The worst pies in London

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.

3 Responses to The worst pies in London

  1. Kayleigh says:

    Ok, firstly,

    Tim Burton’s version of this musical was supposed to be darker, more evil than the rest. Not funny, or witty. He had his own vision for the musical.

    Secondly, I thought Helena Bonham Carter was amazing in this film. She hasn’t got the most amazing voice, but many of the cast members didn’t. She is a brilliant actress and the way she carried herself in this film was perfect for the style.

    Thirdly, Sondheim had casting approval. So, he wouldn’t have picked ANYONE who he thought couldn’t preform to the standard he required. Needless to say, he thought Johnny and Helena fit the bill.

    I’ve read that Sondheim has refused many offers to adapt the musical to film. All except Tim. Obviously he thought that Tim would do a great version.

    And he did.

  2. davidpwelsh says:

    I guess it depends on whether one came into the movie looking for the source material translated into a film or a Tim Burton movie.

  3. Scots_pine says:

    Just so you know, David, you’re not alone – I like both Sondheim and Tim Burton movies, and I have nothing against Helena Bonham Carter in general, but I entirely agree that she was really bad in this. Her voice was far too weak.

    Also, the visual style was fairly lifeless – a bland one-note gothic that didn’t capture any of the liveliness of the London mob scenes in the original.

    What puzzles me is that if Kayleigh is right then Sondheim must have approved of this, which seems bizarre. Perhaps he had no influence or control.

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