Monday, January 21, 2008

Attend the Missing Songs of Sweeney Todd

The Ballad of Sweeney Todd
(Tim Burton version)
by Michael Dare (with apologies to Stephen Sondheim)

Defend the film of Sweeney Todd
You made some choices that were quite odd
You cut this song. There's no defense.
And now the whole thing doesn't make any sense.
You might deserve a firing squad
for Sweeney Todd.
The demon barber of Fleet Street.

Johnny Depp was your casting choice
His acting's good but not his voice
I know he's got a pretty face
but he is a baritone and not a bass
like Sweeney
Like Sweeney Todd
the demon barber of Fleet Street

Raise your budget high, Burton
Build a lovely set
Get a nice percent of gross
but never net

You cast your wife, so what's the sin?
Her breasts are heavy, her voice is thin
It's madness that her makeup warps
a beautiful woman right into a corpse
It's really quite a strange facade
for Sweeney Todd
and necrophilia on Fleet Street

Art direction rules, Burton
Cut it and revise
Freely flows the blood of those
Who criticize!

Untranslatable Sweeney was
to the cinema screen 'e was
Lyrics condensed, really absurd
Half of the priest song that nobody heard

Art directed and nicely shot
but no chorus explains the plot
Kiss Me was gone, so was the coda
Still it went nice with popcorn and soda
did Sweeney
did Sweeney Todd
the demon barber of Fleet...

Killjoy of the Week

Leaving The Ballad of Sweeney Todd out of the film of Sweeney Todd is like leaving the song Oklahoma out of the film of Oklahoma or the song Hello Dolly out of the film of Hello Dolly. It's the TITLE SONG for Christ sake, and if it takes an extraordinary effort to squeeze it into the confines of the cinematographic concept, you do it, for no other reason than it's the fucking TITLE SONG.

The chorus in Sweeney Todd served many purposes. It's not just a catchy ditty but a constant commentary upon the goings on. In the play, the chorus consists not just of anonymous passersby but actual cast members. If you're in the cast of Sweeney Todd and you play one of his victims, you don't get to go home after your death, you join the chorus. One of the coolest things in the play is that the percentage of dead to living characters in the chorus grows as Sweeney's carnage increases.

The official excuse for leaving it out is perfectly rational. The song is theatrical, sung by a chorus to the audience, which doesn't fit Burton's decision that the songs come from character and plot. But who says the Ballad needed to be sung directly to the audience? Who is every other song sung to? No one. The entire concept of people singing in the midst of a drama is nothing but theatrical, so what we're talking about is levels of theatricality. Yes, it would have ripped the audience out of the film for a standard Broadway chorus to appear out of nowhere and start singing directly to them, so why couldn't the chorus have sung to the ether just like everyone else?

The song The Impossible Dream doesn't really advance the plot of Man of la Mancha. The play, and the film, basically stop while Don Quixote sits there and sings. But leaving it out of the film would have been insane. It was arguably the best song in the play and certainly the only hit that became a standard for lounge singers everywhere. One of the most powerful examples of how a chorus can work in a film is the song Skid Row from Little Shop of Horrors, and anyone who suggests the film would be better without it is out of their mind. And then there's Mighty Aphrodite, one of Woody Allen's finest, which makes constant use of an actual Greek chorus right out of Aristophanes. To suggest the chorus in any way detracts from the story is totally nuts. The chorus augments the story in every possible way, just like The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.

Chicago got away with big theatrical choruses by making them fantasy numbers only taking place in the heads of the participants, a technique Burton actually used in the Soliloquy number in Sweeney Todd. Todd goes nuts after Judge Turpin escapes from his grasp, singing "Why did I wait? You told me to wait" to Mrs. Lovett in his apartment. Suddenly he's outside singing "I will have vengeance. I will have salvation" to pedestrians who are completely oblivious to the madman singing in their midst, then at the end, he's back in the apartment, he was never actually out in the street, it was all in his head, he's still with Mrs. Lovett. If it worked there, why wouldn't it have worked throughout with the Ballad of Sweeney Todd? It needn't have broken the fourth wall like it did on the stage. Pedestrians in the chorus could have simply sang to air, just like everybody else in every other song.

Where it's missed the most is at the end. Everyone agrees Sweeney Todd ends abruptly and the only reason is that's not where it ends. There's the final verse of the Ballad of Sweeney Todd that brings everything to a satisfactory conclusion.

Of course people who never saw the play don't miss it. Those of us who revere the play not only miss it but suffer a strange form of songus interruptus every time the opening chords appear throughout the film but the song is never sung.

