A String of Pearls? Sweeney Todd on Stage, Screen, and Radio

As much as I have enjoyed our Gracie Fields trip—which continued last night with Look Up and Laugh (1935), featuring Vivien Leigh in her film debut—an excursion into the make-believe of contemporary cinema seemed long overdue. And if “contemporary” means Victorian melodrama set to music by Stephen Sondheim, such a break is hardly a violent disruption. Still, I was reluctant to return to Fleet Street. I’m familiar with the Demon Barber’s establishment; and unlike those to whom Burton’s slasher with songs serves as an introduction to this well worn piece of penny dreadfulness—Sweeney Toddlers, I call them—I cannot help but be reminded of past encounters with the not-so-gay blade. Would the razor, as swung by Burton, be sharp, dull, or just too ornate to be effective?

According to my diaries, whose racier passages I skipped to extract the data I required from it, I got my first look at Sweeney in September 1989, when Sondheim’s 1979 musical was revived by the York Theater Company and moved to the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway, with Bob Gunton as Sweeney and Beth Fowler in the role of Mrs. Lovett (see Playbill above). Referred to as “Sweeney Todd, Up Close and Personal” by its director, it was a scaled down production that depended far more on the talents of its performers than on an elaborate set design. What besides rage, a razor, and that ingenious chair does Sweeney really need to get the job done?

A little more than three years later, Mrs. Lovett was Judy Kaye and Fleet Street was a set at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey. As I remarked in an undergraduate essay, venturing out to New Jersey “meant not only the reluctant departure from the cultural center, but also from personal stereotypes about Manhattan’s periphery.” Ms. Kaye, whom I would meet on a few occasions thereafter, truly brought the amoral pie maker back to life for anyone who might have thought she had died after the spirit of Angela Lansbury departed from a body so easily collapsed into a single dimension.

A decade later, the melodrama The String of Pearls by George Dibdin Pitt had made it onto my reading list as I sauntered toward my doctorate. The barber’s chair and the revolving trap were already in place when the play premiered in 1847; but in this version, borrowed from French sources, the motive Todd’s scheme to “polish off” his customers was a hankering after the titular pearls rather than suffering and revenge:

When a boy, the thirst of avarice was fist awakened by the fair gift of a farthing; that farthing soon became a pound; the pound a hundred—so to a thousand, till I said to myself, I will possess a hundred thousand. This string of pearls will complete the sum.

Since my studies were chiefly concerned with US radio drama, it had also come to my ears that, back in 1896, Sherlock Holmes had attended, “with obvious delight,” a revival of the shocker. In one of Doctor Watson’s accounts of his life with the famed detective (broadcast on 28 January 1946), Holmes is invited backstage, where the actor in the title role shares his horrible suspicion:

I know it sounds fantastic, but it’s true. I’ve often heard of actors beginning to live their parts off the stage that they play on it. Well, it’s happening to me. I am turning into another Sweeney Todd, the character I am portraying on the stage.

A reference to this oft sliced chestnut, heard here in a CBC production from 1947, can also be found in John Dickson Carr’s this episode of Cabin B-13 (5 July 1948), in which an American visitor to London learns that he resembles a killer who lives above a barber shop in Fleet Street, has got a razor and “is ready to use it.”

While not quite as dreadful as I had anticipated, Burton’s Sweeney is joyless and drab, rendered in computer generated imagery that, by now, has become more tiresome than the traditional hokum on display in this black-and-white version from 1936 starring Tod Slaughter. Being forced to fly rather than slowly make our way through the labyrinthine passages of the dingy, darksome metropolis, one gets no sense of entrapment or secrecy. Our minds do not get the workout that make our bones ache in the keen awareness of having travelled on foot rather than some multi-purpose not-so-magic carpet from the CGI warehouse. Whatever happened to a sound brick wall like the one we want to bang our head against after having been taken for a ride that?

Removed from its narrative frame (“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”), the epic theater convention of encouraging detachment to achieve a demonstration of social problems, what remains of Sondheim’s Sweeney is old-fashioned melodrama for the pathos of which Burton used to have a flair. And yet, more so even than Charlie (discussed here), Sweeney is largely devoid of wit and vision. With the exception of the Pirelli-Barker shaving contest, in which Sacha Baron Cohen steals the show as the Todd’s spurious rival, most of the numbers are listlessly assembled. It would have been intriguing to see this melodrama turned into a pop-up book in which cardboard characters struggle to emerge as three-dimensional individuals; but the characters, as presented by Burton, would not stand a chance to distinguish themselves. They are utterly forgettable—a rare feat, given such material.

Burton might do well to look beyond his ensemble once in a while. Depp, who is being given a virtual Botox treatment that renders his phizog expressionless, and Bonham-Carter, who is buxom yet bloodless, are not suited for every costume he throws at them. Their voices are thin, their singing flat and, what is worse, the enunciation frustratingly poor. Bonham-Carter, if you’ll permit the pun, has probably the worst pipes in London. The orchestra is meant to give the musically challenged actors a boost; but here it ends up given them the boot instead. Casting, after all, is not as easy as “popping pussies into pies.”

In short, this latest Sweeney is as tired as a Victorian scullery maid who has lost the ability to dream up ways of disposing of her employers. With all those pearls of ruby blood spilled onto screen, some ought to have been set aside for an emergency transfusion.

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