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Attend the Tale: 'Sweeney Todd' Exclusive with Stephen Sondheim

On a cold, drizzly day (somewhat suitable, one might say) at the Claridge's Hotel, there was a feeling of excitement in the air that you could cut with a knife as the cast and creative team of the highly-anticipated new movie-musical Sweeney Todd crowded a press junket in London.

In a very special BroadwayWorld exclusive, London reporter Nick Hutson provides a very special Q/A series with the likes of Johnny Depp, renown composer Stephen Sondheim; plus stars  Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, and director Tim Burton and the stars of tomorrow Ed Sanders, Jayne Weisner and Jamie Campbell Bower. 

Stay Tuned as BroadwayWorld brings you even more exclusive content and features on Sweeney Todd! In theatres for limited national release December 21, 2007 and wide January 11, 2008.


For me to be in the presence of Stephen Sondheim was a dream come true.  As always, he is incredibly articulate and spoke very highly of his colleagues.  He provided us with a brief background of how the film production came to be…

Stephen Sondheim: Movie musicals have not been very popular up until recently when a couple of them have suddenly broken through like Chicago… and Sweeney was not the big hit that made movie studios clamber for it. It lost half its investment on Broadway, and it's only after a period of time that it's become more popular with revivals.  It was a big flop in London… London critics hated it, which is ironic because it was my love letter to England. The first person to ask to do it was in fact Tim Burton about 20 years ago.  He came to see me and said he wanted to do it as a musical and I said "wonderful." We had a nice conversation, and I never heard from him again. He got, as we say, interested in other projects.  And then a few years ago Sam Mendes did a production of Gypsy in New York City and we were having coffee during the recording session and Sam said "Have you ever thought of Sweeney Todd as a movie?" and I said "Well, Tim Burton once came to me," but otherwise nobody has ever approached me about it," He said "I'd like to do it" and I said "Great! Let's do it."  He got hold of John Logan, the screenwriter, and they started to work it out together and then Sam got frustrated by casting – the people he wanted to cast, for some reason or another, didn't come through and so after a couple of years Sam said "I give up."  I don't know exactly who it was who brought it to Tim and said "are you still interested?" – Anyway Tim obviously said "yes," and that's what happened.

Obviously, the most important man behind any film is the director – and Sondheim was asked what he finds important in a director for his work:

Stephen Sondheim: Obviously if a director approached me to do a show or a movie and it was a director whose work I didn't like, I would say "no," but that's not arisen because not many directors have asked!

Obviously, Sondheim was happy with Burton's decision to direct and he said:

Stephen Sondheim: I knew it from the time he [Burton] came in 20 years ago that he really loved the story, and that was the first thing – and he likes the musical, and he's not a particular fan of stage musicals but something about this spoke to him and I absolutely trusted that.  He didn't have to be persuaded by the story; he didn't want to change the story – he wanted the story just the way it was.  All the changes that did occur have to do with small changes in the structure of the story, but he didn't want to change the character, he didn't want to change the ending; he didn't want to change anything about the telling of the tale and that's enough.  I was also enthusiastic about some of his movies – but the real point was that he loved the material.

Obviously Sweeney Todd is a great stage musical, whether it's Hal Prince's industrial setting or John Doyle's minimal setting with instrument playing cast members, but film is a completely different beast altogether.  Stephen was asked if there was anything in the film that couldn't have been done on stage.

Stephen Sondheim: You can virtually do anything on the stage as you can in the movies – it just depends on the audience's imagination.  You can go from a Tokyo airport to a hospital interior on the stage just as quickly as you can with a cut in a movie – you don't bring in tons of scenery but you do it through suggestion.  So, offhand I can't think of anything that couldn't have been done on the stage that was done in the movie – except for things like the blood.  The blood on the stage shocked the audience…the way it was used and the fact that it was there.  When Sweeney slits all the throats in the second act when he's singing the ballad to Johanna, and he's cutting…now you know it was a razor this size with a little blood thing in it and a little spouting, but it was their imagination that made it just as big as the blood on the screen, but you have to have more blood on the screen because the screen is not about their imagination – the screen is reportorial; the screen is newspaper photography and that is real; it doesn't matter whether it's a fantasy or not, you are looking at reality and real people and therefore you have to have more blood.  But the effect of the amount of blood on stage was the same as the effect of the amount of blood in the movie.  And in fact in John Doyle's recent production there was no blood on the people themselves, those of you who saw it, just people poured a bucket of blood into another bucket of blood and the audience still had the same allusion – and when he finally got to the judge there were merely more buckets of blood and so it mounted to exactly the same thing as when Sweeney kills the judge on the screen.

