Wrestling demons

Special to The Times

Six years ago, Johnny Depp received a curious gift. Tim Burton -- the director who immortalized the actor as Edward Scissorhands -- was visiting Depp in France and left a CD. "He didn't really elaborate other than to say: 'Listen to it,' " Depp said in New York before the premiere of "Sweeney Todd," the duo's film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning show about a vengeful and murderous barber returned from jail, where he'd been sent on a trumped-up charge.

Burton even once approached Sondheim about doing it as a film, only to move onto other projects.

A few years ago, Depp got a call from Burton. "He said: 'How do you feel about 'Sweeney'? You'd have to sing. Do you think you can do it?' " Depp didn't know, but he started listening to the dissonant harmonies, syncopated rhythms and painful tunes without lyrics. "To see if I could hold the note," he said. "Could I bend the note? Did I have anything to add? It was a bit of experimentation. But I called Tim and said that something could be done."

Indeed, something was done -- something conceptually large, haunting, ghoulish, ironic and dripping with Grand Guignol melodrama. It happened at London's Pinewood studios last winter: The friends assembled with Burton's companion, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman and others to turn Sondheim's masterpiece into a desaturated nouveau-horror music-film that will open in theaters Friday. "Sweeney Todd" isn't just a work about splintered morality that requires the ability to sing. It's high culture, full of deliciously bitter contradictions, made of concert-caliber music, sharp words and a pentameter that would send mainstream theater singers running for a "Wicked" audition. And it's low culture, based on a 19th century legend of a serial killer who slices throats.

But ask some Sondheim purists about a Hollywood version -- this one, with a beefed-up 78-person orchestra and the opening ballad cut -- and you might get scoffs. The key, therefore, was not to produce a performance film like Ingmar Bergman's "The Magic Flute" but to create an original movie genre: a consciously present-day spoke-sung music-film with younger actors, no traditional singers and a cinema-grotesquerie style, full of viscous slashes of blood.

"Everything is from the original show," said Richard D. Zanuck, the film's producer, who collaborated with DreamWorks' Walter Parkes and screenwriter-producer John Logan. "But you're not on a stage. In the period streets of London, the production's opened up. What Tim's done very cleverly is make it surreal. There's a lot of blood, but Sweeney doesn't cut throats in the traditional way. The blood splatters all over the place, and it's much less horrific -- almost like 'Kill Bill.' But the whole thing is obviously tongue-in-cheek."

It's as entertaining, artistic and efficient as anyone could make a "Sweeney Todd" film that might appeal to a broad swath of moviegoers. But it doesn't make the work easier to perform and interpret.

For one thing, putting a made-up Depp in Victorian London -- in whiteface, decaying eyes and crazed hair with a skunk-like stripe -- wasn't enough to help the actor find his tortured alter-ego. "Because Sweeney is such an internal character, one of the only times you get a chance to know what he's feeling is through song -- it's his internal monologue," Depp said.

Unlike other actors who might learn a film's music after the fact, Depp looked for the crux of his character in the scores. "Some things don't just identify themselves. But the things you don't notice are in your ears," he said. "They can be very odd little devices."

Depp admitted it was challenging even though he came to Hollywood in the 1980s to make it in music. In "Sweeney," "there are time signatures within time signatures," Depp said. "There are moments in some of the pieces when you're attempting very complicated stuff, and I would just have to stop. . . . My kingdom for a click track!"

But for Depp, who loves old movie soundtracks, it was too different a project to say no. "It's not Broadway. It's hard to think of it as a 'musical' in a weird way. It's certainly not show tunes," he said, calling it "beautifully cinematic. Sondheim says to think of it almost as a Bernard Herrmann score. Its transitions from dialogue to song didn't ever feel shocking -- you get so lost in the music. There is no jolt."

Luckily, Sondheim proved open-minded about (the right) people taking liberty with his work. He had been mindful of film while writing "Sweeney." He got the filmmakers to agree that the score would remain largely intact, and he said he didn't want the typical operatic baritone.

"I always prefer actors who sing rather than vice versa," Sondheim said from his New York home. "You don't want stage-singing in movies. . . . I want people to play the parts. Obviously you want them to be musical and have some sense of style and how to incorporate a song into the performance. But I was a big Johnny Depp fan before this. He understands how to sing and act at the same time, which is not as common as you might think."

Sondheim said theater encourages one to let go. "If you're not flexible, write a novel," he added. "If you're collaborating on a musical or theatrical piece, it's all about the receiving of ideas and trying different things."

