Why I love “Sweeney Todd”

December 26, 2007


I watched the new Tim Burton realization of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” the other day. I found it absolutely thrilling. But I realized that what I mean by “it” is probably different than what others may mean.

We went with Ronnie who looked at it as a musical trying to be a movie, as manifested by the many gory scenes. For her money the film was not a success. For me, I imagine myself to be Sondheim and would be thrilled to have had such a terrific realization of my music firmly fixed in a visual medium.

The music from the film was terrific of course. I couldn’t identify all of the underscore. It is perhaps underscore from the musical that didn’t make it to the recording, but I wondered whether Sondheim had done some of it fresh. It was all brilliantly orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick.
I was proud of Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham Carter for doing such good performances in the film. Carter’s voice seemed a bit meek and I was momentarily horrified thinking a whole new generation of Sweeney lovers would grow up knowing HER performance, and not someone like Angela Lansbury. I realized that I was starting to sound like an old fart so I’m learning to live with Helen’s fine performance.

After going on about what great music it all was, I realized that many people will have a hard time getting through the gore to find the music. And when I tell people how much I love this film, I don’t mean to be saying I LIKE this twisted character and what he does, I just love the music in the film.
This music is, musically, everything I would want from a smart musical. [“Smart” as opposed to a populist musical like a Disney musical, with that pre-canned Disney sound.] As I listen to the music, I hear influences from many of my favorite composers — Ravel or Puccini or Stravinsky. I don’t hear any explicit influence from his old teacher [Milton Babbitt], but I hear Lenny, and I hear Bizet’s “Carmen.”

If I were to articulate my greatest goal as a composer, it would be to compose large scale pieces in the tradition of “Carmen,” “West Side Story,” and “Sweeney Todd.” The mix of popular music and so-called classical music in all three is thrilling to me.

[Photo credit: © Leah Gallo]

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

PK December 27, 2007 at 11:38 pm

Oh good, now I REALLY want to see this. Like you, I am a long time fan of the original. Sondheim’s musicals are the only “modern” ones I truly love, the music is rich and the subjects are more open to interpretation.

ComposerBastard December 28, 2007 at 8:35 am

Babbitts there…you have to appreciate all of Babbitt to understand where

Elaine December 31, 2007 at 12:01 pm

I share your goal to be able to write something as good as Sweeney Todd, some day, but I know that it will never happen. He has a really unusual knack for the theater (translates perfectly well to film), and that knack is a specific talent that I do not think can be “learned” or “achieved.” Sondheim is, as far as I’m concerned, the best living composer for the theater there is. Maybe he is the best all-around composer around today. He manages, like Puccini, to get the most emotional mileage from as few notes as possible, and he really uses the English language in a way that is both meaningful and memorable.

The “Pretty women” duet between Sweeney and the Judge, pardon the expression, kills me every time. It is really brilliant writing. The tension between the extraordinarily beautiful and the anticipation of something terribly ugly is one of the most effective pieces of writing, period.

I saw the show on Broadway with Angela Landsbury in 1979. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I was afraid that this movie would be disappointing, but it wasn’t at all. I do prefer the idea of gore that was offered in the show to the graphic (or shall I say computer graphic) gore that was used in the movie, but I knew when to close my eyes. I also wish that there were as much music in the movie as there was in the show, but I understand that material had to be cut in order to fit the length of a movie. I also thought the underscoring was done extremely well, and I thought that all the singing, and all the acting was terrific.

What a fantastic opportunity for excellent music to reach a mass audience. I’m hoping that “By the Sea” will become hot in the music video world and will inspire young people to become interested in some of Sondheim’s other work.

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