Reflections on Sweeney Todd

November 9, 2007

I’m having one of those moments that invites multiple framings, as we would say in a lit theory class. What brought this on? Well, a lot of things, but I’ll start with: T-Fap reminded me this morning that there is a movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd coming out soon. The last time we talked about this, it was far enough out that there was no trailer yet, but now there is so I watched it:

What do I think about this trailer? It’s complicated, in part because I’m not really sure what side of my <underrealized, overdetermined> aestethic sense I should be responding with. The side of me that wants this musical to have a compelling, visually exciting version of this musical available to wide audiences is all about this version. The side of me that has, I like to think, a somewhat deeper respect for and understanding of the piece of art that is Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd than most normal people do, is really bummed that they are apparently letting Mr. Depp do his own singing. Feeling ambivalent about this is a logical response; I think both opinions are fairly justifiable. But I can’t quite let it go, because for this moment, somehow it seems that how I feel about this movie is important to understanding how I feel about my so-called creative life. Probably the fact that I just felt the need to use the adjective so-called says a lot right there. But onward.

Me and Sweeney Todd go way back, about as far back as I go with any musical. You see, my dad is a Sondheim fanatic. Almost as soon as my siblings and I were old enough to know what a musical was, he was trying to get us hooked too. My mom told us to be sure and clap for Tinkerbell, my dad was sitting us down with bootlegged videotapes of the London production of ST. Admittedly, it was a tough sell (a throat-slitting barber, cannibalism, incest), not to mention over our heads, but he kept at it, and one day, it took. I too became obsessed with Sondheim, and although I started with the lower key Sunday in the Park With George, I eventually made it to ST and I was totally hooked. I can’t begin to guess how many AA batteries I wore out listening to the cast recording on my walkman on the bus to and from school. I wore out a cassette of one of the cast recording’s itself. I learned all the words, all the tunes, all the character motifs, all the times the singers were singing dissonant half steps. I tried not to get caught in the hallways singing about razor blades dripping blood under my breath, because I knew this kind of obsession looks a little weird on a 13 year old girl. But teenagers are easily obsessed and have a lot of spare emotional capacity to involve themselves with the inner lives of twisted characters. Plus, it’s fabulous stuff from both a music and lyrics point of view. Also, teenagers want to please/impress their parents, at least this one did. So, watching or listening to this musical is a kind of ritual for me in addition to being a cultural experience. I have Ideas about what it is and what it isn’t, and how it should be done.

This phase passed, like most of them, and although I get the occasional craving for a hit of ST, I don’t think about it all that often. But then I watched that trailer, and part of me is just cringing. Primarily because Johnny Depp just doesn’t have the voice, not even close. This is material that demands an operatic baritone, and the brief passage of singing in the trailer indicates that rather than going for the voice double they’ve decided to let JD do a mix of talk-singing and studio-enhanced pop stylings. So unfortunate. While this was passable in Madonna’s Evita, which was already in a pop idiom, this is just not going to fly with ST. Maybe this won’t bug first time viewers, but to me it’s pretty much a dealbreaker.

At least, to a certain part of me. The other part says, but there is so much to love! Tim Burton directing, Johnny Depp as Sweeney, Alan Rickman as the judge, Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, Borat as Pirelli! At the level of concept, it’s about as brilliant and interesting as it gets, and it’s an incredible story no matter. At the same time as I’m thinking, oh no, Johnny Depp is all wrong for this, I’m also incredibly pumped that this version is going to exist. Just watching the trailer makes me sure that there are compelling connections, compelling collisions of imaginations sure to come out of this. For example, how exciting to read ST as a twisted coda to Edward Scissorhands? JD’s make-up certainly seems to call that kind of reading to the front, and what a fascinating one it will be. At least it could be, because with this kind of cast, it’s pretty clear that they are going for something. It might come out badly, but they are doing something interesting.

This kind of thinking has brought me, in a round about way, back to something I’ve been thinking a lot about, which is, what is the place for experimental poetics in my own writing practice, such as it is. Big jump, but let me explain. There’s a lot of reasons to be interested in this version of ST, at the same time as there’s a lot of reasons to think it will be bad. Is it an experiment we’re interested in no matter what the outcome, or is it an attempt at… I don’t know how to phrase this without sounding stupid, but maybe you know what I mean… making good art, and doing so by following some sort of general rules. I’m really in the thick of trying to decide which side of this equation I’m trying to work. Of course every writer is trying to do both things at once to some degree, but depending on where you practice or who you practice in community with, they can start to seem like very different goals. In experiment land, we’re all interested in what everyone’s doing, pretty much just because we are doing it. At some point, we’ll decide what we’re going to keep and love and publish, but that’s secondary to being able to answer the question, what are you doing now and how are you trying to do it. In the other camp (what’s a name for this camp? normal? normative? the real world?), we’re workshopping away to make things better. “Better” is an open question but not too open–even when we disagree on what they are, we buy into the idea of a set of standards that are more or less trustworthy guides. We spend a lot of time on individual pieces and we hope to publish them in places where people of repute also publish and gradually get some of that repute for ourselves.

It’s not a new question by any means, but it’s one that I feel rather acutely in the context of an MFA program. Who to believe, who to follow, how much to think about your writing in terms of a career… who to please, because I still haven’t quite gotten over that phase yet. Although I’m getting closer I like to think.

And happily, as is true for most of the questions I ask, I don’t really have to decide. I’m kind of nostalgic for the days when I could say I was of one mind on whether or not I liked a particular version of ST, but at this point that would mean shutting down one mind, and that’s not feeling too productive either. Plus, it’s just a movie, right?

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