Friday, January 11, 2008

Is Sweeney Todd the First Musical to Transfer Successfully to the Big Screen?

According to this article, not only does Stephen Sondheim think so, but so, ultimately, does Norman Lebrecht, writing in La Scena Musicale. My problem with his piece is not so much, after much debate, hemming and hawing, and musing, his conclusion that not only is the master composer-lyricist correct that Sweeney Todd is the first musical to transferr successfully to the screen, but

I cannot recall any modern theatre play - Pinter, Miller, O'Neill, Albee, Neil Simon, whoever - that has made the leap to screen carrying so little of its stage baggage while its character remains intact. Sweeney Todd is a gripping, skilful, troubling, ineradicable masterpiece of a 21st century movie. All that came before is gaslight.
Wow. I mean, wow. Seriously, I absolutely loved the film version of Sweeney, and while I missed certain songs and musical sequences, I thought the choices in that regard were really spot on -- and I'd be happy to go on and on about the film because I really do think it's that good. But the idea of making such a sweeping statement strikes me as, well, intellectually disingenuous -- for Lebrecht, among other things, never actually defines, in Sondheim's terms or better yet his own, what the elements of a "successful" screen transfer ought to be in his view. I mean, how about a little empiricism?

Sure, sure, if Lebrecht were responding to this post, he might cite snippets from his story -- the fact that Sweeney is not as "stagy" as West Side Story; that the "wide open beaches of South Pacific" and the "mountain peaks" in The Sound of Music "cannot disguise the suspensions" of those musicals' plots; that Sweeney does not give way "to crowd-pleasing showstoppers" (this is debatable); that it is "pure movie" (which is?); that Sacha Baron Cohen's performance is "freshly created for the screen" (and?); and that Mike Higham's underscoring "deepens and darkens the orchestral sound more lavishly than is possible in a tight theatre pit." Is this, though, the criteria? Really?

No one worships at the altar of Sondheim more than I do. No one. I'll bitch-slap anyone to the curb and into the gutter and into the sewage system and out into the Atlantic Ocean if I must to prove it. But Lebrecht's article is has a little touch of fannishness to it that he is trying to pass off as formidable intellectualism. Bah, humbag. More hot pies.

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