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Swing Your Razor Wide, Sweeney

by Karen Tortora-Lee on December 22, 2007

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I was half-convinced I’d waken.
Satisfied enough to dream you,
happily I was mistaken ….

Johanna” / Sweeney Todd

My obsession with Sweeney Todd has been going on for close to 25 years now … trumped only by my obsession with the wondrous Stephen Sondheim himself which started when I was barely 13.

I can still remember that moment that froze me, made me stand still in the middle of that black and white checkered floor in my parent’s basement, where I’d lip-synced my way through the Rogers and Hammerstein canon. I’d just gotten the album “Hooked on Broadway” (Part of the successful “Hooked On …” series) and was listening to it for the first time. There was a Sondheim/Gershwin tribute and I was a Gershwin fan ever since I heard Rhapsody in Blue so was paying particular attention. Who this Sondheim fella was, I hadn’t a clue. Oh, but I was about to find out … and nothing would ever be the same again.

In the middle of the medley, a phrase rang out – two notes, really, but two notes in the middle of a phrase that was already so lush – and I just couldn’t believe that music could sound like that, that this unexpected note could pop up and suddenly give the whole phrase an undertone of darkness. That something so heavy with beauty could turn ugly in just two notes and then rebound to the glorious fullness from where it came — this was a concept that was astonishing to me. I had come from the old school world of musical theatre; dissonance had never played a part in any of my favorites before. The liner notes of the album told me that the two notes were from the song “Johanna” … the musical was Sweeney Todd. The phrase was the one I quoted above.

Once I found out about Sondheim, I couldn’t stop. I collected everything I could lay my hands on.

Company, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Merrily We Roll Along, Anyone Can Whistle … like someone who can tell Coke from Pepsi blindfolded and in one sip, I could spot a Sondheim internal rhyme with both hands tied behind my back by the time I was 14. I became a purist and a completist … I own records of works of his that never were produced, retrospectives, tributes. I could name that tune in 2 notes.

I even gave up my starry-eyed notion of love so instilled in me by Rogers and Hammerstein for the more jaded (realistic) attitude of Sondheim. And years later, when I took pen to paper to write the Great American Novel, it was a tragedy only partially less grim than Sweeney Todd. Tragic death, mistaken guilt, a lifetime of revenge, pawns who suffer needlessly and never understand why; yes, it was all there.

I was in high school when PBS started airing the live version starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury and I became so obsessed that it made all my previous obsessions look like casual dabblings. I taped it off the TV and raced home from school every day to watch it and memorize it so that, when called upon, I could play Mrs. Lovitt at a moment’s notice. When I wasn’t watching it, I was singing it over and over again to myself. When I wasn’t singing it, I was dragging friends over to my house to watch it. When I wasn’t dragging friends over to watch it, I was listening to the album, making mental notes of who was the better Sweeney. (Album = Len Cariou, PBS = George Hearn. George won, hands down.) I taught Sweeney Todd 101 to anyone who ventured over our doorstep, devoting an entire evening to the differences between each actor’s interpretation of “at last my arm is complete again!”

Eventually I weaned myself from Sweeney since I really had to … it was wean or be a complete social outcast. Still, he was never far from my heart.

Fast forward to present day, and see me last night at the City Cinemas Village East Theatre, packed in like sardines and holding our breath as the new Sweeney Todd flickered on the screen before us.

Sweeney Todd, the movie, could have gone horribly wrong in so many ways. But it didn’t. No, every breathtaking moment of Sweeney Todd was done so remarkably right that it did the impossible — it eclipsed the PBS version I had held as the Holy Grail for over half my life.

Of course I’d heard the buzz long before I’d seen even one preview — and I couldn’t quite tell if I was ready to embrace it or dismiss it. Although, from the onset it was genius. Who but Tim Burton could direct this Gothic tale of madness, revenge and obsession? And, while I’d never before thought of Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd, when Sweeney raises his razor and speaks “at last … my arm is complete again” … it was like Edward Scissorhands embracing his shining silver blades in a moment that had come full circle.

Cinematography was dark, brooding, spectacular, perfect.
Music was perfectly chosen, artfully executed, breathtaking, shockingly layered.
Casting was brilliant. Aside from Johnny Depp’s ability to play absolutely anything and anyone, there was Alan Rickman oozing out of Judge Turpin’s skin with all the evil of Severus Snape coupled with a perversion that no Harry Potter film would ever allow him to expose.
And Sacha Baron Cohen seemed a bit of stunt casting until he actually delivered the goods and (I’m sure, if Friday’s audience was any indication) brought in a whole slew of Borat fans who hadn’t really heard of Sondheim or cared about this musical enough to see it otherwise.

Helena Bonham-Carter is, of course, sleeping with the director (and spittin’ out progeny) but she does have that thing going on that makes her

a pretty good Mrs. Lovitt in the “I’m a bit daft myself and therefore have no problem being in love with a mad man who bears no resemblance to the Benjamin Barker I loved 15 years ago” way. I do love the was she can pull off those corpse-bride eye circles. And I will say that she brought something totally unexpected and therefore enjoyable to the role. So, reedy voice and all, she gets my thumbs up. Of course, having been preparing for the role since 16 I was a little disturbed that “The Worst Pies In London” wasn’t a half step faster (the way it was meant to be done) since one of my most enviable talents is being able to sing every word of Sondheim’s lyrics as quickly as he wrote them to be sung. My “Not Getting Married Today” from Company blurs right past you. Anyway, it all was fine in the end.

Favorite unexpected joy: “By the Sea” which I didn’t see coming and which left me with a wide smile and tears of joy and a heart that beat a mile a minute.
Oh, and that little boy who played Toby was outstanding.

Every single thing about this movie is flawless and the only complaint that I have is that it came out so close to Christmas — so I won’t be able to get back to the theater as soon as I’d like for a second, third, forth and possibly fifth viewing. Then, of course, it’s the first thing I plan to play on the wide screen TV which I will have bought for the express purpose of viewing this magnificent movie over and over again. Hang on tight — It’s going to be a very Sweeney few years.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ms. Fortune January 4, 2008 at 10:15 pm

I just saw Sweeney Todd myself, Jan. 1st. It was high on my list ‘cuz of your influence in high school. Let’s go see it again together!

“at last … my arm is complete again” … it was like Edward Scissorhands embracing his shining silver blades in a moment that had come full circle.

Yup…that’s exactly what I though at that scene.


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