Stephen Sondheim is a movie buff. In interviews he has called versatile studio directors Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh “heroes of mine” because they influenced his desire to tell high quality stories across genres. He has spoken about how the scores of Bernard Herrmann, particularly his one for Hangover Square, influenced the music of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Even a classic song such as “I’m Still Here” owes a debt to film history, as he explained in the documentary Six By Sondheim that Joan Crawford’s career gave him an idea of how to write it.
From such a standpoint, you would think that Sondheim’s works could serve as blueprints for innovative movie musicals. They could help to inspire the creation of films that take advantage of the unique potentials of the medium. Just as films spurred Sondheim to be more creative, Sondheim would repay the favor by offering opportunities to enrich the movie musical.
But more often than not, studios and the filmmakers they employ have proven themselves almost too faithful to his material. The earliest example of this wooden fidelity can be found in West Side Story. There are many moments in this film that are cinematic — the wordless montage that sets up the rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets, the crosscutting between multiple characters in “Quintet” — but there are just as many moments that feel stagy. As athletic and beautiful as the choreography in “Cool” is, it is ultimately a ballet that works best when you are in the same space as the dancers. Despite the fast cutting, it cannot transcend its origins as a piece of theater to be truly cinematic.
Other movie adaptations of Sondheim musicals have this same trouble with transcending their theatrical roots. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is hilarious, but lacks the visual wit Sondheim would have brought to it if the talented director Richard Lester had included his new version of the song “Free.” Harold Prince’s version of A Little Night Music even begins with the actors performing the material on a stage.
All movie adaptations of Sondheim musicals have their virtues, especially if you are already a fan (see Into the Woods). But the most successful translation of his work to a movie is the 2007 version of Sweeney Todd. It is a welcome instance of a visual filmmaker with a particular aesthetic being matched to material that is perfect for him.
Tim Burton’s love for macabre cinema and disaffected protagonists is well known. His love for old horror movies even influenced him to give his idol Vincent Price a wonderful final role in Edward Scissorhands. But what makes his adaptation of this musical so successful are his visual skills and his willingness to make the material cinematic.
Burton and production designer Dante Ferretti create a world that feels like a nightmare from a Dickens novel. It perfectly complements Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler’s vision of an industrial London run amok. Almost every frame proves Burton’s ability to create a brilliant landscape through visuals.
Burton’s visual skills enable him to express complex ideas that take Sondheim entire songs to express. For instance, the stage version famously begins with a song called “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that establishes the mood of the show. In contrast, Burton cuts this number in favor of a visual prologue of the show’s iconography as Sondheim’s grim music plays. It is an exceptional overture that establishes the tone of the film in a cinematic way through images even as Burton uses Sondheim’s music to establish a type of faithfulness to the original material.
It makes even more sense that Sweeney Todd would be a good movie musical because Sondheim once wrote that it is “a movie for the stage.” Sondheim himself has had a great and varied career in movies. He co-wrote the screenplay for The Last of Sheila with Anthony Perkins, and he won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Dick Tracy. But he is best known for his stage musicals, which are so innovative in part due to how Sondheim’s cinephilia feeds his immense talent. Let us hope that new generations of filmmakers use his musicals to create cinematic works that are as innovative for the medium of film as Sondheim’s work has been for the medium of theater.
Jesse Pasternack is a senior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed six short films.