Friday, October 29, 2010

Come and visit your good friend 'Sweeney'

This past weekend I was joined by my friend and fellow entertainment writer Brian for a “Sweeney Todd” marathon, and you'd be surprised how many versions we managed to dig up.

The most famous incarnation of the tale of the murderous barber is Stephen Sondheim's operatic 1979 Broadway musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” but the roots of the story go much deeper.

The exploits of Sweeney Todd date back to a Victorian penny dreadful called “The String of Pearls” (1846–1847). Although not a real historical figure, it is possible that the character is a composite of several 19th century urban legends.

The details and motivations of the character vary, but the basic story always remains the same: Todd is a barber who offs his clientele and his partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett bakes the remains into meat pies.

Todd first appeared on film in 1936 as portrayed by the appropriately named Tod Slaughter. The film has not aged well and the story is muddled and unclear, but as a point of reference it is still holds some interest for diehard fans. It does feature an amusing catch phrase, “I'll polish you off” and a so-bad-it-is-good performance from Slaughter.

Sondheim's version would darken the character. Previously, Todd's motivation was purely greed, but in the musical Todd is seeking vengeance against a judge who sent him away on trumped up false charges so that he could make a move on Todd's wife.

The meat pie aspect of the plot is also given new dimension as it is used in biting social critique. As the song “Little Priest” notes, “The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above/How gratifying for once to know that those above will serve those down below.”

With its mix of satire, black humor and tragedy, "Sweeney Todd" is perhaps Sondheim's most ambitious and best show. “Sweeney Todd” cleaned up at the Tony Awards that year winning Best Musical, Best Actor for Len Cariou as Todd and Best Actress for Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett among others.

There's no documentation of the original cast production of “Sweeney Todd,” but a DVD is available of the 1982 national tour and does feature Lansbury.

Late in her career Lansbury became associated almost exclusively with the good-natured mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote.” For some it is hard to imagine her any other way, but she is capable of going to dark places, not only in “Sweeney Todd,” but in her Academy Award winning turn in “The Manchurian Candidate.”

In 1998, a TV movie “The Tale of Sweeney Todd” starring Ben Kingsley in the title role presented another variation on the themes, but alas this version is only available on VHS and I was unable to get a hold of it.

Writer/director Kevin Smith featured “Sweeney Todd” prominently in 2003's underrated “Jersey Girl.” The climax of the film involves the 7-year-old title character starring as Mrs. Lovett in a talent show production of the song “God, That's Good.”

The scene features Ben Affleck as Todd and Liv Tyler as Toby, the boy that helps in the bakery. The juxtaposition of a 7-year-old with this dark material is quite amusing and Tyler is actually better than she needs to be for the intentionally low-rent production values.

In 2006, the BBC produced a version starring Ray Winstone that once again has the basic plot elements, but departs from both greed and vengeance as Todd's motivation.
In this version Todd slits throats simply because he can. He's portrayed as a serial killer that just can't help himself. This interpretation of Todd makes him quite possibly even crazier than Sondheim's version and yet Winstone makes the character human.

The latest film version is director Tim Burton's 2007 adaptation of Sondheim's musical with screenwriter John Logan and frequent star Johnny Depp in the title role. Burton removed several songs tied to a romantic subplot involving Todd's daughter Johanna and Anthony, the sailor that saved him. He also removed much of the satirical elements of the show.

There are flashes of the musical's macabre humor, but Burton's version places a clear focus on Todd's vengeance and the tragic elements of the plot. It is worthy reworking of the material that makes the show less operatic and more intimate.

With the exception of the Kingsley version, all of the versions mentioned in this article can be found on Netflix.

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