Stephen Sondheim Dishes on <strong><em>Sweeney Todd</em></strong>

The creator of the original musical talks about the new film adaptation

Sweeney Todd is coming to the theaters on December 21. The film is based off the original musical co-created by Stephen Sondheim. The film uses all of Sondheim's original music from the musical for the film as well. Sondheim recently gave a press conference and we have the highlights from that conference here. Here's what he had to say.

Why did it take this long for this particular work of yours to make it to the screen and how reticent were you to finally give up the rights of this?

Stephen Sondheim: Oh, I was never reticent. Just nobody asked to do it that's all.

Why?

Stephen Sondheim: I've no idea. Well, you know, movie musicals have not been very popular up until recently when a couple of them have suddenly broken through like Chicago. But you know over the last 20 years, movie musicals have not been in great demand and so I think, it never occurred to anybody. And Sweeney was not the kind of big hit that made movie studios clamour for it. It lost all its money on Broadway and - not all - lost half its investment. And it's only over a period of time that it had become sort of more popular and more done with revivals and things like that. And as you probably know it was a big flop in London. London critics hated it, which was ironic 'cause it was sort of a love, my love letter to England and I (Laughs) really felt like a rejected lover - I'm serious. I've always been an Anglophile and they didn't like it. And so I think it's the combination of those things. The first person that asked to do it was in fact Tim about 20 years ago, as you, some of you probably know. He came to see me and said he wanted to do it as a musical. I said "wonderful" and that was the end of that. That, we had a nice conversation and I never heard from him again. He got, as we say interested in other projects. And then a few years ago, Sam Mendes did a production of Gypsy in New York City and we were having coffee during a recording session we had a, a cup of coffee and Sam said, "Have you ever thought of Sweeney Todd as a movie?" I said, well actually Tim Burton once came to me but otherwise nobody's ever approached me about it. He said "I'd like to do it". I said "Great, let's do it". And he got hold of John Logan, the screenwriter and they started to work it out together. And then Sam got frustrated by casting. The people he wanted to cast, for one reason or another didn't come through and so after a couple of years Sam said "I give up." And then I don't actually know exactly who it was who brought it to Tim and said "Are you still interested?". Anyway Tim obviously said yes and that's what happened. So, the bulk of the time was merely that people weren't doing movie musicals and the few movie musicals they did do were big smash hits. And Sweeney was not one of those so nobody approached me except, as I say, Tim. And then Sam did about, whether it's four or five years ago. And so that's what happened.

What was it about Tim Burton that made you confident about him?

Stephen Sondheim: Well, the, the idea will surprise you. It's because he loves the material. I knew it from the time he came to me 20 years ago that he really loved the story. And that was the first thing -that he really likes the story and he likes the musical. And he's not, he's not a particular fan of stage musicals. But something about this spoke to him, and I absolutely trusted that. He didn't have to be persuaded about th story. He didn't wanna change the story. He wanted the story just the way it was, and all the changes that did occur had to do with small changes within the structure of the story. But he didn't wanna change the character, he didn't wanna change the ending, he didn't wanna change anything about the telling of the tale. You know, I was also enthusiastic about some of his movies but the real point was that he loved the material.

Was there anything that surprised you in the movie?

Stephen Sondheim: Yeah, yeah, the middle of the epiphany when, when he cuts away into the street and he is threatening everybody in the world. That was a surprise and I think a brilliant surprise. What we did on the stage, the equivalent of that was there was a little section of the stage, and I had Todd literally threaten the audience. As I say, he was threatening the world and then he suddenly jumped down and he was as close to the audience as I am to this gentleman right here. People in that... who had the misfortune of getting those seats, I mean I thought if there's anybody really elderly we are in serious trouble (Laughs). But as Len Cariou knew how to play murderous anger - he was the guy who played Sweeney originally - and when he came down and said, "You sir!" it was as if he was gonna break the fourth wall and leap over the stage, cause he was that close. This little part of the stage was built out to this little section of the audience on stage right. But what Tim did

in the movie is something you can't do on the stage.

Can you just tell us briefly what you thought of the film having seen it? And secondly did it suffer at all from not having professional singers in the main, in the main roles?

Stephen Sondheim: I found the film stunning and was quite surprised at how stunned I was even though I knew what was gonna be done. But see, 'cause I was not around doing the actual filming; I was only here for the recording sessions. And so I, outside of seeing sort of rushes, which I had seen a lot of, I had never seen sequences put

together. And since I received the rushes on a computer and they often were slow, that sort of thing, I didn't see all the rushes because there was no fun. So, in that sense, the film was a kind of fresh experience for me and I must say I was knocked out by it. I was knocked out at how knocked out I was. (Laughs) So that's, that's the first thing. And, sorry, the second thing?

