Friday, December 21, 2007

Sondheim on film

Those of us who are Sondheim fans are used to having our hopes dashed at regular intervals. We hope his newest, Bounce, takes New York by storm, but it never gets out of DC. We hope re-imaginings of Sweeney and Company run and run and run, but they don't. We hope revivals of Assassins and Pacific Overtures suddenly turn those cultish pieces into mainstream hits, but they can't.

And our hearts are broken at the lack of film versions of his great shows.

Sure, we have our videos of many of the greats, shot over several days in front of audiences. We love our Angela mugging delightfully through the Sweeney bloodshed. We love our Joanna stopping the show cold in those Woods, moments before her Baker's Wife gets stomped by the fairy tale giantess. We weep when our Bernadette reappears to George on that Sunday in the Park and urges him to Move On. And some of us (not me) even applaud when our fossilized Fosca finally beds the poor schnook she stalked, teaching us something (I don't know what) about Passion. (See, we even love debating our favorites vs our least.)

And we love our concert recordings, too. We love Broadway Baby Elaine Stritch halting an all-star Follies in its tracks, and we love Dorothy Loudon mixing "Losing My Mind" with "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," and bringing down Carnegie Hall.

But as for actual translations of the Sondheim canon onto real, honest to god FILM, which might be preserved at AFI or the Library of Congress or on Turner Classic Movies, well, we remain heartbroken.
We were robbed of a record of Merman's Mama Rose, reportedly one of THE iconic musical theatre performances EVER, by the box office power of Rosalind Russell. Gypsy flopped.

As for West Side Story, it was thankfully a hit, and preserved a lot of Jerome Robbins' stage choreography, but not even its librettist Arthur Laurents believed it was an effective translation to film. Ballet in the slums of New York? We love it onstage, but it makes us squeamish on screen.

And as for the shows for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics? Send in the clowns.

A Little Night Music might have had a chance, as it retained three original cast members from the Broadway run, plus added plum performers Diana Rigg and Leslie Ann Down, plus contained Sondheim's only cross-over hit song, but the film was sunk by the two people at its center. Elizabeth Taylor, at her breathiest and blowsiest, turned a role which should lilt into a performance that could only plod. And Hal Prince was an unwise choice to shoulder the burden of translating the piece into a movie; it was his film debut, and boy does it show.

And as for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, call Gusto the Body Snatcher. He needs to dispose of this corpse. The score is almost completely dismantled, leaving only a handful of songs. The wrong director (Richard Lester, who loved ACTION) made the wrong decision (to show Ancient Rome the way Ancient Rome really was, on a really really bad day), so this light farce was sunk by being surrounded by running sewers, filthy townspeople, livestock crapping, and the like. The beefing up of a supporting role (Marcus Lycus) to accommodate star Phil Silvers put the story off-kilter, so even the Broadway holdovers (Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford) were unable to generate excitement. And as somebody else said, any movie in which Buster Keaton is an embarrassment is, well, a piece of crap.

We Sondheim fans know all this. So the trepidation over the new Sweeney Todd film has been substantial.

I saw it today, and it's good. Very, very good.

Now before you get all Demon Barber on my ass, I'll stipulate that the vocals of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are not anything like the Broadway belts of Len Cariou, George Hearn, or Angela Lansbury. Why should they be? They are playing in a different medium, and the tone of the film is substantially different from the stage production. Most of the comedy is gone, but again, why not? The film is a thriller by any standards.

The score is left substantially intact. The few songs missing will never be missed, unless you're just being pissy about it. The vocal quality of the singing is thinner than we are used to, but Depp and Carter and Alan Rickman and most of the others do a dynamite job delivering this complicated score effectively.

Except (and this is a fairly big except): Jamie Campbell Bower, as leading man Anthony Hope, has an androgynous quality which is difficult to reconcile with his vocation as a sailor on the open seas. His slight frame would be swept off the poop deck by any gale force winds. And the thinness of his voice, as opposed to all the others, dissipates the effect of Sondheim's most gorgeous ballad, Johanna. While this haunting melody should soar, here it only floats.

But otherwise, this is a fine film. Purists are always impossible to please, but I encourage everybody to put away their DVD and Original Cast CDs, and take in the movie on its own. You'll get sucked in, you'll forget you know the story, and when Mrs. Lovett traps young, innocent Toby in the bake house, you'll cry out.
And even as you cringe at some of the gruesome images conjured in the film (and there are plenty, this is Tim Burton after all), you'll still utter a sigh of relief.

Sondheim has finally, nobly, been translated to film.