Monday, November 26, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1982)

The horror and film communities are all a-twitter over the eagerly awaited, Tim Burton-helmed Sweeney Todd movie. With director like Tim Burton and a cast that is lead by Johnny Depp, who wouldn’t be excited over this new Demon Barber of Fleet Street? I, too, have high hopes for this film, wishing it is something akin to a mix of music from Nightmare Before Christmas and visuals ala Sleepy Hollow.

Before watching Burton’s take on the famous tale, I decided to get a sneak peak by watching Stephen Sondheim’s televised Los Angeles production of the Broadway play. For the uninitiated, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is set in the grimy streets of 1846 London. Benjamin Barker (George Hearn) was shipped off to prison by Judge Turpin (Edmund Lyndeck) 15 years ago on a trumped up charge. You see, the Judge has nefarious plans for Barker’s beautiful wife and infant daughter. Now, Barker has returned to what he sings is: “…a hole in the world/Like a great black pit/And the vermin of the world/Inhabit it/And its morals aren’t worth/What a pig can spit/And it goes by the name of London.” He has changed his name to Sweeney Todd and plans on reuniting with his wife and child. All seems lost when he runs into the jovial Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury), who runs a meat pie eatery below his long-abandoned barber shop. Mrs. Lovett tells him that his wife poisoned herself and that his daughter Johanna (Betsy Joslyn) is now under the guardianship of the nefarious judge. With this tragic news, Sweeney Todd snaps and vows revenge on all who have wronged him. He re-opens his barber shop, and when his enemies come knocking for “the closest shave” that’s what they get! To dispose of the bodies, Mrs. Lovett starts using them in her pies, which start selling like hot cakes! The Judge continues to elude Todd’s vengeful plans, but not for long…

Sondheim’s play is one of the most celebrated on Broadway and it’s not hard to see why it won eight Tony Awards. The powerful story, strong characterizations, the grimy and sinister mood, the themes of revenge and double-cross, not to mention the macabre material all make for a thoroughly entertaining musical. Sondheim avoids the gimmicky pop of certain musicals, instead choosing very dark lyrics and songs tailor-made for characters. The razor-sharp and lurid lyrics will most certainly be a treat for any horror fan! The musical is almost operatic, because there is sparse dialogue and it is mostly all sung. Those horror fans that do not appreciate a good stage musical are most certainly missing out, as Sweeney Todd delivers marvelous musical mayhem.

This is a stage play, so the set is one stage very sparsely decorated with a few movable set pieces. There are a few scaffolds that are wheeled about, along with Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop and, upstairs, Sweeney Todd’s barber shop. There are no grand, lavish sets in this play, but the sets are enough to convey the mood of a bleak, grimy, post-industrial London.

The acting is also wonderful. Those only familiar with Angela Lansbury through her television show Murder, She Wrote will be quite surprised and satisfied by her performance here. Her Mrs. Lovett is a perfect mix of caring, comedic and crazy! George Hearn (replacing Broadway’s Len Cariou) plays the tragic, bitter and determined Sweeney Todd. His vindictive resolve is made plain upon his first appearance on stage. He really makes the audience really feel and sympathize with his character, despite the heinous acts he is committing. The rest of the cast do a wondrous job as well, from Ken Jennings playing ragamuffin Tobias Ragg to the Judge’s henchman The Beadle, played by Calvin Remsberg. My only dissatisfaction came from Betsy Joslyn’s performance as Johanna, which made me cringe more than clap. Thank goodness we didn’t have to hear her sing more than she did, because her screechy vocals grated my nerves more than chalk on a blackboard!

Despite the one awkward performance, the stage version of Sweeney Todd holds up after all these years. It’s a timeless tale of rabid revenge and murderous mayhem that horror fans should love. If you can get past the “musical” aspect of it (we horror fans can be a pretty persnickety bunch!), Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd does have much to offer, especially a shocking and surprising ending, one I’m not sure they’ll keep for Burton’s version.

To see Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street come alive on stage was quite a treat. Until Burton’s version, make sure to “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again. He trod a path that few have trod, Did Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

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