If you merely told me the plot of Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I would never go see it. It took my collective admiration for Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Burton, and Steven Sondheim to push me over the edge. Johnny Depp has a perverse pride in taking bizarre roles (e.g. Willy Wonka, Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands) so it seemed like an inevitable casting for him to play Sweeney Todd. Likewise, with roles like The Corpse Bride and Bellatrix LaStrange under her belt, Helena Bonham Carter was a perfect fit for Mrs. Lovett. Together they are Mr. and Mrs. Fey, fascinatingly dark, the new standard every Goth teen will measure themselves against. Once you see them together, you can't imagine anyone else in the roles.
As far as I can tell, Sweeney Todd is the only work of its kind: a musical horror. After all that blood (oh my God how much blood) my wife wondered aloud, "Who would ever think of making a musical about that?" We are not fans of horror, unless is it thoroughly diluted with humor or action or fantasy (e.g. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", Sandman comics) so we had to watch the bonus features on the DVD just to give us time to process the whole experience and let the shock and, er, horror settle down.
On further reflection, though, I decided that Sweeney Todd is really in complete alignment with classical tragedy. A vengeful barber killing his customers and baking them into pies is sort of thing you'd find in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, or Greek mythology. Is Mr. T. any more horrific than the witch in Hansel and Gretel, who captured and ate children, or Procrustes, the innkeeper who stretched or hacked his customers to make them fit their beds? From that perspective, you can see that Stephen Sondheim is drinking from the same well as Shakespeare, with similar results: love, betrayal, vengeance, plots, and a whoooooole lot of blood.
Thematically, Sweeney Todd reminds me of MacBeth more than anything else: in both plays the audience gets suckered into identifying with a once-virtuous hero, and we follow him down on his descent into evil. We share in Benjamin Barker's desire to avenge himself and his wife against the foul Judge Turpin, so we're all-too-happy to join him in his plotting. When it results in the untimely demise of Pirelli, we're a little shocked but not quite horrified yet; he had it coming, didn't he? By the time Mr. T. embarks on wholesale slaughter, we're horrified, but it's too late â€“ we've already identified with his vengeful mission, already prepared ourselves to have a little blood on our hands. It's telling how the audience can conditionally accept the premise of his amorality: "What man doesn't deserve death?" Everybody, to some extent, shares his loathing for the ubiquity of human darkness, even in ourselves; and we wouldn't watch Rated-R films unless we all enjoy, to some degree, the thrill of violent rampage. So we can even follow Todd into his grisly business partnership with Mrs. Lovett, especially with it wrapped in the veneer of black humor. And women and children, the traditional vessels of innocence, are still spared. It's only when little Toby discovers the secret, and Todd and Lovett plot the murder of a child, all the while singing a lilting lullaby of "No one's going to harm you," that we see them for the monsters they have become.
Can anything so blood-drenched have a moral theme? "Evil begets evil" is the probably the best synopsis. Benjamin Barker might have been good once, but he was a ruined man by the time he gets back to London. In the very first scene he fails to shake the innocent sailor Anthony's hand. That sets the tone for ever after: he's a haunted man too preoccupied with evil thoughts to notice life reaching out to him. He can show affection and friendship for no one but his razor-blades, whom he addresses in song as "My Friends." Mrs. Lovett, in her twisted fashion, tries to lure him back to the world of living men, a world with careers and families and futures, but he's past recall. Even when he knows that he could be reunited with his daughter, the last living vestige of his lost life, he chooses revenge over love, death over life. Is it any wonder, then, that the momentum of his evil carries him past his objective, so that his final victim is the very wife he thought he lost? And that in realizing that tragedy, the wickedness of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett finally and abruptly comes to an end?
The formula for classic horror, then, is the flip-side of grace. Plays about redemption show how even the blackest of hearts can turn back to the light. Horror, on the other hand, demonstrates the fate awaiting those who choose the darkness. It can be morally enlightening, to take a long hard look into the darkness.
If you can't imagine anyone else in the role, try listening to the original Broadway album. As someone who listens to Broadway albums over and over and over, Sweeney Todd is one of my very favorites--certainly it's my very favorite Sondheim--and the main roles are sung perfectly by Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd and--ready for this?--Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. In some ways, I think the original is even more tragic than the movie.
That being said, I was terrified that Tim Burton was going to completely TimBurtonize the movie, and I actually thought he did a great job. Whew! I've been raving about "Sweeney Todd" since Junior High (when my best friend got really tired of hearing about it) so I'm so glad that it is having a resurgence!