The song Ah, Miss (AKA Kiss Me), while it might not seem to further the plot, has character development up the wazoo. In it, Joanna and Anthony plot to run away together but there's no harmony, literally, the verses they sing to each other are two different songs in counterpoint, one of Sondheim's specialties, two, three, even four songs that somehow mesh into one, in this case, coming together in the chorus when Joanna and Anthony sing "kiss me" to each other. The song reveals its sinister purpose in the last verse, a classic of Sondheim cynicism where it's revealed the ingénue, Joanna, the lovely girl the whole plot revolves around, is a total airhead, barely worth fighting over, a ditsy ninny, like Ophelia gone mad with hints of Orpheus and Eurydice, she can only think of her... reticule (a drawstring handbag). Here are the lyrics.

I'll take my reticule.
I need my reticule.
You mustn't think
Me a fool
But my reticule
Never leaves my side...

Why take your reticule?
We'll buy a reticule.
I'd never think
You a fool,
But a reticule
Leave it all aside...

The audience realizes she's a ditz right before Anthony, who seems to give a momentary consideration to ditching her for someone more coherent, but realizes the play would be over and simply repeats "kiss me," and of course they kiss, the physical attraction being the only thing they really have in common. Only Sondheim would dare to reveal the hollow center of the traditional relationship between leading man and ingénue, mirroring the genuine love Mrs. Lovett has for Sweeney Todd, a love that necessitates a lie about his wife that becomes her downfall.

Name another songwriter where it's even possible to analyze the lyrics so deeply. The only modern songwriter who even comes close to exploring Sondheim's magical world of interior rhymes is Eminem, of all people, who has probably never even heard of Stephen Sondheim. In any case, Ah, Miss, and especially Ah, Miss Part II, might be the most disposable songs in the play but that's not saying much. They're still masterpieces of modern song construction.

Then there's the incomplete song A Little Priest, which was pared down to the absolute minimum to deliver the necessary plot progression. Does anybody really think the film of Sweeney Todd would have been worse if A Little Priest was three minutes longer, lengthening the film from 117 minutes to two hours? Is the missing three minutes necessary? Only if you care about some of the greatest lyrics in the funniest song in one of the finest masterpieces ever written for the theatrical stage. It's like leaving out half of Hamlet's soliloquy.

There's no doubt Johnny Depp is a fine actor and endlessly creative, but I wouldn't cast him as Mozart's Don Giovanni because Don Giovanni is a bass, has to be a bass, that's the way Mozart wrote it, and if any opera company transposed the score to make the part singable by a movie star baritone, they'd be quite rightly trashed by everybody who gives a damn about Mozart's original intentions.

It's possible to reject the entire idea that the film version of a Broadway show needs a movie star in the lead anyway. Name the movie star in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There's a whole generation of deviates who thank God every day they didn't recast Tim Curry. Anybody think My Fair Lady would have been worse if Eliza Doolittle had been played by Julie Andrews, the original Broadway actress, instead of the overdubbed movie star Audrey Hepburn? Jack Warner was rightly raked over the coals for that decision. Sometimes the film of a Broadway show is literally ruined because they cast a movie star instead of a singer. (Man of la Mancha, anyone?) Sometimes, and I know this is a stretch, you want to hear a song sung by an incredible voice, not just an adequate one. Nobody will ever sing If Ever I Would Leave You as good as Robert Goulet, and history will never forget and never forgive the moron who cast Franco Nero instead of Goulet as Sir Lancelot in the film of Camelot.

Yes, the film of Sweeney Todd works the way it is. It doesn't just work, it's one of the best films of the year. But it could have been better. Maybe the director's cut with all the missing music will raise it into the rarefied strata of the best films ever made.

Bittorrent of a DVD screener of Sweeney Todd.

Please oh please buy the Original Broadway Cast Album
instead of the soundtrack of the film


  1. Mrs didn't LovettFebruary 5, 2008 at 10:14 AM

    agree, agree, agree!!
    If you have never seen the original then I'm sure it's fine..... but I'm still grieving for the loss of the overture.... and more hot pies.....
    oh...and that most beautiful of music intervals 'Naive"... oh how I missed that note.....

  2. I liked both and I don't really care about what parts from Braodway didn't make it to the movie. Yeah the ballad of Sweeney Todd is amazing but I don't write the movie off just because it's not in there. I watch the movie because it's more darker than the play and Johnny Depp is yummy eye candy. I personally liked his singing. I watch the play because it's enjoyable and you can't deny Angela Lansbury. So yeah I think it's possible to perfectly content with both. Seeing that they are different just makes you apprciate each even more.