sweeney todd: the demon barber of fleet street

No, not the new Tim Burton movie. We just watched the Emmy-award-winning film of the stage musical, the one with Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett.

Like many people, I’m not a huge musical fan. I’ve been in five of them and had great times, but watching them really tries my patience these days unless it’s something with a sense of style and perspective and genuine humor like Avenue Q.

Sweeney Todd is a real drag. The story’s great: terrific melodrama, plenty of blood and murder, and a wonderfully ambivalent antihero in Sweeney Todd, a serial killer with a sympathetic backstory. You’re rooting for him to get his revenge but along the way he’s turning innocent victims into meat pies. Still, it’s pretty depressing, and ends in a pile of corpses like Hamlet.

But the real problem is the music! Oh my god. I admire Sondheim’s use of weird, aimless, dissonant, meandering melodies to create an atmosphere of off-kilter menace and despair. But it’s such a cacophony, so chaotic on the ears — there’s zero pleasure in it. The most enjoyable song has Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett cracking a series of bad puns about cannibalism. Again, so clever, but so hard to hum. Then there are the songs where the supposedly dashing young man falls in love with the supposedly beautiful young woman, which happens just because they’re young and supposedly hot and the story says that they fall in love, but still we have to sit through a full stupid duet stating the obvious and shallow. For me, that’s just not entertainment.

Even so, I’m looking forward to the Tim Burton movie. I used to be a big Tim Burton fan, but after Sleepy Hollow turned really hollow in the second half he’s been firing blanks as far as I’m concerned: the pointless Planet of the Apes, the execrable Big Fish, and the autocannibalistic Corpse Bride were all movies I wish I could unsee. Only his lightly perverse Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made me smile at all, with a hint of the misanthropy I liked so much in Mars Attacks!. Since Sweeney Todd looks to be cast from the same mold, I’m optimistic. I just hope he cut some of the music.

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