When I finally got the chance to watch Tim Burton's film version of Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street the other day, I couldn't help comparing it scene-by-scene to the Fine Arts Center Theatre Company's performance that my husband and I saw in its final weekend. While I trust director and star Alan Osburn's opinion, the advice he gave me about the film—that Burton "took the comedy out of it and just made it this horror show"—which appeared in my Jan. 21 preview Layered Look only heightened my curiosity.
Burton did turn Sweeney Todd into a horror show, as Osburn warned. But then again, it's the tale of a crazed serial killer.
In an interview on the special features disc, Sondheim says that a "creepy and charming"—but very different—version of Sweeney Todd, which he saw in London in 1973, inspired him to write a musical that would scare the audience even while the actors sang. (Note: When Sondheim's musical debuted in London before its 1979 Broadway opening, he says everyone hated it. Except for Tim Burton, who saw it 12 times.)
Osburn and Eryn Carman (to whom I offer my sincerest apologies for misspelling her name in print) astutely reconcile the lighter tones of the original play with the vile gravity of the film. Carman adds a dash of absurdity and a perfect amount of humor to the role of Mrs. Lovett with her cheeky intonations and animated expressions, while Osburn's brooding and frantic Todd bears a heavier weight than most stage adaptations of the character. Together, they set a mood that is at once hilarious and revolting.
In contrast, the mood of Burton's film is dreadful, very barely hinting at comedy with dialogue veiled in melancholic understatement. It lacks the laugh-out-loud moments of the FAC's production, making the viewer cringe instead of chuckle. But perhaps that's the tone the Gothic auteur was going for; he obviously wanted to re-frame the narrative in the wickedly intimate, depraved depths within Todd and Lovett. In a commentary on the DVD, Burton says that he cut the chorus so that the story would be more internal (although it suffers in some ways without the tense, piercing harmonies the FAC's chorus imparts). Carter says that Burton told her to counteract the excesses of the scenery, dominant orchestra, crazy hair and sunken-eye makeup with a "restrained performance."
The immense tour de force of the orchestra and the incredible songs, more than the comic relief, seem to carry both the play and the film. "When you have something as over the top as this, if you're gonna prevent the audience from giggling in the wrong way--they should laugh out of nervous tension--then the way you hold it together is to keep the music going all the time," Sondheim says. Even in the 20 percent of the script that the characters aren't singing, there is an underscore. "There are very few moments of silence from the orchestra pit in the show. It's a way to keep the audience in a state of tension because if they ever get out of that fantasy, they're looking at, you know, a ridiculous story with a lot of stage blood."
Spurting blood and painful gurgling from the victims works well on film, not so much on stage. Plus, most people go out to dinner before the theater, not afterwards like they do in New York. I'm glad the FAC was thoughtful enough to let me keep my dinner down.
Regardless of the similarities and differences, the frightening legend of Sweeney Todd lives.