As a writer seeing your work appear in a different guise is a wonderful and surprising experience.  Sondheim was asked what surprised him about this new movie.

Stephen Sondheim: In the middle of the "Epiphany" when he cuts away into the street and he's threatening everybody in the world – that was a surprise, and I think a brilliant, brilliant surprise.  What we did on stage – the equivalent of that was – there was a little section of the stage and I had Todd literally threaten the audience; he wad threatening the world and he suddenly jumped down and he was as close to the audience as I am to this gentleman right here.  I thought if there's anybody really elderly, we are in serious trouble because Len Cariou knew how to play murderous anger…and when he came down and said "You sir?", it was as if he was going to break the fourth wall and leap over the stage because it was that close.  This little part of the stage was built out to this little section of the audience on stage right and it was just as scary.  But what Tim did in the movie is something you can't do on the stage.

The first song in the Sweeney Todd film is "There's No Place Like London".  Picking up on Sondheim's earlier comment of him loving London, he went into more detail of the use of London in Sweeney Todd as well as his personal love for the city.

Stephen Sondheim:  The use of the city of London…that really comes from Chris Bond's play.  Chris Bond's play is partly about the class system, and the interesting thing about Bond's play is that all the upper class characters speak in a kind of blank verse – it's almost iambic pentameter – and all the lower class speak in demotic English.  The city of London, therefore in the play, is a character split between those above and those below as the lyric says.  One of my collaborators, a man named Burt Shevelove, who was an Anglophile – he's the one who wrote A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum – and in fact with the money he earned from Forum, he moved immediately to London and lived here for the rest of his life.  He introduced me to the puzzles in The Listener…the old Listener…and I became fascinated because I love puzzles! I love cryptic puzzles, which did not exist in the United States – those of you who do British puzzles – they never existed in the United States until, I'm happy to say, I wrote them for New York Magazine and now they're very popular there.  I've been au courant a bit with what goes in popular culture and theatrical culture etc in England since I was twenty seven years old which is the first time I actually came to London and just loved it, so I'm afraid the anglophile has no deeper roots than the Ximinie's crossword puzzles and The Listener crossword puzzles.  Actually, the first time I came to London I was twenty-two, but that sort of passing through, but the first time I stayed in London was when West Side Story was done here and I don't think I've had a year since when I haven't been here at least once.

Sondheim talks about his overall impression of the film, and his experience with the "rushes".  Rushes are, in film terminology, the first positive prints made by the laboratory made from the negative the day after filming.

Stephen Sondheim: I found the film stunning and was quite surprised at how stunned I was even though I knew what was going to be done.  See, I was not around during the actual filming – I was only here for the recording sessions - and so outside of seeing sort of rushes – which I'd seen a lot of – I'd never seen sequences put together and since I'd received the rushes on a computer and they often were slow and that sort of thing, I didn't see all the rushes because there was no fun, so in that sense the film was a kind of fresh experience for me and, I must say, I was knocked out by it! I was knocked out at how knocked out I was!

Obviously, one factor of the movie on everyone's mind is whether or not the cast can sing – as only a very few members of the cast are professional singers.  Sondheim was asked if this bothered him at all.

Stephen Sondheim: I've always preferred actors who sing to singers who act.  I get some flack for and some resistance from colleagues for because I'm interested in story telling.  What I like about song writing is song used to tell a story – that's why I don't write songs apart from theatrical pieces; I like songs that are part of a dramatic texture and therefore I like the scenes to be acted.  I want to follow the story and that means you lean on the actors and so I'm used to, what I would call, un-trained singing. If any leading roles in the film had been cast with a professional capital-s Singer then it would have been out of balance, I think; it would've not worked so well.  But they're all merely actors who are musical – all of them…with the exception of Laura Michelle (Kelly) who really has had a career on the stage here as a singer.  Even she tamped down her voice and she has very little to sing in the movie but if she'd had any big aria then it would have required that everyone else either come up to her, or go down in terms of the quality of the singing… the professionalism… the sheen.  You can tell a professional singer, so they're all of a quality and that's why I think it works so well.