But the composer never thought about Hollywood options. "I don't think stage musicals work well on film, and that includes any show a movie company would want to buy, including 'West Side Story,' " he said. "Sweeney" "was sold very cheaply for just that reason. You can't just adapt stage musicals for the screen. You have to re-create them. Musical movies made from stage shows don't work for me because they're merely photos of stage shows even if they have cinematic style. In 'West Side Story,' what do you do with the love duet? Nothing is happening during the song."

If a song didn't achieve emotional action in this film, it had to be cut down, he said. "Before it became a movie, I thought of it as a movie -- not something to be made into a movie. When I was writing it, I was thinking of how Hitchcock, for instance, keeps an audience's suspense through music. I would call it a black operetta, but the trouble with the word 'operetta' is that it sounds like it's going to be silly costumes and Champagne waltzes." That's the opposite of "Sweeney Todd."

In Depp's portrayal, tones are held but without adornment. The vocal gruffness and hard-rock diction gave new, more immediate power to the lines. "Initially I had highfalutin plans of taking singing lessons," Depp said. "Instead, I needed to spend time learning the character, find the character through melody and lyrics. And even beyond melody and lyrics, where, when you strip away words, you hear these unbelievably elaborate layers, sometimes these incredibly dissonant sounds, that seem like they shouldn't belong together at all. I started thinking of it as more punk rock than opera."

"Sweeney's" harmonies have always been able to touch people who might not otherwise swoon to dissonance. When DreamWorks acquired it, the producers knew this but didn't feel out of the woods, according to Parkes.

"There are times you go into these things not because you perceive them as moneymakers but just so you can [break] even," Parkes said. "You put the piece out into the world, you embellish the value of your library, you assume it will attract great talent. Honestly, it wasn't until the addition of Johnny and Tim that something like a specialty piece turned into something that could touch a wider cultural nerve."

But can even the most entertainingly dark Sondheim musical -- even one boasting Burton and Depp -- play to a broad American audience? "Certainly an R-rated musical of this complexity doesn't say 'commercial,' " Parkes said. "One of its strengths, though, is that it's a sturdy story. There's a classically tragic aspect: Sweeney's trying to regain what he's lost through revenge, which is the engineer of his downfall. But it's a very detailed story and almost a three-hour show, so some of the most difficult work John [Logan] had to accomplish was to condense it and keep its power. . . . You have to connect more emotionally with Sweeney and use tools that film gives us -- like flashbacks."

Sondheim 'Trekkie'

Logan, the former playwright and scribe behind Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," among other hits, had been with the project even before the studio came on board. "I saw the original Broadway production three times in high school. . . . I'd never seen anything like it. So five years ago, when I heard that DreamWorks was interested, I went after it like a rabid dog. It is my destiny to write that, I said to myself. I know every note of the score. I'm one of those Sondheim Trekkies."

So Logan started researching. "My bible was Peter Ackroyd's book 'London: A Biography,' but I researched Victorian entertainment and crime. And I put together a 20-page document for [director] Sam [Mendes, who was originally attached to the project], saying, 'Here's the world of Sweeney Todd.' In a movie, characters have to have a tactile response to the world they're living in; there's no illusion like in a stage play."

Logan copied the entire score and libretto with wide margins so he could take notes. He then worked closely with Parkes and Mendes on a draft. And when Mendes left, Logan suggested Burton. "It was so in his wheelhouse," Logan said. "It's like an infection, this show. With Tim, we spent a lot of time going back to the script and score and listening to the recordings -- should we cut this song, keep this one?"

Sound and vision

Sweeney's new Burtonesque world is a visceral, inflated experience only film can provide. Thick strands of ground human flesh pass through Mrs. Lovett's pie-making machine, while Sweeney finds his reflection in the metal of his beloved razors -- extensions of his body that allow him to express his deepest torment -- "At last my arm is complete again!"

"There's a certain style to those old horror movies -- starring Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre -- that you don't see much anymore," Burton said. "This was an opportunity to try to do characters like that, and the music really fit."

Burton and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski chose a monochromatic look that would help the colorful tones of the music and splashes of blood pop. "I just always like to use color as character," Burton said, adding that he didn't want to do too much artistic work on the film in post-production. "We did use some computer stuff. But it didn't feel right to do a lot of it that way because it's a musical and a fairly contained piece, fairly intimate. . . . It wouldn't have been right to have people singing -- people who have never sung -- in front of a green screen.""

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