The second one was then whether it suffers from not having professional singers in the main roles.

Stephen Sondheim: Oh, no I've always preferred actors who sing to singers who act in all the shows I've done. I get some flak for and some resistance from colleagues for because I'm interested in storytelling. I mean what I like about songwriting is songs used to tell a story. That's why I don't write songs apart from theatrical pieces. I'm not interested in writing songs qua songs. I like songs that are part of a dramatic texture, and therefore I like the scenes to be active. I wanna follow the story and that means you lean on the actors, and so I'm used to what I would call untrained singing. If there had been anybody in the film, if any of the leading roles had been cast with a professional capital S Singer, then it would have been out of balance and I think it would not have worked so well. But they're merely actors who are musical, all of them - with the exception of Laura Michelle who really you know has had a career on the stage here as a singer. But even she tamped down her voice and she has very little to sing in the movie, but if she'd had any big aria then it would have required that everybody else either come up to her or go down in terms of the quality of the singing, of the professionality, the sheen. You can tell a professional singer from a non-professional singer. So they're all of a quality and... that's why I think it works so well.

Do you think Sweeney Todd today, about insanity and cruelty and man's inhumanity to man speaks more to the time we're in now, with Bush and Cheney and the war than it did back in the 70s?

Stephen Sondheim: I hate to tell you, but I've never thought of Sweeney Todd as anything but a sort of horror tale. It is a grand-guignol, I never thought of it as being - yes, it is about revenge and we can talk about how it's, 'cause I believe that revenge is basic to the make-up of every human being, and - we could talk about that. But it's never meant to have anything. Christopher Bond's play had a certain social context. The upper classes spoke in a kind of blank verse and the lower classes spoke in regular demotic East End English. But it's only been for my money, never had a, for how [Printon] had a social context - not for me. For me, it's strictly a movie about revenge and blood and suspense and tension. And that's not modesty - I just don't think of it as having any relevance except as a really - I hate this word - fun story. It's a story that's really fun to tell and to see - I, it's just a great story. It's a wonderful story. And that's why it's been in existence for 150 years.

So assuming the movie does very well at the box office, do you think there's any chance that any of your, your other musicals that haven't been turned into movies? Like maybe Into the Woods?

Stephen Sondheim: Well there's a move afoot to make Follies into a movie. Whether it happens or not, but it's, it's a real move afoot. And um no, I have no idea. You know, it isn't so much, oh look, that musical worked - let's do another of his musicals or anybody. It's if a story lends itself to it. Of course there are gonna be people, if this movie is successful and, and Hairspray is a successful musical, then sure, people are gonna say, "Hey let's find a musical." Well, that's not the way to go about it. It's, is that story worth telling? I'm talking about stage musicals. It's, is that story worth - not only worth telling but can it be done on the screen? And be in some way, some way enhanced by being on the screen? Or suffer a sea-change, so that it becomes another kind of animal, because what I, one of the things I really like about this movie is I call it a movie based on the stage musical. It's not just a film of Sweeney Todd, the stage musical. This is an actual movie, and taking the elements of the stage musical and making them into a movie. Sure. Then, if, if this movie is successful, then I hope somebody will find a piece and I, I would be delighted if it was one of mine, that would make a musical. The people who wanna make Follies have a real take on how to make it into a movie.

Is that [Tad Matthews]?

Stephen Sondheim: Mmm hmm.

Do you feel today that musical theatre is in good shape or bad shape?

Stephen Sondheim: Well the commercial theatre is in terrible, terrible shape in terms of freshness and invention. It's all corporate and it's, yeah it's, it's pretty boring - it's pretty dull. But there's a lot of stuff that's interesting that's going on off Broadway and in regional theatre. There are plenty of young composers and lyricists who really care because I do a sort of teaching and judging of musicals fairly often - well that's an exaggeration, 2 or 3 times a year - and, I'm surprised at the number of people under the age of 40 who really wanna write musicals. I would think they'd all wanna write rock and pop, but they love musicals. And there's a great deal of invention; it's just how they're gonna make a living is a whole other matter, because musicals are so expensive, you know, there's the obviousness and you all know this. Musicals are so expensive to put on the stage that you have to have the backing of a corporate, you have to have Universal Studios or Disney or somebody to put in the money. When I grew up, a producer would go to a room full of people like here and raise money. I would play the score and then get a $1000 from you and a $1000 from her, and you'd eventually get your show on. Can't do that. You'd need a million people now.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

Steven Sondheim: Our final rewrite of the show formerly known as Wise Guys, also known as Bounce. We'll do that in the fall, at the Public Theatre. And, meanwhile I'm nibbling at a couple of things with John, John Wyman and James Lebron. And writing a book.

Sweeney Todd hits theaters on December 21.