In "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," a man in Victorian England is wrongly convicted of a crime so a judge can steal his wife. He attacks her, exiles him, and steals their infant daughter, who he later wants to marry. The barber returns and starts murdering people and putting them into pies to get revenge. Also, it's a musical. That doesn't even begin to touch on the weirdness of "Sweeney Todd." The 2007 Tim Burton-directed musical film is based on Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Broadway musical (with a book from Hugh Wheeler), and it's exceedingly weird. It also has one of the most torturous scores to sing.
Judge Turpin, the villain of a tale full of creepers, was played by the late Alan Rickman ("Die Hard," "Sense and Sensibility," the "Harry Potter" franchise). Rickman was a man of many talents, well-known on stage and screen, and very, very good at playing bad guys. He won a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, a Primetime Emmy, and a SAG Award, and was nominated for two Tony Awards. His body of work is incredible (please go watch "A Little Chaos"), but other than a few stage productions, Rickman wasn't really known for his singing voice. In fact, he was discouraged from using it, as he said in an interview with NPR in 2007.
That said, he gave a wonderful performance, and his very distinctive speaking voice translated into the perfect sound for one of the ickiest characters to tread the boards. That same year he spoke to Female.com.au about his first meeting with the late Stephen Sondheim and called it "nerve-wracking."
'You Gandered At My Ward'
Stephen Sondheim was one of the greats of musical theater, bringing us shows like "West Side Story," "Gypsy," "Sunday in the Park with George," and "Into the Woods," just to name a few. Sondheim was known for rather difficult scores, with complex polyphony; independent melodies woven together. As an actor who didn't have a history with musical theater, this must have been incredibly daunting. In the Female.com.au interview, Alan Rickman said he welcomed the risk and joked, "Well, if I'm terrible, they'll just fire me."
It's such an odd and complex role that it's no wonder he would take a chance and actually sing in front of Sondheim, something even seasoned musical theater veterans might balk at. Rickman was asked about finding the right musical tone for the part. He said:
"Well, I think one of the miracles of the film is you kind of forget that it's a musical because the speaking and the singing melt into each other. It's not like, 'And here's a big number.' And also, when I had my one fairly nerve-wracking moment with Sondheim when you know, I mean, that is challenging, when you're alone in a room with a piano, a pianist, and then Stephen Sondheim walks across the room and says, 'Okay, let's hear it.'"
That's similar in a way to a musical like "Les Misérables," in which most of the dialogue is sung. There are spoken lines in "Sweeney Todd," but not a lot. It's hard to imagine the moment when the piano begins playing, and there's musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim in front of you, waiting for you to open your mouth.
'My Ward … And Pretty As A Rosebud'
So how did Stephen Sondheim react? Alan Rickman did get the part, after all, and the film won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in a Musical or Comedy and Best Actor for Johnny Depp, as well as an Oscar for Best Art Direction. Rickman said of Sondheim's response:
"He's such a kind of knot of concentration, that this guy wrote the words and the music. He was fine. And he just said, 'Yeah, that first bit, 'you see here is a man infatuated with love' …just more conversational.' So that was the greatest note you could be given. And — and it helped. Because it meant — you know, you don't have to — there's not such a pressure to sing, and — and that it's all got to be like somebody thinking and speaking."
Often, musical theater students are told that if an emotion is too big for speech, you sing about it, as sort of an explanation of the genre. "Sweeney Todd" is full of huge emotions, murder, assault, implied incest, revenge, cannibalism, that sort of thing. It makes sense to sing even the dialogue. Plus, Rickman had a lovely voice, particularly in his duet with Depp in "Pretty Women." Turpin is yet another example of Rickman's acting prowess, and it's worth a rewatch.
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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