By Maria Mitchell
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Composer: Stephen Sondheim.
The full edition of this film’s soundtrack contains a concise bio of Stephen Sondheim and a photo by Jerry Jackson. The lyrics to the numbers are reprinted and it’s interesting to read and hear the lyrics of “Alms, Alms!” that are omitted from the film. The soundtrack is interesting and well-represented. How well does a horror story fare as a musical? I have mixed feelings about horror musicals, hence some foot-dragging when it came to reviewing this soundtrack. Purchased during those dark ages when this thing known as a music store still existed in proximity to me, my copy of the soundtrack has been hidden away for a while. I didn’t know for a long time whether I liked it or not, so I didn’t think much about it at all. The music was interesting and the lyrics were clever, but I still couldn’t decide what I thought of it. I like horror films and their soundtracks, but a horror musical usually doesn’t match up to fear. It seems satirical. That’s mostly how I feel about this film. I respect its satire. I respect its moments of dramatic horror. I feel indifferent to some of it.
Sometimes, I wonder how some plays get produced. Blood-rife horror stories, movies and soundtracks are all over pop culture’s menacing landscape. How does this happen, given the negative attitude imposed on some horror themes and not others? I’ll assume it has something to do with the same double-standard applied to a person who is considered to be “insane”, as opposed to a person who is considered to be “eccentric”. I do not have to identify the source of the double-standard in question, since it goes without saying. Sweeney Todd was one example of a horror story that made it to the mainstream. The clever lyrics grab me more than the music. The music becomes interesting in the middle and sort of fades into feeling bland near the end. The vocals are competent. It is well-recorded. Its lyrical narrative is complete. Its music is strong and basically inoffensive. It’s the perfect horror soundtrack for a sunny day. It won’t bring the mood down because its horror is not horror, but skewed lyrical commentary on social strife. The backstory of this play is more interesting. When I saw this film, I thought it was invention. According to Wikipedia, at least some historians are willing to lay odds that the title character of this story had a basis in reality around the year 1800 in England. I find that prospect to be slim but interesting. I’ll say this much for this story: Its commentary creates an interesting parallel to Lovecraft’s literary forays into the dynamics of cannibalistic devolution in “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Lurking Fear”. The biggest difference is that Lovecraft’s stories lack much of Sondheim’s cannibalism-as-capitalism edge.
Stephen Sondheim, the composer of numerous musicals, writes lyrics that advance the plots of his plays. The story unfolds as the songs progress in the film. He doesn’t have to rely only on the music to tell the stories, since he can write the lyrics. I can’t say which narrative format in music is better because there isn’t a “better”. It depends on the play/film, and what the film’s audience indicates they want to see and hear.
In the liner notes, director Tim Burton cites Sweeney Todd as his favourite musical. It has been performed on the stage since 1979 and its soundtrack has already been heard around the world. While I don’t share Mr. Burton’s enthusiasm, he and Mike Higham can be accredited for producing a well-executed soundtrack of this Tony-award winning play.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street‘s soundtrack is available at Amazon.com.