Depp cleaves a wedge into Broadway Musical
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel
Director Tim Burton’s SWEENEY TODD has something for everyone. The 1979 ground-breaking Broadway musical by composer Stephen Sondheim has at last been given “The Hollywood Treatment”. From its original telling back in the early 1800s to its newly extravagant adaptation and translation to the screen, “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a disturbing glimpse into the mind of a serial killer. The script, the score, all the visuals and performances are straightforward and easily absorbed. Additional bits of new music are in the spirit of the original score; the vocals are evenly balanced and engineered to perfection. In spite of protests from Sondheim purists decrying the musical cuts, the soundtrack is already a collector’s item. No PSYCHO-damaging shower scenes here! Just you or your cat en croûte and à la mode. Of course the graphic up-close and personal throat slicings are fake! A severed thumb in your fast-food gravy – a trifle ordinary. And all that spewing of hot-red-blood nothing more than really cool technology. SWEENEY TODD (The Movie Musical) is great Holiday fair and – given its R-Rating – a guaranteed good time with family members older than six. Speculation about its Oscar-worthiness is yesterday’s news. Tim Burton’s SWEENEY TODD is a blood-gushing gold rush.
JOHNNY DEPP – Now the hand is complete
Casting is everything. To cast the spare and extravagant Johnny Depp into the role of “Sweeney Todd” requires a few adjustments and necessary departures from Sondheim’s initial conception. In the original Broadway cast (directed by Hal Prince) Len Cariou’s “Sweeney” is a strong and resounding shot-from-guns baritone. Cariou’s victims were persuaded into the chair by a riptide of sexual energy and aggressive charm. The same is true with his successor to the role, George Hearn. That’s how Broadway works. By contrast, Burton directs the already-popular Mr. Depp toward myopic revenge and keeps him in the tomb-cold romantic shades of Vampire Alley. Sweeney’s customers surrender their throats because they are dazzled by his sudden flash of celebrity as the closest shaver in town – not by the convenience of his shop around the corner. Too bad the wizards at Dreamworks avoided an actual depiction of his nimble technique when challenged by the fussy and bodacious “Pirelli” of Sacha Baron Cohen.
TIMOTHY SPALL (as Beadle Bamford), JOHNNY DEPP, and SACHA BARON COHEN
ED SANDERS (Tobias), JAMIE CAMPBELL BOWER (Anthony), & TIM BURTON, Director
Then it’s about casting the role of “Anthony”, the archetype Rescuer, generally assigned to a studly lyric tenor. An experienced sailor, newly freed from his obligation to the British Navy, Anthony is ready to nest on solid ground. Thus, of an age and physical ruggedness somewhat beyond the more delicate nature of Jamie Campbell Bower – who might make the cut as “Tobias” at your local community theater. Instead, a very capable and precocious young lad, Ed Sanders, has been awarded the role. A couple of weeks before his voice deepened, Master Sanders might have tackled the title role of OLIVER. Now up to the required height limit, he is the capable executioner of Johnny Depp. It all computes. In order to bolster Depp’s physical and psychological domination, the two young men are made younger and, hence, less formidable.
JAYNE WISENER and ALAN RICKMAN
Likewise, the coveted role of “Johanna” – one of the best in Sondheim’s soprano anthology – is not only butchered, but assigned to pale-faced and wispy-voiced Jayne Wisener. Peering somewhere between jail bait and underground statutory, the worst that could happen in the bed of her future husband/present guardian, “Judge Turpin”, handsome actor Alan Rickman, is the graying stubble of his 2-days growth scouring the bloom from her porcelain face. Alas, some of us were more disturbed about the lost opportunity for dubbing-in previous Johanna-type sopranos, namely LISA VROMAN and HAROLYN BLACKWELL.
STEPHEN SONDHEIM, JOHNNY DEPP and HELENA BONHAM CARTER
TIM BURTON, STEPHEN SONDHEIM, and HELENA BONHAM CARTER
Tim Burton’s SWEENEY TODD is an entertaining treatment of the Broadway musical. Its lavish scope and in-house participation by Stephen Sondheim will stand as a fitting tribute to the composer and lyricist for generations to come. It certainly quells the silliness of the 2005 Broadway production by John Doyle and Sarah Travis – seen this fall at A.C.T. – and the composer’s own enthusiasm that it reflected his original dream. Dream on. Keep a reality check on these Box Office receipts.
Newcomers and veterans will find a happy common ground in the selection of Helena Bonham Carter as “Nellie Lovett”. She is the perfect choice for this adaptation of the story. Burton guides her characterization toward the well-established mode of the woman who makes the best pies in London from a blended grind of priest, lawyer, poet, tailor, butler, locksmith, and royal marine. Ultimately, Carter’s screen persona and history of consistent excellence – and the manner in which her performance as “Mrs. Lovett” has been patch-worked into the film – honors and satisfies the traditions of the role. Thus, in spite of the fact she is not a legitimate singer, Helena Bonham Carter enters the pantheon of unforgettable “Mrs. Lovetts”. In the celestial hierarchy, Angela Lansbury stands alone as the reigning seraphim. Patti LuPone, for now, holds the nearest candle.
THE LOVETTS OF FLEET STREET – Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, and Helena Bonham Carter
Seán’s recommendations for your Sondheim collection:
CD – SWEENEY TODD, 1979 (Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou)
DVD – SWEENEY TODD, 1982 (Angela Lansbury and George Hearn)
DVD – SWEENEY TODD, In Concert with the San Francisco Symphony, 2001 (George Hearn and Patti LuPone)
DVD – SONDHEIM – A Celebration at Carnegie Hall (1993)
Visit Seán on YouTube: SAMSON & DELILAH – Meet Seán Martinfield
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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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