Here's the thing: Tim Burton pulled it off. Nearing the end of an uncommonly strong year for American movies, he's taken a hallowed classic of modern musical theater, trimmed the story from well over two hours to well under, cast confessed non-singers in the lead roles, and managed to produce something magical. His Sweeney Todd isn't a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking, but it's as fully satisfying a screen version of Stephen Sondheim's operetta as I can imagine. And of all the new-millennium Hollywood musicals (Moulin Rouge, Hairspray, etc.), it's the only one that succeeds both musically and cinematically.
It breathes new life into the genre by dousing it in buckets of blood.
Opening on Broadway in 1979, Sweeney Todd — first popularized in movie form in 1936 — must have felt like a groping proletariat hand under the starched evening wear of the respectable musical crowd. Then there was Sweeney himself, the vengeful tonsorial terror, enthusiastically declaring, "They all deserve to die!" Reportedly, a good chunk of the first preview audience filed out at intermission, never to return.
Now Burton has given Sweeney Todd back to the movies. Nothing about the film should surprise connoisseurs of Burtonia — the elaborate sets could have been constructed with odds and ends from the Sleepy Hollow prop warehouse, and the casting has more than a touch of the familiar to it. As the lovelorn Mrs. Lovett, Helena Bonham Carter is so animated, you'd be forgiven for mistaking her for her stop-motion counterpart in Burton's 2005 Corpse Bride. And when Johnny Depp, as Sweeney, swings his razor high and shouts, "At last, my arm is complete again!" we're reminded that this isn't the first time he's played a social misfit with shiny metal at the end of his upper extremities.
But it's as if working with such inviolable source material has renewed Burton and his grasp on classical film storytelling, after several recent works (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) that verged on the self-plagiaristic. He shoots the movie almost entirely in close-up, like the silent classics, lingering lovingly on Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett's anemic visages. This brings out an intimacy that sometimes gets lost on the stage. That's especially true of the scenes between the shrewish baker woman and the young street urchin, Toby (scene-stealing Edward Sanders), who Mrs. Lovett rescues from the clutches of the charlatan elixir-peddler Pirelli (played, in the film's most broadly comic moments, by Sacha Baron Cohen).
Burton has also come up with inventive ways of both condensing and expanding Sweeney for the screen, elegantly shortening songs and visualizing flashback scenes that previously existed only in the audience's imagination.
If Sweeney Todd startles moviegoers today the way it did theatergoers in the '70s, it'll be less for Burton's extravagantly stylized bloodletting than for the fact that the story is — unlike most movie musicals — told almost entirely through song. And not just any songs, mind you, but Sondheim's brilliantly dissonant libretto, where burlesque ditties about cockney resourcefulness go hand-in-hand with arias of loneliness, despair, and bloodlust. And the singing? It's neither brilliant nor blasphemous. Sondheim has always maintained that he prefers actors who sing to singers who act, which is what he's gotten here in Depp and Carter.
No matter how hard Hollywood tries, it's folly to think that a second Golden Age of the American film musical is ever going to materialize. Broadway has turned to scavenging Hollywood for ideas, while even the fearless Sondheim has segued into semiretirement. So the existence of Sweeney Todd seems all the more cause for celebration.