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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

More than just a blood bath

A review of Burton's musical Sweeney Todd

Published: January 18, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

sweeneylarge.jpgAfter seeing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I walked out of the theater with my adrenaline pumping – filled with that intense feeling of satisfaction that comes after watching a great film.

As good as I felt, I was also a little shocked at how content I was after watching such a morbid, gruesome, and depressing film. Before I elaborate on what gave me so much pleasure when I walked out of the theater, I want to state that I do not normally get so much enjoyment out of a crazy serial killer or fountains of blood spilling from bodies left and right.

But Sweeney Todd is different. Different than almost every other horror movie that contains the same amount of blood and killing.

Sweeney Todd is not some blood bath with an excuse for a plot, but a musical. First written as a play by Christopher Bond, it was then adapted by Hugh Wheeler and the famous composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim into a Broadway musical in 1979. Sondheim is one of the most famous composers and lyricists in Broadway, known for his lyrics in West Side Story and as the composer/lyricist in countless other Broadway shows. Twenty-eight years later, Tim Burton has teamed up with long time collaborator Johnny Depp to bring Sweeney Todd to the big screen.

Leading the cast is Depp, who plays Sweeney Todd, a former barber by the name of Benjamin Barker exiled from London by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) because of the judge’s affection for Barker’s wife, Lucy. Todd returns to London with sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), searching for Lucy and his daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) and to take his revenge on Judge Turpin.

Since 90% of the movie is sung, the success of Sweeney Todd rests in the singing, not necessarily the acting abilities of the cast. Depp’s singing ability, surprisingly, nearly matches his acting ability. Depp’s singing succeeds not necessarily because of the quality of his voice, but because of the angst and emotion he is able to portray in every song. The desire for revenge consumes Todd and turns him into a murderer of his customers with his razors – objects he calls “his friends.”

Todd goes into business with Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the owner of a struggling meat pie shop under the abandoned barbershop, to use the bodies of Todd’s victims as ingredients for Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. Entangled in the story is Anthony’s love for Johanna and desire to rescue her from the captivity of Judge Turpin. Also playing a small but important role is the boy Toby (Ed Sanders), Mrs. Lovett’s shop helper. All the characters end up playing key roles, and as with any good story, the plot comes together and the pieces of the puzzle fall into place in a rousing finale.

Almost two weeks after first seeing Todd, the melodies of Stephen Sondheim have not escaped me. The melodies are as witty as they are catchy, adding a little dark humor to a somber plot. Some of the funnier songs include “A Little Priest” in which Mrs. Lovett hypothesizes about how different people of different professions would taste.

The lyrics also reflect the setting of the story – gloomy industrial London in the late nineteenth century when there existed a very large gap between the rich and the poor. Todd and Mrs. Lovett sing: “It’s man devouring man, my dear! Then who are we to deny it in here?”

Sondheim masters the art of multiple characters either singing at once or back and forth between each other. This can be heard most especially in “My Friends,” “Johanna,” “A Little Priest” and “Pretty Women.” Many of the melodies intertwine in different songs and repeat throughout the play, making it extremely rewarding to watch the film multiple times and the soundtrack a worthy listen.

If you are not a music person I still recommend giving Todd a chance because the movie does so many things right aside from the music. Tim Burton does a wonderful job in keeping the story at a good pace and creating a believable atmosphere for such a wonderfully horrifying story. Sacha Baron Cohen also makes a small but worthy appearance as Signor Pirelli, a fellow London barber.

If you enjoy music, musicals or bloody horror movies, Todd is a must-see. Otherwise, it is a without a doubt a worthy rental for anyone who can take the gore.