Jan 3, 2008

Happily Haunted

Stephen Sondheim has said that his first exposure to classical music was through the sweeping orchestral scores of old Hollywood films, and no work of his own shows the traces of that cinematic inspiration more than his brilliant, bloody operetta Sweeney Todd. Indeed, Sondheim has even singled out a particular film, a little-seen 1945 potboiler called Hangover Square, about a crazed, murderous composer in early 20th-century London, as a direct influence. The score is by Bernard Herrmann, but for my money I hear the influence of Herrmann's Hitchcock scores more pronouncedly in Sweeney. Here's a suite from Hangover...
...and the opening theme of Pyscho, which, with its tightly wound major-minor-seventh dissonances, seems closer to Sweeney's mood to me.

In an important sense, then, Tim Burton's new Gothic, Grand Guignol horror-movie adaptation of Sweeney Todd feels like a kind of a homecoming. Indeed, the instrumental score seems so at home onscreen (abetted by Jonathan Tunick's souped-up and revivified orchestrations), and Dante Ferretti's production design and the mostly spot-on casting do so much of the storytelling so breathtakingly well, that the singing, I hate to say, almost feels superfluous. It's an impression only heightened by the relatively weak voices of all but Edward Sanders' extraordinary Toby and the young lovers (whose roles, alas, have been trimmed to their merest plot functions--an imbalance that hobbles the film's second half).

Still, this is a fascinating, often thrilling exercise, unlike any other movie musical ever made or likely to be made again. The oft-noted intimacy of film pays big dividends: For as many lyrics as were snipped (and missed), there were a few I'd never quite registered before, particularly Mrs. Lovett's plaintive, heartbreaking, "I love you, I love you," in her nearly final moments with a freshly enraged Sweeney. This was one case where the quality of the singing voices didn't matter as much as the tightness of the two-shot filled by a pair of masterful film actors, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, who could have had booming careers in the silent era. (They're that good, really.)

If I didn't have such a weak stomach for the over-the-top bloodletting (and, perhaps worse, the relentless spectacle of bodies toppling head-first onto the killing floor, or burning alive), I'd gladly pay full-price to see it again soon. Until I do see it again, though, I'm happily haunted by Sondheim's score, which, even in the artfully trimmed form used in the film, remains such a marvel of leitmotivic construction that I can't think of one tune from it without thinking of another, and another--"By the Sea" makes me think of all of Mrs. Lovett's music, and vice versa, while "Poor Thing" seems to lead inexorably to "Ladies and Their Sensitivities" and on to "Pretty Women" and on to "Epiphany," and so on. Few scores in any medium are so richly and finely interwoven--apart, perhaps, from the best of Bernard Herrmann.

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