Alan Osburn has three words, and a dash of sarcasm, for anyone who's seen Tim Burton's 2007 film adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
"Good for you."
Osburn, producing artistic director of the FAC Theatre Company, directs and plays the title role in its upcoming production of Sweeney Todd. And inside his uncharacteristically cheeky comment rests an informed insight into the urban legend's many manifestations. Osburn, who appeared on Broadway and lived in New York City for 14 years, saw Stephen Sondheim's musical version in 1979, the day before it scored eight Tony Awards.
"That whole Tim Burton thing," he says, "took the comedy out of it and just made it this horror show."
It's not difficult to see how Burton did so, considering the source material: Framed for a crime and exiled to Australia for 15 years, Sweeney Todd returns to London to hear that a corrupt judge has raped his wife and kept his daughter as his child. Todd returns to his profession as a barber, but starts killing his customers and teaming up with local baker Nellie Lovett in a marketing scheme that soon has people lining up for more of her delicious new meat pie.
"You catch yourself thinking, 'Why am I laughing about this? That's not something one laughs at,'" says Osburn. "And that's the saving grace of the piece. Sondheim personally said that it's just kind of a boring play — he said that if you don't have that comedy against that darkness, then why even tell the story?"
The other redeeming quality of Sondheim's Todd: his motive of revenge.
"Throughout the first hour and 15 minutes, he's a very likeable character. You completely understand why he's on the path that he's on," says Osburn, who says he thinks of his own wife and daughter. "This is a completely destroyed man. And the only thing he hoped for all this time was to come back to his family, and then to find his family has been destroyed in this manner. ... I, of course, would never go out and do what he does, but I can understand the impetus behind it."
Sondheim's vengeful Todd is an archetype of old: Osburn likens him to Hamlet, who "spends the entire play killing people, yet people relate to him throughout because of his situation.
"He's much, much more compassionate in this version than in the others where he's just out to steal."
Still, Osburn notes that "in the end, he gets what he deserved, and that's just great storytelling."
Adding to the "brilliance" in Sondheim's writing, the FAC brings a seasoned ensemble cast (including Eryn Carmen as Lovett and Thaddeus Valdez as the judge) and the largest set the company has ever created.