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Attend the Tale

Johnny Depp and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd has been blessed by Stephen Sondheim (and our critic). Will theater nuts be so kind?


What’s going to piss off die-hard fans the most?
Burton: Cutting “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Before I first talked to Sondheim, somebody told me that was the whole reason he wrote the show.

And you cut everything but the instrumental.
Burton: We’d hired a bunch of great actors, recorded it, and everything, but as we started shooting, it became apparent that it just wasn’t working. It works great onstage, but for a movie it seemed like we wanted to see the story and not be told what we’re seeing.

You also cut a lot of Sweeney’s dialogue.
Depp: We focused on the dangerous and unsettling idea of stillness, that he doesn’t look many people in the eye, or say much. For the image of the character, we decided on something that was iconic, almost.
Burton: Like Boris Karloff and some of those old Universal horror films. We really wanted his eyes and the music to tell the story.
Depp: We never thought of him as a lunatic, we always looked at him as the original victim in all this. He had his family pulled away from him and sent off to prison—it’s very tragic.

Johnny, Broadway actors would kill for this part. You didn’t even take voice lessons.
Depp: I don’t know what I brought to it—or if I brought anything at all. I brought a bit of me to it, that’s really all I have to offer. Sitting in front of a piano doing scales, trying to learn how to sing in some operatic form, just seemed counterproductive.

Your voice is very throaty, almost guttural. It sounds almost anti-Broadway. Is that intentional?
Depp: Organically, there’s something natural in my voice that happens when you push it. And it’s aggressive stuff. But one thing I do—that I don’t remember hearing any of the other Sweeneys do—is English, oddly. [In most productions, Sweeney is played with an American accent.] Especially that East End English. That was something I thought I could add.

You’ve also called this your punk Sweeney.
Depp: If there was anybody in terms of inspiration for my sound, it was Anthony Newley [the Broadway vet]. And Iggy Pop, you know? Iggy’s kind of this very aggressive crooner. Especially in the early stuff, there’s something about his attack that’s haunting.

Did you ratchet up the blood to keep up with Hostel?
Burton: I felt like we were just being true to the show. I’ve seen other kinds of productions where they’ve tried to be a little more politically correct, but the first production I saw, blood was flying all over the stage.

People are saying it’s too bloody to win Best Picture.
Burton: Come on, it’s a Christmas movie!


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