Sondheim & Co., Taking 'Todd' from Stage to Screen

Johnny Depp i i

Bloody odd: Johnny Depp's Sweeney Todd slashes and sings his way through a grim Victorian London. Leah Gallo/Dreamworks/Warner Bros. hide caption

itoggle caption Leah Gallo/Dreamworks/Warner Bros.
Johnny Depp

Bloody odd: Johnny Depp's Sweeney Todd slashes and sings his way through a grim Victorian London.

Leah Gallo/Dreamworks/Warner Bros.

Scenes, Songs and More

Check out Bob Mondello's review — and an interview with actor Alan Rickman — to hear one of Sondheim's signature tunes, get a look at several Sweeney Todd scenes, and find out how well the film works.

Stephen Sondheim and Helena Bonham Carter i i

Putting it together: Composer Stephen Sondheim with Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett) during a Sweeney Todd rehearsal. Leah Gallo/DreamWorks/Warner Bros. hide caption

itoggle caption Leah Gallo/DreamWorks/Warner Bros.
Stephen Sondheim and Helena Bonham Carter

Stephen Sondheim, center, with director Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett) in a Sweeney Todd rehearsal.

Leah Gallo/DreamWorks/Warner Bros.
Helena Bonham Carter, holding a pie i i

Matters of taste: Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett runs a pie shop and bakes "the worst pies in London" — until Sweeney Todd's murderous tendencies supply her with a new secret ingredient. Leah Gallo/DreamWorks/Warner Bros. hide caption

itoggle caption Leah Gallo/DreamWorks/Warner Bros.
Helena Bonham Carter, holding a pie

Matters of taste: Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett runs a pie shop and bakes "the worst pies in London" — until Sweeney Todd's murderous tendencies supply her with a new secret ingredient.

Leah Gallo/DreamWorks/Warner Bros.

More from the Creative Team

The theatrical Sweeney Todd is a big, confrontational show. Burton's version is much more intimate.

Onstage, the part of Toby is usually played by a young actor. In the movie, he's played by a boy.

Sweeney's "Epiphany" is a departure from the film's basic realism — a nightmarish sequence in which he takes to the streets, slashing his razor close to the throats of Victorian gentlemen, who are frozen in place.

How exactly does a movie studio attract audiences to see a Tim Burton-Johnny Depp musical that's filled with violence, blood and cannibalism? Producer Richard D. Zanuck says you just appeal to their curiosity.

"An audience with Sweeney Todd will see something they haven't ever seen before," Zanuck says. "They'll see a horror musical. People, I think, will be very curious to see what Tim has done with this outrageous material."

Even in its original stage incarnation, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is hard to categorize. There's a dynamic tension between the harsh subject matter — a murderous, much-abused barber taking revenge on society by slitting the throats of his customers, while his downstairs neighbor bakes them into meat pies — and Sondheim's often soaring music.

But that hasn't kept it from becoming a classic, a perennial at theaters and opera houses around the world. Director Tim Burton saw Sondheim's tale of dark obsession when he was a student in London, and he instantly became a bit obsessed himself.

"I went, like, three nights in a row to see it again, 'cause I loved it so much," Burton says. "His music is so beautiful, and I think that's the energy of the piece for me."

It's a decidedly dark energy: At one point, Sweeney Todd sings a love song to his very sharp — and very deadly — razors. Sondheim says he wanted the score to have the tension of a Hitchcock thriller.

"I decided I really wanted to scare an audience, and the way you do that is by keeping music going all the time. And my model for it was Bernard Hermann, because I had been knocked out, when I was 15 years old, by a movie called Hangover Square."

Screenwriter John Logan says the original production of Sweeney Todd, which opened in 1979, provided the most thrilling evening he's ever had in the theater. So he was a little nervous about meeting a man Broadway fans think of as not just a master, but the master.

"The first time I met Stephen Sondheim, I had to go into his living room and start talking about 'I want to cut songs from your show,'" Logan recalls. "Because the show runs, unedited, about three hours, and we wanted to bring it down to a realistic movie time."

The nerves, it turned out, weren't necessary.

"Steve's a real man of the cinema," Logan says. "You know, he understands movies, he loves movies. He didn't want a film recording of the stage play; he wanted a movie."

So Sondheim worked with Logan to cut, reshape and refocus his score.

"What you accept on the stage — which is that the action will stop, dead in its tracks, while somebody warbles at you for four and a half minutes — in the movies, it just stops dead," Sondheim says. "Time and convention in the movies is different time and different conventions than [in] the theater. So you have to not just adapt the show, you have to transform it."

Logan understands that film is a medium of close-ups, so he transformed a large, operatic musical with a chorus and into something much more intimate — a kind of twisted family drama between the barber Sweeney, who's out for revenge against the judge who raped his wife and stole his daughter; Mrs. Lovett, the pie-maker who holds a torch for him, played by Helena Bonham Carter; and Toby, an orphan she rescues.

"To me, Sweeney Todd is a rumination on love," Logan says. "I mean, every frame of the movie, every note of the score, every line of the screenplay, it's all about people loving — and loving too much, or loving not enough."

Over the course of the movie, a great many people are harmed, fatally. And there's a lot of blood, graphically displayed, as Sweeney slits the throats of his customers.

"It's stylized, obviously," says Burton. "So we felt like we were making more like Jackson Pollock paintings than we were, like, a splatter movie."

While the producers cross their fingers, hoping that blood and music, Sondheim and Burton, Depp and Bonham Carter will find a mass audience, the director says he's, ahem, sanguine about the film's prospects.

"All I know is that, for me, and I mean, for us working on it, we enjoyed the fact that we couldn't quite liken it to any other kind of musical or anything," Burton says.

There's always a risk that audiences will be alienated, the director acknowledges. But, he says, "it's exciting to sort of try something that you can't really categorize.

And is Sondheim, who's been notoriously critical of all the other adaptations of his stage works to the screen, happy with the results?

Well, yes: "I think he did a terrific job."

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