Script Review: Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd!
Written by Robert Sanchez
Thursday, 13 September 2007
The IESB has a look at the script of one of the most anticipated movies of this year.
After a Short absence Michael Vaal is back with a unique view to Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd.
a script review best served piping hot by Michael Vaal
“There was a barber and his wife,
And she was beautiful.
A foolish barber and his wife.
She was his reason and his life,
And she was beautiful,
And she was virtuous,
And he was... naïve.”
I’ve recently had a chance to read the latest draft of the screenplay for SWEENEY TODD. While it is based on a famous musical, it is one that very few people have seen. This is primarily due to the dark subject matter, as the plot revolves around a past rape, false imprisonment, revenge, and murder which then transitions into cannibalism, believe it or not (see below). And yet, unlike the vast majority of so-called “horror” films in theaters these days, the story of Sweeney Todd is not about puerile titillation or deviant gratification. For SWEENEY TODD is not only widely regarded as the legendary Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece (yes, this “horror movie” is a musical, and yes, I think it’s better than WEST SIDE STORY in every way), it is also one of the greatest tragedies ever written.Almost 30 Years of Sweeney Todd Taking on something like this is always a tough call.
I am a true fan of the original Broadway cast of Sweeney Todd (Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou), which I was lucky enough to see on Broadway as a young man. It had a profound effect on me as a young man and the soundtrack is among the very few pieces that I know and can sing by heart – for I’ve listened to it no less that once a week for almost 30 years now.
And with all the practice I have had, I can sing it well dammit. So to say this is/was a dream project of mine would be a gross understatement. So, I’m either going to be this film’s most vocal fan or its vilest critic. Enjoy.
For now, I’ll touch on a few basics. SWEENEY TODD is a musical, but don’t let that throw you. It’s not a poncey Andrew Lloyd Webber pseudo-musical, where the plot points occur in between the songs, which are just gussied up show tunes prepared for the flavor of the moment.
SWEENEY TODD is Sondheim at his best, which means the lyrics ARE the dialogue and they tell the story throughout the performance. I think you’ll find SWEENEY TODD more along the lines of musicals like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, Disney’s ALADDIN, or even MOULIN ROUGE in the way in which the music and lyrics ARE the story and dialogue.
And yet…it’s all about bloody vengeance. Wikipedia has a decent one paragraph summary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd_%28musical%29) of the setup, which reads as follows:
“The story centers on the character of Sweeney Todd, formerly known as Benjamin Barker, who returns from the penal colonies in Australia, where he has spent fifteen years on false charges. When he learns from Mrs. Lovett, whose meat pies are the worst in London, that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by Judge Turpin, and his daughter is the ward of Judge Turpin, who imprisoned him, he vows revenge. The two become conspirators in a dark plot that results in mass murder, booming business for Lovett's shop, and ultimately tragedy.”
This isn’t WEST SIDE STORY or THE SOUND OF MUSIC, folks.
There is no unseen hand here, no overarching destiny. Ultimately Sweeney’s actions determine his own fate as do the actions of each of the main characters. And, rest assured, everyone gets their own measure of justice by the end, one way or another.
The Shortest Script “Review” I’ve Ever Done
The script, for all intents and purposes, is just an edited down version of the original playbook by Hugh Wheeler based on a play by Christopher Bond, which in turn was inspired by the legend of Sweeney Todd and the pulp horror fictions of the late 19th century.
Screenwriter John Logan kept the best songs and the critical action and it seems that they haven’t had to cut much to make it work – no doubt thanks to the fact that the material was from a play and was nearly perfectly staged. It’s still set in London and all the characters are here and represented faithfully, so there isn’t much to dwell on regarding the script except to say, “thank god it wasn’t turned into a roaring 20’s gay Chicago gangster musical.” You never know with Hollywood these days… So, What Might Go Wrong?
While I’m a huge fan of Tim Burton, the director, and of Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) and Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett), there are a few lingering questions.
Can Tim Burton direct real drama? We’ve seen him deftly handle comedic roles and all manner of oddness very well over the years. But this isn’t THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (which he co-directed with an animation legend) or EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (the closest anyone has come to crying for a Burton directed character at the end). SWEENEY TODD is serious work.
Can he make us FEEL the tragedy and pathos of Sweeney?
If that doesn’t come through, the ending of the movie won’t move people the way the stage musical has for almost three decades.
Can Johnny Depp sing, let alone deep enough that the walls of theater resonate in a way you’ve never heard before? Because that’s what Sweeney calls for.
To be blunt, there are very few professional singers who can pull off the role of Sweeney vocally, let alone act to a level that transforms the role from the big theater stage to the small theater screen. This is clearly his toughest and most challenging role to date. And I do not envy him here at all.
Helena Bonham Carter is less of a worry due to the nature and range of the songs Mrs. Lovett sings. Whether she can take the crown away from Angela Lansbury isn’t as important as whether she can get the audience laughing at the right moments. Mrs. Lovett is devious and clueless, naïvely romantic and heartless as it suits her.
Fortunately, this is material that the director is well versed in.
I’m sure the sets, production values, etc. etc. will be top drawer. This is Dreamworks and Warner Brothers after all. I guess my only concern here is that Burton has a habit of making EVERYTHING he does look the same as those cartoony sketches he originally drew for THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS when he was an animator at Disney.
I’d like to see SWEENEY TODD pick up from where Burton went with the live action bookends of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY or a more realistic, grittier version of his already rather gritty work on SLEEPY HOLLOW.
To be honest, if I see another BEETLEJUICE “Burton tree” in one of his movies, I think I’m gonna puke.
So everything rests on the director and the leads. They have amazing material in hand, which has remained remarkably and pleasantly true to the original masterpiece.
Soon we will know if Tim Burton and Johnny Depp can bring to this role not only the wonderful music and dark comedy they are both known for, but also the tragic pathos of one of the greatest anti-heroes in modern fiction.
Why Should You See It?
The tale of Sweeney Todd is unlike anything you have ever seen or heard of before. You will laugh your ass off and travel through the entire spectrum of human emotion. You will leave singing joyfully about cannibalism. When was the last time you left a movie singing about anything, let alone dining on your neighbor? You’ll never see justice or revenge the same way again.
In Conclusion…If the filmmakers do their job well, you will feel empathy and sympathy for the murderous, vengeful Sweeney by the end of his sad tale.
If they don’t pull it off, Sweeney will forever be known to the world as just another crazy man with a knife.
I for one am hoping these very talented people manage to move you with their movie in the same ways a handful of us have been moved by the play over the years.
Screenplay by John Logan
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Final Shooting Draft 12-21-06