The score has changed slightly from the stage to the screen, and my question to him was how one goes about adapting a score from one medium to the other.

Stephen Sondheim:  Adaptation in terms of cutting certain sections of songs out where there wasn't anything active to film.  The trouble with most musicals that have been done for the screen…in fact all the musicals that have been made from stage musicals is that they are essentially films of the stage musicals, and the songs are used as songs.  What Tim wanted and what (John) Logan and I also was that if a song does not lend itself…on a stage you can listen to a song being sung for three…four…five minutes because that's the convention, and you can enjoy it because it's taking a moment and expanding it or, as Burt Shevelove said: "Savouring the moment," but on the screen, at least I as a movie fan, I want a story to be told; I want it to go swiftly.  So, that meant that we had to excise certain parts of the songs and excise certain songs.  So I would look towards if Tim or Logan said to me "Can we get from this point to that point more quickly?" I'd find a way of compressing, or omitting, or alighting – so that it would still maintain the shape of the song.  I could give you numerous examples: there's a whole middle section of "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" which is cut, there's a whole middle section of "A Little Priest" which is cut but unless you know the score you wouldn't know it…I like to think you wouldn't know that anything was cut.  I might be wrong, but I think you wouldn't know.  I bet a lot of people who only know the score superficially will not notice those omissions.  But those are the things I worked out so the movie could be told, as you all saw, swiftly…you know, it's an hour and forty-five minutes long approximately and it tells moderately a rich story in that time and yet people sing. When you sing, it takes longer than when you speak and yet, for my money, it does not seem attenuated…it doesn't seem as it's a taffy pull.

All cast members who sung had to audition in front of Sondheim.  Did he relish his power upon them?

Stephen Sondheim: No…I've spent my entire life relaxing actors; I'm, by nature, generous.  I hate the idea that people feel like they're auditioning.  All I'm there to do is to help them be confident.  The whole thing about dealing with people who have not sung professionally before is giving them the confidence to sing – it's as simple as that…and as hard as that; they have confidence in acting but they have very little confidence or no confidence in singing and the only way they can do that is to support them and just rehearse them and gentle them…you know. So, no I get no pleasure whatsoever out of their discomfort.

As a composer, one of the many jobs to do is to make your score adapt to the environment of the story.  Sondheim was asked about the style of musical writing in Todd, and his other musical scores.

Stephen Sondheim: I change my style for each show, you know – there are foxes and hedgehogs and I'm a fox. I don't dig one place deep, I scour the field, and the style for Sweeney Todd is entirely different than the style of any other show I've written.  I would claim that for any show I've written I'm a firm believer in content dictating form and style and if you're going to write Company, then you write that kind of score; if you're going to write Pacific Overtures, you write that kind of score – and if you're going to write Sweeney Todd, you write that kind of score.  So there are other composers who would use the same style for each – it's neither good nor bad, it's who you are as a composer.  I'm an eclectic and I always have been.

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DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures Presents a Parkes/MacDonald and Zanuck Company Production, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by Tim Burton. Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and John Logan; Executive Producer Patrick McCormick.

Based on the Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler; originally staged by Harold Prince. From an adaptation by Christopher Bond, screenplay by John Logan. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton join forces again in a big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's award-winning musical thriller Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

"Depp stars in the title role as a man unjustly sent to prison who vows revenge, not only for that cruel punishment, but for the devastating consequences of what happened to his wife and daughter. When he returns to reopen his barber shop, Sweeney Todd becomes the Demon Barber of Fleet Street who 'shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again,'" state press notes. "Joining Depp is Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney's amorous accomplice, who creates diabolical meat pies. The cast also includes Alan Rickman, who portrays the evil Judge Turpin, who sends Sweeney to prison, Timothy Spall as the Judge's wicked associate Beadle Bamford and Sacha Baron Cohen as a rival barber, the flamboyant Signor Adolfo Pirelli."

For limited national release December 21, 2007 and wide January 11, 2008.

Photos top-bottom: Stephen Sondheim (2007, by RD / Leon / Retna Digital); Stephen Sondheim (2005, by Ben Strothmann)

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From This Author Nick Hutson

A pianist and composer, Nick holds a degree in composition and has just completed a masters in musical theatre writing. Writing credits include: CoasterBoy: The (read more...)