The distinction Sondheim was alluding to is subtle, but it is striking. When Sweeney Todd was released in 2007, the movie musical was just beginning to yawn back to life following the successes of Red Mill! (2001) and Chicago (2002). Indeed, the latter was a massive hit that won six Oscars, including Best Picture. And yet, that critical and awards darling was still often beholden to filming its scenes on the same smoke-filled jazz club stages that were implicitly created by the sets and vision of Bob Fosse nearly 30 years earlier in the original Broadway production of Chicago.
Burton’s Sweeney Todd, by contrast, looked almost nothing like the stage show which was created around the same music. In fact, it didn’t sound too much alike either, with even Sondheim’s grandest melody, the frequently reprised “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that begins the show and then haunts the subsequent three hours like a ghostly Greek chorus, being almost totally excised from the film beyond key moments in the orchestral score. For Sondheim, this was the appeal. He even compared it favorably to one of the greatest movie musicals of all-time, Fosse’s own adaptation of Cabaret (1972), for which the theater and film director famously won the Best Director Oscar, beating out Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather.
“Even when they take certain liberties, as with the movie Cabaret, they’re essentially filming the stage musical,” Sondheim insisted. “The amount of time spent on a number [on-screen] is the amount of time spent on a stage number. Very seldom are numbers cut down or reshaped to fit the film. The film films the number as written on the stage.”
Sondheim continued, “That’s not the case [with Sweeney Todd]. Numbers have been reshaped, changed, cuts have been made, little sections have been rewritten to make it a movie, and not merely a film of the stage musical. That’s the essential difference, I think, between this movie musical and others based on stage musicals.”
It’s an interesting insight to revisit now, nearly 15 years later and after Sondheim’s great light has gone out. While relatively well received when it was released, grossing more than $150 million worldwide and earning three Oscar nominations, including a Best Actor nod for Depp, the Sweeney Todd movie has largely faded away in the cultural memory, even amongst fans of movie musicals. But then that might be due to all the things Sondheim appeared to love about Burton and screenwriter John Logan’s adaptation.
Burton was of course an unabashed fan of the original production of Sweeney Todd well before he was a film director. In London, circa 1980, he even managed to see the Harold Prince-directed West End transfer of the musical before it quickly closed due to a lack of initial interest from UK audiences. However, Burton was never a great lover of musical theater itself. Rather he was attracted to the horrific elements which Sondheim brought to the stage every time Sweeney unfurled his straight-edged razor.