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Thursday, August 17, 2006


The Demon Barber of Pretty Boys

All right. So I expressed, recently, my feelings about Hugh Jackman being cast as Billy Bigelow in a new version of Carousel. I also attempted to explain my reasons for bringing up musical theater. At the risk of alienating any readers to whom musical theater is anathema, I'm talking about the same topic today, so please feel free to stop here if you fall into that category.

I was absolutely appalled this morning to read the news that Johnny Depp is going to be playing Sweeney Todd in a big-screen adaptation of the Sondheim musical, to be directed by Tim Burton.

Now, I am not the type of person who would, under normal circumstances, be appalled to hear any casting news that involved Johnny Depp, as I'm a great admirer of his work and I think that he could probably play just about anything. Just not Sweeney Todd.

I love Sondheim. And Sweeney Todd is my favorite musical. (It's nothing to brag about that I have a favorite musical, I realize, but we'll set that aside for now.) I've loved the show since I was a kid. I've seen several live productions, I've watched the Angela Lansbury/George Hearn PBS version a number of times over the years and I've listened to Len Cariou and co. enough times on the original cast recording to have it fairly well memorized.

Sweeney Todd is a middle-aged dude. He's had an incredibly tough couple of decades when the show opens and he's looking rough. He is, in short, an ugly motherfucker. Now, you've got make-up, you've got special effects, you've got innovative costume choices, but you are never going to make Johnny Depp into an ugly middle-aged dude. You're just not.

From his first season on 21 Jump Street right on up through today, Mr. Depp is, no matter how you slice it, pretty. He's got that look that you just can't ugly up. Even with buck teeth in Ed Wood; even with his head shaved in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; even with all that pirate shit on him in those awful fucking Disney movies, you cannot cover up Depp's pretty. Can't be done.

This is to say nothing of the fact that he just doesn't look old enough to have a teenaged daughter who's old enough to run off with a sailor after escaping from her lecherous, evil guardian.

This is a continuation of that shittiest of Hollywood traditions. Take Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune. This was a smash Broadway play that starred Kathy Bates as an aging waitress who finds love with a coworker. They go to make a movie of it and they say, "Hmm. We need an actress who an audience can believe has self-esteem issues and isn't used to men falling all over her; someone who looks like she's a bit over-the-hill and hasn't had a good life. Oh! Let's get Michelle Pfeiffer!"

Are movie execs afraid we'll run screaming from the theater if the people on the screen aren't pageant-ready? Yo no entiendo. So, I'm guessing we'll probably seeing Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Lovett. (Actually, since this is Tim Burton, I'm guessing he'll plug Helena Bonham Carter in there. Which probably wouldn't be all that bad, grumble grumble.)

Look, I'm sure that Depp will acquit himself nicely in the part and I'm sure that I'll enjoy it. It's just, it would be nice if the pretty pretties didn't all the time wind up with the nicest plums. Y'know who'd make a good Sweeney Todd? Mel Gibson. He's got the age for it and there's no doubt that he could convincingly play someone who's batshit crazy.

Brian Cox would be my choice, or maybe Brendan Gleeson: I like the idea of Todd as older and bearish. Someone more gaunt--a David Strathairn or a Chris Cooper--would be interesting.

Of course, we don't know if ANY of those cats can sing, so if they wanted to go with a musician, my vote's for Peter Murphy.

I don't generally like musicals, but I LOVE Sweeney Todd. Sondheim is an astute enough composer to keep things consistently interesting, and the dark subject matter does stand in stark contrast to the insipidity that mars most musical theatre for me. Still . . .even Sondheim is guilty of the one great crime of musical theatre for me: the inability, or perhaps refusal, to absorb ANY of the character of the pop music of the last 30 years. Punk, postpunk, hip-hop--and the ways in which those forms absorbed dub and world music, and/or appropriated the cabaret, medicine show, and other vernacular forms that predate both rock and musical theatre--seem to have been ignored entirely. I find it interesting that artists like Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and other artists too numerous to mention have appropriated musical theatre elements, and in so doing, have revolutionized theatrical aesthetic in ways no one in the industry is doing. Or perhaps it's that that no one in the industry has managed to turn it into pay dirt the way the recording industry has managed to do with the mutant branches of the pop family tree.
Also . . .

Are movie execs afraid we'll run screaming from the theater if the people on the screen aren't pageant-ready?

Well, we tolerate a lot of actors who don't seem to have anything going for them other than looks (who shall remain nameless, in case I need to bug them for work down the line). Maybe not "we" like you and me "we", but "we" like whoever keeps the tripe that Hollywood offers us afloat. So the next quesion, after yours, is, "Are they WRONG?"

Oh, and Brenda Blethyn would be the ideal Lovett, though Carter would be an acceptable companion to Depp's Todd.
we don't know if ANY of those cats can sing

Can Depp/Bonham-Carter?
Brenda Blethyn would, I agree, be a good Mrs. Lovett, but most definitely not opposite Depp.

I don't know if Bonham-Carter can sing. I doubt that'll be the primary consideration. If your boyfriend were directing the movie of a fantastic stage show and had the power to hand you one of the great female parts of all time, would you let his ass get away with not giving it to you?

(This is assuming that you're a lady, of course, in this hypothetical. I've seen you both and I know there's nothing the least bit femmy about either of you, so let's enter the world of make-believe for the question.)
what am I wearing in this hypothetical?
Transfered from the comment space on Beige's website, which requires a blogger password so Fuck That Noise. Apologies for redundancies:
This is probably a stupid question, but: Can Depp sing? At all?

I saw a production of Sweeney Todd in Seattle last year and that shit is very operatic and, for lack of a better word, HARD. Like train-your-whole-career-to-sing-it hard. Is this gonna be like Chicago, where they used editing tricks and simplified dance routines to make the marketable marquee stars look like they're qualified to dance on the Broadway stage? 'Cause when I saw that movie in the theater, I'm pretty sure I could hear the sound of scores of more-qualified professional dancers and singers weeping softly into their handkerchiefs in the back row. It was very distracting.

And since it's a Tim Burton movie, is Danny Elfman going to be involved somehow?
Dan Hedaya! Ugly enough, old enough, acting chops galore. Who'd dub the voice? I dunno.... Daltrey, anyone?
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