Sometimes I wish I wasn't such a great, big faggot. If I were less of a fag, I wouldn't have the original 1979 Broadway cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd on my iPod. If I were less of a fag, I wouldn't have watched the 1982 Emmy Award–winning television broadcast of the national tour of Sweeney Todd—featuring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn—seven or eight thousand times. And if I were less of a fag, I wouldn't have flown to New York City last year to see Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris in John Doyle's acclaimed Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd (which should have won the Tony for Best Revival, but was robbed by The Pajama Game).
In short, if I weren't such a great, big, huge, fucking faggot... I might have enjoyed Tim Burton's new film version of Sweeney Todd more than I did.
Like Chicago, Sweeney Todd was before its time. When Chicago opened in 1975, audiences weren't all that interested in seeing a musical—a musical—about corrupt lawyers who manipulate the media and turn a murder trial into a circus (literally), not only getting a guilty person off but turning her into a celebrity, too. When Chicago was revived on Broadway in the mid-'90s, in the cultural wake left by the O. J. Simpson trial, audiences were ready. The revival scooped up a bunch of Tony Awards, and a film adaptation won the Oscar for best picture.
Sweeney Todd, like Chicago, got a cool reception when it opened on Broadway in 1979. A musical starring a serial killer? A musical comedy with cannibalism? Sweeney Todd opened long before Silence of the Lambs, long before Saws I–IV, long before Hostel, long before Dexter. In short, long before the serial killer became our reigning pop-culture antihero. But audiences are ready now.
For a fan of the musical—a rabid fan—it's hard to overlook what Burton got wrong and enjoy what Burton got right.
So let me quickly tick through the wrongs. Helena Bonham Carter can't sing—which is a big problem, as Mrs. Lovett has almost as many songs as Sweeney in Burton's version. And so many songs have been omitted or scaled back that anyone familiar with the score—you know, big fags like me—is going to leave feeling cheated. (I particularly missed the "Kiss Me" quartet.) And some of the violence—particularly a certain immolation—is so over- the-top gruesome that it draws attention to the filmmaker and away from the barber.
And Burton, even with Sondheim hovering over his shoulder, somehow manages to blow two of the show's most devastating moments: When the corrupt judge who raped Sweeney's wife and stole his daughter informs Sweeney (whom he doesn't recognize) that he now intends to marry his daughter... Sweeney, razor in hand, doesn't react? Not a twinge? Not a twitch? Nothing? Then, when Sweeney's rage and the action reach their bloody climaxes, Sweeney suddenly pardons one of his intended victims?
So what did Burton get right? The first two-thirds of the film transport you into a thoroughly hellish vision of early 19th-century London. Sacha Baron Cohen is a brilliant choice for Pirelli, a rival barber, and the rest of the supporting cast—mostly unknowns—is equally strong. (Although it seems odd that the actor playing Anthony is 500 times prettier than the actress playing Johanna.) The music, as much as was used, is beautiful and (when Bonham Carter isn't singing) beautifully sung.
Johnny Depp's Sweeney is a bit too mannered for my tastes—and too dark. When Mrs. Lovett accuses Sweeney of always "brooding on his wrongs," it's a self-serving exaggeration; Depp seems to have built his performance around it. Still, Depp has the charisma to carry the film and to make us sympathize with a monster.
And two numbers redeem the production entire. During "A Little Priest," Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney leer out of the windows of Mrs. Lovett's meat-pie shop, picking out the Londoners they intend to pick off. It takes the song to a darker place without losing any of the song's humor. And Bonham Carter, who can't sing (have I mentioned that?), can act. You can see her heart breaking—a heart you didn't think Mrs. Lovett had—when she decides, during "Not While I'm Around," that the child who completes her macabre little family is destined to be pie filling.
If you're a big fag like me, you'll have issues with this Sweeney Todd. (Here's another one: Mrs. Lovett's oven is too small to bake all those pies, let alone get rid of all those bodies.) But if you're not a big fag—if you're not overly, faggily familiar with this show—skip Saw V and see Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd instead. It was made for you.