I don’t really think of myself as a prissy Sondheim purist, but I didn’t care for the movie version of Sweeney Todd. Director Tim Burton seemed to hack the heart right out of the musical.
What really bothered me was the fact that nobody seemed consistently capable of acting while singing, or doing their individual equivalents of singing. In my experience, you can get away with not singing very well in a Sondheim musical, but if you can’t act a song, you are deeply, deeply screwed, as is your audience. And while there is no scenario in which it would be fair to Helena Bonham Carter to compare her to Angela Lansbury or Patti LuPone, she’s who Burton cast as Mrs. Lovett, so compare her I must.
Her reedy singing voice would almost be excusable if she’d brought an ounce of life or wit to the performance, but she was in full powdery corpse mode, which bore a striking resemblance to laziness. Johnny Depp’s voice was a bit better, but I grew weary of him scooping his way into every held note, which, combined with persistent flatness, made him sound like the lead singer from a B-list ’80s alternative band. Don’t get me wrong; I loved those bands. They were the soundtrack of my college years. But I don’t want to hear them singing Sondheim any more than I want to suffer through the Kiri Te Kanawa West Side Story ever again.
What really, really bugged me was how the intricacy of Sondheim’s language was slurred away by the vocal shortcomings of Bonham Carter and Depp. “A Little Priest,” one of the best and most bracing duets in musical theater, was painful to watch, drained of energy and wit for the sake of that blue-filtered style that Burton imposed on just about everything.
Look, Burton does what he does, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve loved as many of his movies as I’ve hated, and I haven’t been indifferent to any of them, which isn’t a bad track record for any director. But this was just plain awful.