Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

Knowing that Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim is a habitual game-player and part-time crossword-puzzle composer helps in some way to explain his work, with its infrastructure of puns and darkly comic literary traps. The same is true of Sondheim's sole motion-picture screenplay credit, shared with one-time gaming partner Anthony Perkins. The 1973 whodunit The Last Of Sheila serves as both a murder mystery and an elaborate puzzle, with visual and verbal clues strewn about more for the viewers' benefit than for the characters'. Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welch play the yacht-guests of movie producer James Coburn, a cruelly puckish type who arranges a game designed to spill all their darkest secrets, including unmasking who killed his lover, Sheila. But after two rounds, someone else is murdered, and Benjamin and Mason spend the rest of the film as dueling detectives, covering up as much as they reveal.

The Last Of Sheila's chief failing lies in its overemphasis on tricky construction, which gets in the way of its lightly bitchy '70s Hollywood exposé. The Sheila DVD release is invaluable because it adds a gossipy commentary track by Benjamin and Cannon, with drop-in comments by Welch (recorded separately). All were A-list actors when they starred in Sheila, and hearing them reminisce about socializing on the set in the south of France provides an open window onto the slick, professional side of '70s show business that Sondheim and Perkins are skewering. It's diverting as nostalgia and as middlebrow drama.

The Last Of Sheila is jovially nasty throughout, but like too many of Sondheim's musicals, it stalls in the second act. Not so Sweeney Todd, the 1979 Broadway hit now available on DVD in its staged-for-PBS 1982 incarnation. George Hearn plays a heartbroken Victorian barber who takes out his rage on London's upper crust, slashing their throats and giving the bodies to Angela Lansbury, who bakes them into meat pies. Sondheim employs a pop-operatic vocal style—think Bugs Bunny's "Rabbit Of Seville"—mixed with a creepy, Bernard Herrmann-influenced orchestral score.

Though Sweeney Todd is a top-drawer musical, it falls short of Sondheim classics like Company, Sunday In The Park With George, and Into The Woods because its metaphors seem less personal. Where other Sondheim works turn history and psychology into keen explorations of adult fears, Sweeney Todd uses a more conventional (albeit macabre) story to critique how capitalism and urban industrialization combine to chew up human beings. Still, Sweeney Todd, like The Last Of Sheila, is essential to understanding Sondheim's personality, which encompasses both a generous spirit and a dark side. When Hearn and Lansbury romp through the song "A Little Priest," imagining how various classes of people might taste, Sondheim lets his latent misanthropy rage.

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