Sondheim & Co., Taking 'Todd' from Stage to Screen Even in its original stage incarnation, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is hard to categorize: It's a soaring musical about a murderous barber. So turning it into a movie was, well, a leap into the unknown.
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Sondheim & Co., Taking 'Todd' from Stage to Screen

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

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

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Composer lyricist Steven Sondheim is the reigning master of the Broadway stage and "Sweeney Todd" is considered his masterwork. Since it premiered on Broadway in 1979, it's been a perennial in theaters and opera houses worldwide. What makes the show's popularity all the more remarkable is its bloody subject matter - a murderous barber takes revenge by slitting the throats of his customers while his downstairs neighbor bakes them into meat pies.

"Sweeney Todd" is now a movie. Jeff Lunden examines how this stage classic translates to the big screen.

(Soundbite of music)

JEFF LUNDEN: Just exactly how does a film 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.

Mr. RICHARD D. ZANUCK (Producer): At least an audience with "Sweeney Todd" will see something they haven't ever seen before. They'll see a horror musical. People, I think, will be very curious to see what Tim has done with this outrageous material.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sweeney Todd")

Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (As Sweeney Todd) (Singing) They all deserve to die. Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why. Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett, there are two kinds of men and only two. There's the one staying put in his proper place. And the one with his foot in the other one's face. Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you. But we all deserve to die...

LUNDEN: Even in its stage incarnation, "Sweeney Todd" is hard to categorize. There's a dynamic tension between the harsh subject matter and the often soaring music.

Director Tim Burton saw Sondheim's tale of dark obsession when he was a student in London and became obsessed himself.

Mr. TIM BURTON (Director): I'd never really see anything like that. In fact I went like three nights in a row to see it again because I loved it so much. And his music is so beautiful, and I think that's the energy of the piece for me.

(Soundbite of film, "Sweeney Todd")

Mr. DEPP: (As Sweeney Todd) (Singing) These are my friends. See how they glisten. See this one shine. How he smiles in the light. My friend. My faithful friend.

LUNDEN: Johnny Depp is Sweeney Todd singing a love song to his very sharp and very deadly razors. Composer lyricist Stephen Sondheim says he wanted the score to have the tension of a Hitchcock thriller.

Mr. STEPHEN SONDHEIM (Composer-Lyricist): I decided I really wanted to scare an audience. 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."

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Screenwriter John Logan says when he saw the original production of "Sweeney Todd," it was the most thrilling evening he's ever had in the theater. So he had more than a little trepidation on meeting the composer-lyricist.

Mr. JOHN LOGAN (Screenwriter): 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. Because the show runs unedited about three hours and we wanted to bring it down to a realistic movie time. But Steve's a real man of the cinema. You know, he understands movies, he loves movies. He didn't want a film recording of the stage play; he wanted a movie.

LUNDEN: Sondheim says he worked with Logan to cut, reshape and refocus his score.

Mr. SONDHEIM: What you accept on the stage - which is the action will stop dead in its track while somebody warbles at you for four and a half minutes - in the movies it just stops dead, as far as I'm concerned. Time and convention in the movies are different time and different conventions in the theater. So you have to not just adapt the show, you have to transform it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sweeney Todd")

Ms. HELENA BONHAM CARTER (Actress): (As Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) Easy now, Hush, love, hush, don't distress yourself, what's your rush? Keep your thoughts, nice and lush, wait...

LUNDEN: John Logan sees movies as a medium of close-ups, so he transformed a large, operatic musical with a chorus and turned it into something 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.

Screenwriter John Logan.

Mr. LOGAN: To me, "Sweeney Todd" is a rumination on love. 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.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sweeney Todd")

Ms. CARTER: (As Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) Nothing's going to harm you, not while I'm around. Nothing's going to harm you, no sir, not while I'm around. Demons are prowling everywhere nowadays. I'll send them howling, I don't care, I got ways.

LUNDEN: 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, says Director Tim Burton.

Mr. BURTON: It's stylized, obviously. So we felt like we were making more like Jackson Pollock paintings than we were a splatter movie.

LUNDEN: 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 is sanguine about the film's prospects.

Mr. BURTON: I don't think you can ever predict anything. All I know is that for me, and I mean and for us working on it, we enjoyed the fact that we couldn't quite liken it to any other kind of musical or anything. So you know, there's always a risk that you're going to, you know, alienate somebody here or whatever. But, you know, it was exciting to do and it's exciting to try something that you can't really categorize.

LUNDEN: And Stephen Sondheim, who's been notoriously critical of all the other adaptations of his stage works to the screen, is very happy with the results.

Mr. SONDHEIM: I think he did a terrific job, Burton.

LUNDEN: "Sweeney Todd" opens today.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

YDSTIE: There's more from our interviews with the creative team at npr.org.

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