Sweeney Todd: On stage and on screen

Sweeney's Blade
Johnny Depp plays - and sings - the title role in the movie "Sweeney Todd."
Image courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures

Sweeney Todd is a pretty straightforward tragedy. An evil judge steals a London barber's wife and daughter, then banishes the barber to prison. Years later the barber returns with a new murderous identity and vows revenge.

Ben Krywosz
Ben Krywosz is the artistic director of Nautilus Music Theater, and a devotee of Stephen Sondheim.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

The fact that the barber slits his customers' throats and uses their body parts for meat pies is both riveting and horrifying. But Ben Krywosz, artistic director of Nautilus Music Theater in St. Paul, says that's not what the piece is about.

"The piece is about karma. It's about, 'As you sow, so shall you reap,'" says Krywosz. "It's about this man who has lost perspective, and his justifiable anger and his grief have driven him to a point to behave in ways that utlimately will cost him dearly. And he's not at a place to be able to see that."

We asked Krywosz to go see the movie and the stage production of Sweeney Todd and share his thoughts.

First, the movie. Krywosz says lovers of the Sweeney Todd score might want to lower their expectations.

Helena Bonham Carter
In the Sweeney Todd movie, Helena Bonham Carter plays the role most famously held by Angela Lansbury -- Mrs. Lovett.
Image courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures

"Anybody that gets a charge out of the scope and scale of the music may be disappointed in the film because of the vocalism," he says.

In other words, the singing. Krywosz says the singers don't have the talent of what you'd find in a broadway production. But, says Krywosz, however unskillful, the singing works.

"I think they made some wise choices about how far they could go with the singing," says Krywosz. "The singing is done a little bit in a more reserved fashion. I think they pulled back, because they recognized that the film doesn't allow performers to emote as expansively as live theater does."

Krywosz says the movie provides a depth of acting, a clear story and an evocatively dark and gritty vision of Sweeney Todd's London, courtesy of director Tim Burton.

Sacha Baron Cohen
Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame, plays Signor Adolfo Pirelli, an Italian barber of more style than substance.
Image courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures

Krywosz does have a few qualms. He thinks Johnny Depp's Sweeney Todd is made up like a ghoul, and is too one-dimensional in his obsession with revenge. Krywosz is blunt about the movie's hyper-graphic violence.

"They chose to turn Sweeney Todd into a slasher film," says Krywosz. "That's essentially what it is. And that has its value, I suppose, and it certainly has a very visceral appeal. But I think what it does is, in some way, distorts the piece."

Krywosz says the movie celebrates bloodletting at the expense of exploring Sweeney Todd's inner turmoil.

On the other hand, Krywosz says director John Doyle's stage production at the State Theater revels in the emotional immediacy of theater.

David Hess and Judy Kaye
David Hess stars as Sweeney Todd and Judy Kaye as Mrs. Lovett in the traveling Broadway production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."
David Allen Studio

With a minimal stage and actors doubling as musicians, Krywosz says the production gives you enough information to extract your own meaning, as opposed to a film which gives you everything.

For moviegoers who take a chance on the theatrical version of "Sweeney Todd," Krywosz has this caution.

"If somebody comes to the stage production expecting the naturalism of the film, they're going to be disappointed," says Krywosz. "They're going to see people doing things that don't make any sense naturalistically, but make perfect sense emtionally."

So that when he acts as if he's slitting somebody's throat and the whole stage goes red, that's sufficient enough for us to know what's going on," Krywosz adds. "We don't need to see the blood squirting out all across the room."

Sweeney Todd on stage
A fan of Sweeney Todd in the Twin Cities can enjoy it both on the screen and on stage.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Krywosz says some of the performers' singing was a little weak in the stage production. He feels it probably works best for someone who already knows the story. Other than that, he thought it was great.

But he's not prepared to recommend it over the movie, because both have very powerful moments.

"You're not going to pin me down as to which is better," Krywosz says. "I know that there are some people that live theater does not speak to, in the same way that films do. Having acknowledged that, I would say 'Oh, then you should probably see the film.'"

"What's important to me is that an audience member is having an experience that somehow moves them, and allows them to perceive their own life in a different way," Krywosz adds. "Some people will get that from a film, some people will get that from a theater production. Some people will get that from Sweeney Todd and some people won't."

And apparently, Ben Krywosz can live with that.

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