Sweeney Todd: Making of a Musical Movie

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

As a character, Sweeney Todd first appeared in a story, “The String of Pearls: A Romance,” published by Thomas Peckett Prest in 1846. According to legend, Todd would cut his customers’ throats, then send their corpses down a chute into the cellar below, where they were chopped up and used as filling for meat pies by his accomplice, the widowed baker Mrs. Lovett. In 1847, Prest’s story was adapted into a play, “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” But it was British playwright Christopher Bond’s 1973 play, “Sweeney Todd,” that first introduced the revenge plot now considered integral to Sweeney’s legend. In 1979, using Bond’s work as template, Sondheim brought the story to a wider audience, with his and Hugh Wheeler’s stage musical. Debuting on Broadway on March 1, 1979, it was unlike anything seen on stage before: Original, witty, and dark, with otherworldly music.

Logan holds that “what sets ‘Sweeney Todd’ apart from other musicals is the solid emotional core. It’s a dark but passionate story about a man who’s wronged, seeks revenge, and in the process goes mad. It’s also about a woman who’s in love with him but can’t make a connection with him. And it’s about a young girl raised by brutal stepfather trying to find happiness. All these emotional through-lines collide in the film and the fact that it’s heightened by music and singing makes it all the more lushly romantic.”

Before Logan began writing the script, he spent six months studying Sondheim’s score in order to be absolutely familiar with what the beast was. Adapting a 3-hour stage musical into a 2-hour movie clearly meant changes. Some songs were excised completely, while others truncated. They cut out verses but also expanded certain areas. A fair amount of work was done cutting and shaping. The filmmakers keep it tightly focused on Sweeney’s journey, so other secondary elements fell away. In the show, Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter, and Anthony are more musical characters, but in the movie, the focus of the story is a triangle of Sweeney, Mrs. Lovett and Toby.

A film version of “Sweeney Todd” seemed logical to Sondheim since his musical was inspired by a score from Bernard Herrmann, best known for his Hitchcock films (“Vertigo,” “Psycho”). “I’ve been a movie fan since I was a kid,” admits Sondheim. “When I was 15, I saw ‘Hangover Square’ with Herrmann score. It’s a flamboyant Edwardian melodrama about a composer who goes crazy–when he hears certain sounds, he goes out and murders beautiful girls. I remember just loving that score, and I thought it would be fun to scare audiences and see if I could do it with singing.”

A movie also offered the chance to change certain lyrics and to write new one that tally with certain structural 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 quickly and you suddenly have two and a half minutes too much.” Screenwriter John Logan maintained much of the score and still kept the cinematic value of the songs going.

Contractually, Sondheim had the approval of director and the two leads, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, played on Broadway by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. “Tim Burton is a perfect fit,” says Sondheim. “In many ways, it’s Tim’s simplest, most direct film, but you can see that he’s telling a story he likes that has enough incidents in it so he doesn’t have to invent extracurricular stuff.”

Though known for his dark maccabre films, “Sweeney Todd” is Burton’s first foray into the musical genre. Burton didn’t see the originals Broadway production, but he did attend a performance in London, while he was a student there. “I’m not a big musical fan, but I loved it,” he recalled, “I didn’t know anything about Sondheim, but the poster looked kind of cool and interesting.” From the beginning, Burton approached the text as an old horror movie that will juxtapose beautiful but eerie music with dark and haunting images.

The admiration is mutual. “He’s a formidable man, very intelligent and passionate, a genius at what he does,” says Burton about Sondheim, but what I respect and feel grateful for is Stephen letting it gohe understood that it’s not a stage thing, it’s a movie. I felt very supported by that.” Burton was impressed with the way the composer talked about the process of writing the musical: “What’s really amazing is that, when you take away the singing, and this happened when we recorded, it’s like a Hermann score. As soon as Sondheim said that, I thought, ‘I’m in, completely.”

“Sweeney Todd” marks Burton’s sixth teaming with Johnny Depp, following “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and “The Corpse Bride.” Their collaboration, which is quickly becoming legendary, seems to bring out the best in them. Burton explains: “Every time Johnny and I work together, we try to do something different, and singing for a whole movie is not something we’re used to. You never just want to feel like, ‘Okay, that was easy, ‘What’s next’ Johnny and I always want to stretch ourselves, and this was perfect outlet for that.”

In 2001, before Burton was even attached to direct “Sweeney Todd,” he visited Depp at his house in South France and gave him a CD of the stage production. Depp recalls: “Tim said, ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this. Give it a listen.’ I gave it a listen and thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ Then, five or six years later, the big question comes, ‘Do you think you can sing’ ‘I don’t know, I told Tim, I’ll see if I can.'”

In the 1980s, Depp had played guitar in a Florida band, The Kids, although he never actually sang an entire song. “I was the guy who would come in and sing the harmony, very quickly,” he laughs. “It would be all of like three seconds and then I was out, and I could find my way back to the dark and continue playing guitar.”

“I said to Tim, ‘I’m going to go into the studio with a pal of mine and I’m going to investigate and try and sing the songs, and if I’m close, then we can talk about it, or I’ll call you and say, ‘you know what, I can’t do it. It’s just impossible.”

For Depp, the key to Sweeney Todd was to think of him not as a killer but as a victim. He reflects: “Sweeney is obviously a dark figure, but quite sensitive. He has experienced something traumatic in his life, a grave injustice. I always saw him as a victim. Depp also saw Sweeney as “a little slow. Not dumb, just half-step behind. The rug was pulled out from under his perfect life. The only reason he came back was to eliminate the people who had done him wrong.” Depp elaborates: “Sweeney is incapable of feeling happy, unless this corner has been turned and he’s that closer to his objective, which is slaughtering the people who have wronged him.”

Sweeney’s favored instruments are his shiny cutthroat razors, which are also his tools of trade as barber. Mrs. Lovett held onto them while he was in Australia, but once back in his hands, they become his lifeline and means of revenge. “I serenades them in the song, ‘My Friends,’ Depp explains, “These blades are an extension of me, the only love in my life now that my family’s gone.”

“Johnny’s performance is extraordinary,” 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.”

Sondheim insists that he was absolutely not biased by the fact that Helena Bonham Carter is Tim Burton’s wife. Without knowing Burton’s choice, Sondheim watched all the candidates’ audition tapes. There were better singers, voice-wise, but for Sondheim, Bonham Carter combined voice, personality and look to make the ideal Mrs. Lovett.”

Sondheim writes such complicated music that it made the performers “feel like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen and without Sherpas,” says Burton. Though Sondheim was concerned about the musical adaptation, he was just as focused on the performers, as he explains, “I prefer actors who sing over singers who act. That doesn’t always do the music good, but it does keep the story going and that’s what’s is important.”