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Wrestling demons

'Sweeney Todd's' moral ambiguity and complex music cut deeper than a horror flick.

December 18, 2007|Adam Baer | Special to The Times

Six years ago, Johnny Depp received a curious gift. Tim Burton -- the director who immortalized the actor as Edward Scissorhands -- was visiting Depp in France and left a CD. "He didn't really elaborate other than to say: 'Listen to it,' " Depp said in New York before the premiere of "Sweeney Todd," the duo's film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning show about a vengeful and murderous barber returned from jail, where he'd been sent on a trumped-up charge.

Burton even once approached Sondheim about doing it as a film, only to move onto other projects.

A few years ago, Depp got a call from Burton. "He said: 'How do you feel about 'Sweeney'? You'd have to sing. Do you think you can do it?' " Depp didn't know, but he started listening to the dissonant harmonies, syncopated rhythms and painful tunes without lyrics. "To see if I could hold the note," he said. "Could I bend the note? Did I have anything to add? It was a bit of experimentation. But I called Tim and said that something could be done."

Indeed, something was done -- something conceptually large, haunting, ghoulish, ironic and dripping with Grand Guignol melodrama. It happened at London's Pinewood studios last winter: The friends assembled with Burton's companion, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman and others to turn Sondheim's masterpiece into a desaturated nouveau-horror music-film that will open in theaters Friday. "Sweeney Todd" isn't just a work about splintered morality that requires the ability to sing. It's high culture, full of deliciously bitter contradictions, made of concert-caliber music, sharp words and a pentameter that would send mainstream theater singers running for a "Wicked" audition. And it's low culture, based on a 19th century legend of a serial killer who slices throats.

But ask some Sondheim purists about a Hollywood version -- this one, with a beefed-up 78-person orchestra and the opening ballad cut -- and you might get scoffs. The key, therefore, was not to produce a performance film like Ingmar Bergman's "The Magic Flute" but to create an original movie genre: a consciously present-day spoke-sung music-film with younger actors, no traditional singers and a cinema-grotesquerie style, full of viscous slashes of blood.

"Everything is from the original show," said Richard D. Zanuck, the film's producer, who collaborated with DreamWorks' Walter Parkes and screenwriter-producer John Logan. "But you're not on a stage. In the period streets of London, the production's opened up. What Tim's done very cleverly is make it surreal. There's a lot of blood, but Sweeney doesn't cut throats in the traditional way. The blood splatters all over the place, and it's much less horrific -- almost like 'Kill Bill.' But the whole thing is obviously tongue-in-cheek."

It's as entertaining, artistic and efficient as anyone could make a "Sweeney Todd" film that might appeal to a broad swath of moviegoers. But it doesn't make the work easier to perform and interpret.

For one thing, putting a made-up Depp in Victorian London -- in whiteface, decaying eyes and crazed hair with a skunk-like stripe -- wasn't enough to help the actor find his tortured alter-ego. "Because Sweeney is such an internal character, one of the only times you get a chance to know what he's feeling is through song -- it's his internal monologue," Depp said.

Unlike other actors who might learn a film's music after the fact, Depp looked for the crux of his character in the scores. "Some things don't just identify themselves. But the things you don't notice are in your ears," he said. "They can be very odd little devices."

Depp admitted it was challenging even though he came to Hollywood in the 1980s to make it in music. In "Sweeney," "there are time signatures within time signatures," Depp said. "There are moments in some of the pieces when you're attempting very complicated stuff, and I would just have to stop. . . . My kingdom for a click track!"

But for Depp, who loves old movie soundtracks, it was too different a project to say no. "It's not Broadway. It's hard to think of it as a 'musical' in a weird way. It's certainly not show tunes," he said, calling it "beautifully cinematic. Sondheim says to think of it almost as a Bernard Herrmann score. Its transitions from dialogue to song didn't ever feel shocking -- you get so lost in the music. There is no jolt."

Luckily, Sondheim proved open-minded about (the right) people taking liberty with his work. He had been mindful of film while writing "Sweeney." He got the filmmakers to agree that the score would remain largely intact, and he said he didn't want the typical operatic baritone.

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