Why I love “Sweeney Todd”

December 26, 2007

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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]

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