signed on. Almost three years later, Take Flight made it to the Menier, with director Sam Buntrock at the helm.

It is hard to judge the piece's theatrical effectiveness from the CD. If the local reviews that made their way stateside are any indication, Take Flight suffers from book trouble. The idea is to take three aviation milestones the first flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903, Charles A. Lindbergh's New York-to-Paris jump in 1927, and Amelia Earhart's ill-fated round-the-world trip in 1937 and tie them together into a concept musical. The score, as represented on the CD, works; I found myself hanging onto every word, in fact. The songwriters are abetted by performers Sally Ann Triplett (as Earhart), Michael Jibson (Lindbergh) and Ian Bartholomew (as publisher George Putnam). Shire contributes an effective eight-piece orchestration as well, under the direction of Caroline Humphris.

If the future of Take Flight is unclear, the work of Shire and Maltby is most welcome. There are some vestiges of Sondheim here; Sunday in the Park and Assassins are called to mind, and the "Back of the Line" sequence in the second act recalls the "Please, Hello" number in Pacific Overtures. (Concepts were presumably contributed by Weidman, librettist of Assassins and Pacific Overtures.) But why shouldn't there be vestiges of Sunday in the Park? It's not like Maltby and Shire are jumping on a bandwagon; Sunday is approaching its 25th birthday. Sondheim served as a mentor to the composer, as it happened, with Shire working on the original Anyone Can Whistle, "Evening Primrose" and Company.

Perhaps Take Flight won't end up barnstorming Broadway after all, which would be a shame. Even so, this CD happily suggests that the composer and lyricist of Baby are in fine form and still very much in the game.

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)