Burton's musical translation of the horror genre
Cleaving aside the saccharine conventions of the modern musical, Tim Burton’s visionary horror hybrid, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, arises, blood-soaked and brilliant, from the mires of mediocrity. Faye Coulman examines the legendary director’s darkest offering to date
Albeit a painstaking stage-to-screen adaptation of potentially catastrophic consequences, Burton’s penchant for dark theatricality has once again prevailed. Documented by an unsettling array of dizzying camera angles synchronised flawlessly with a lavish, 46-piece orchestral score, the tormented barber’s descent into madness is one of dramatic proportions. Johnny Depp’s 2008 Oscar nomination for his haunting portrayal of the homicidal barber saw the culmination of Sweeney Todd’s creative triumph. Scarcely is the artistic and innovative so widely rewarded in what is swiftly becoming a technological, unimaginative cultural environment.
Perhaps the eccentric director’s choice of subject matter appeared all the more outlandish given the prevailing social climate, in which the musical genre has undergone a commercial renaissance of sorts. The formulaic ideology publicised by these Prozac-happy movie musicals is presently at the forefront of the reality television phenomenon. Having, in recent years, all but exhausted the mass allure of pop music talent shows (with the exception of the annual resurgence of The X Factor) producers were left clawing for fresh sources of mass marketing potential.
BBC1 initiated the national trend in 2006 with the groundbreaking, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? which entailed a ruthless endeavour to select the lead for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of The Sound Of Music. The production made a stellar £12 million in advance ticket sales, while winning contestant, Connie Fisher’s solo release enjoyed similar commercial victory.
The BBC swiftly followed suit with Any Dream Will Do and this year’s latest production of Oliver: I’d Do Anything. Performing popular music-based auditions presided over by a panel of scathing judges and riotous audience, these mainstream manifestations constitute little more than an X Factor rehash. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, acclaimed Hollywood star and theatre director, Kevin Spacey, defined such themed reality TV shows as “essentially a 13-week promotion for a musical.” He concluded: “The BBC is not a commercial operation and I thought it was crossing the line unfairly.”
Speaking of the musical’s mainstream revival on both stage and screen, director of the London Film School, Ben Gibson, said: “There is a lot of musical theatre in London at the moment and much of it is shockingly middlebrow. People attending these productions will assume that they have seen something incredibly cultured, when what is being shown is in fact very pastiche. I am most definitely of the school of thought that both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice should be deported and have their passports removed.” He later concluded: “On the other hand, if these musicals are helping people to appreciate theatre again, then so be it.”
In an age where the instant gratification of technical wizardry is favoured over genuine artistry, Burton’s continued use of stop-motion animation is something of a rarity. His 2005 animated Victorian gothic, Corpse Bride, is just one example of Burton’s consistent dedication to artistic vision. Perhaps one of Burton’s greatest directorial accomplishments is his unfailing ability to fascinate and frequently charm us with a ghoulish procession of misfits and murderers, whose enigmatic personas are expressed via the medium of song. Indeed, each protagonist lays claim to his own custom fragment of the soundtrack, often some small lament or ditty, which manifests itself at poignant intervals.
From the spooky cabaret-like antics of Beetlejuice (1988) to Edward Scissorhands’ (1990) tragic, almost ballet inspired soundtrack, music is a prevalent fixture of Burton’s work. His animated classic, Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) conveys direct reference to the stage in a particularly amusing scene in which the cadaverous Jack Skellington extravagantly plucks off his head and sings: “And since I am dead I can take off my head to recite Shakespearean quotations.” Trapped, like so many of Burton’s anti-heroes, between two parallel realms, Jack (The Pumpkin King) often takes to wandering alone, chattering to himself in a manner akin to that of a classical soliloquy. Significantly, when he addresses his adoring subjects, he does so from the vantage point of a stage.
Despite its understated musicality, Edward Scissorhands is by far one of Tim Burton’s most evocative pieces, not least due to his artistic affinity with celebrated composer, Danny Elfman. A lament of sublime and chilling intensity speaks volumes for a character whose disfigurement and timidity render him predominantly devoid of speech. Although Johnny Depp was cast to play the role of Edward Scissorhands almost two decades ago, something in Sweeney Todd’s ghastly pallour and haunted eyes evokes this past incarnation of an individual utterly at odds with his fellow men. While Edward is unwillingly bound to the inhumanity of cold steel, Todd embraces its potential for cruelty and bloodshed. Cradling the silver straight razor in his hands with the utmost tenderness, he raises the blade triumphantly in the air before announcing in a cockney snarl: “At last! My arm is complete again.”
Todd’s relationship with accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, played by Helena Bonham Carter, is one of purely functional means. Her clever yet corrupt plan to dispose of Todd’s victims by making use of the flesh in her meat pies is met with fleeting enthusiasm from the barber. This is one of the few occasions where the pair sing in unison as opposed to discordant vocal harmonies, symptomatic of Todd’s misanthropy.
Todd’s criminally insane flights of fancy allow Burton to preserve the frenetic energy of the original stage performance. It is not until the camera cuts to Todd kneeling motionless and bewildered on the shop floor that we realise that his rampage through the streets of London was nothing more than a figment of his imagination.
Also instrumental in assisting Burton in his adaptation of the musical were the historical associations between vocal expression and Victorian London. All manner of tuneful tradesmen, beggars and urchins stalk the foggy streets of Burton’s haunted city. Unhampered by the physical constraints of the stage, this touch of period realism attains, on screen, both melodramatic and menacing visual impact.
One moment prostrate with grief and the next gleefully intoxicated by blood lust, Sweeney Todd’s raving insanity faithfully preserves the humour of the original piece, while injecting into the subject matter a dose of melancholia as dark and fatal as the Black Death. In short, it is the perfect antidote to the mainstream musical.