Sweeney Todd the Movie, by Sondheim

“I think the reason 'Sweeney Todd' has endured for 150 years is that it's a really good story, a very gripping tale,” says Stephen Sondheim, the creator of the acclaimed stage musical, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which has been adapted into a film directed by Tim Burton. “It's a tragedy in the classic tradition about someone who goes out for revenge and ends up destroying himself.”

Inspired by Bernard Herrmann

A film version of 'Sweeney Todd,' seemed like a logical step to Sondheim, since its genesis was in part a moviewith a score by Bernard Hermann, best known for his scores for a number of Hitchcock masterpieces, including “Vertigo” and “Psycho.”

“I've been a movie fan since I was a kid,” admits Sondheim. “I've always liked melodramas and suspense movies. There was a movie I saw when I was 15, 'Hangover Square,' with Bernard Herrmann score. It's a flamboyant Edwardian melodrama about a composer who goes crazy when he hears a certain sound and goes out a murders the nearest beautiful girl. I remember just loving that score, and I thought it would really be fun to scare an audience and see if you could do it while people are singing.”

Stage Time and Movie Time

For Sondheim, a film version of “Sweeney Todd” offered the chance to change certain lyrics, as well as to write new one that tally with certain structural and narrative changes imposed by the script.

“Stage time and movie time are different,” Sondheim explains. “You accept on the stage somebody sitting and singing for three minutes about one subject, but in film, you get the idea very quickly and you suddenly have two and a half minutes too much.”

He elaborates: “The problem is how do you keep the integrity of the score and yet cut things The screenwriter John Logan maintained much of the score and still kept the cinematic value of the songs going.”

Choosing a Director

Contractually, Sondheim had an approval over the choice of director, as well as the casting of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, played in the Broadway production by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.

“Tim Burton is a perfect fit,” says Sondheim. “In many ways, it's his simplest film, his most direct film, but you can see that he's telling a story he really likes. It's a story that has enough incidents in it so he doesn't have to invent extracurricular stuff. He has enthusiasm for the piece and he just goes for the jugular.”

On Johnny Depp

“Johnny Depp's performance is quite remarkable,” says Sondheim. “Sweeney's desire for revenge and the simmering anger and hurt that he feels carry the story forward, and Johnny finds the most remarkable variety within that narrow set of emotions. The intensity is at a boil all the time and he never drops it. It's real anger.”

Helena Bonham Carter

Despite the fact that Helena Bonham Carter is Tim Burton's wife, Sondheim says he was absolutely not biased. Without knowing Burton's choice, Sondheim watched all the candidates' audition tapes, before opting for Bonham Carter. There were better singers, voice-wise, because there were real skilled singers. But for Sondheim, Bonham Carter combined voice and personality and lookshe was Mrs. Lovett.

Complicated Music

Sondheim writes the most complicated music in the history of the musical theater, which made the performers feel like “mountain climbers climbing Mount Everest without oxygen and without Sherpas,” according to John Logan.

Recording the Music

The music was recorded over a four-day period at London's Air Studios. The 64-piece orchestra assembled for the film was the largest orchestra ever to have played Sondheim's score. Sondheim says “We added 30 violins, some more horns, a tuba, just to give it a bigger, fatter, wider sound.”

The recording sessions were overseen by Sondheim and conducted by his musical supervisor Paul Gemingnani. Once the score was laid down, the songs were next. But before any of the tracks could be recorded, the cast was required to rehearse for Sondheim who flew into London for a few days to hear them.

Preference for Actors Who Can Sing

Though Sondheim was naturally concerned about the musical adaptation, he was just as focused on the performers themselves. He explains, “I prefer actors who sing over singers who cat. That doesn't always do the music good, but it does keep the story going and that's what I believe is important.”