Agony?

January 16, 2006

Dorian talked about the announcement that Tim Burton has signed to direct the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, with Johnny Depp in the title role. I’m not particularly concerned about Depp. He seems like he can play any role he likes. If a part calls on him to suddenly display a sinister, rafters-shaking baritone, it feels oddly probable that he’ll be able to do it.

Burton is a little more worrisome, because he’s got such a sensibility. That’s a big part of his appeal, but I’m having a hard time picturing the place where his aesthetic intersects with Sondheim’s. There isn’t much whimsy in Sweeney Todd, and the piece works best when it’s stripped down to its bloody core, as Dorian notes.

What worries me more, though, is who will be cast as Mrs. Lovett, the mad, ruthless purveyor of meat pies. Having seen Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone interpret the character very differently, but equally well, the prospect of a twenty-something actress taking the part is a little horrifying. (Kate Winslet could probably do wonderful things with the part, now that I think of it.)

With the very successful film version of Chicago, middling singing voices weren’t really a problem. Gwen Verdon, the original Roxie on Broadway, wasn’t really a singer. She was an extraordinarily charismatic dancer and actress and pretty much the ideal muse for director-choreographer Bob Fosse, who conceived Chicago. When Renée Zellweger sort of half-sang her way through it, it wasn’t a big deal, and director Rob Marshall could use tricky camera work to partially conceal the fact that she wasn’t much of a dancer.

But Sweeney Todd is an operetta. While Sondheim has often written for actors who don’t really sing (Glynis Johns in A Little Night Music, Elaine Stritch in Company, Alexis Smith in Follies, Lee Remick in Anyone Can Whistle), he didn’t do that in this piece. The complexity of the music might not lend itself to a more spoken interpretation.

Speaking of Sondheim, I watched Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall the other day. As with most of these concert tributes, it was half-horrible, half-sublime.

On the sublime end was LuPone doing a wonderful fake-out on “Being Alive,” sounding shaky and a few keys too high initially, and then proceeding to nail it by the big finish. (I admit to enjoying it partly because I heard the Forbidden Broadway take-off, “Being LuPone,” as I watched. “Sondheim says I’m just a broad/Who put him through hell/And played Sweeney Todd/Like Eva Peron/Hard as a stone.”)

Liza Minnelli showed up during one of her lucid periods to give “Back in Business” much more energy and showmanship than the song deserves. (It’s from Dick Tracy, for pity’s sake.) Karen Ziemba joined with Bill Irwin to turn “Sooner or Later” into a funny, scorching pas de deux. And Dorothy Loudon did an insane medley of “Losing My Mind” and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” (If I never hear another straight version of “Losing My Mind” again, it will be too soon.)

In horrible territory was an agonizing a capella version of “Good Thing Going” that featured every kind of lite jazz excess. I feared for the safety of the Harlem Boys Choir as they joined with Betty Buckley for a super-syrupy blend of “Our Time” and “Children Will Listen.” (Buckley’s got to be sitting on some rage. She did the musical version of Carrie.) And Glenn Close took precisely the wrong approach to “Send in the Clowns.” She’s just enough of a singer to try for a note-perfect interpretation, but not quite enough of a singer to pull it off. (She’s also got a break between her chest and head voices that could better be described as a chasm.)

Overall, it was worthwhile viewing for a Sondheim fan, particularly if you let yourself laugh at the weirder bits. It’s nowhere near as scarring as watching Bonnie Franklin lead a version of “Applause” in Broadway’s Lost Treasures. From listening to the cast album, I had no idea the number was that long or featured so many agonizing “let’s put on a show” moments, including the naked dance-off between Oklahoma and Oh! Calcutta!