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'Sweeney Todd': A Musical on the Cutting Edge

He sings, he slashes -- and did we mention he sings? Johnny Depp puts his neck on the line in Tim Burton's gruesome movie adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim favorite

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Johnny Depp | JOHNNY DEPP ON SWEENEY TODD ''How many chances do you get at a musical about a serial killer?''
Image credit: Peter Mountain
JOHNNY DEPP ON SWEENEY TODD ''How many chances do you get at a musical about a serial killer?''

What sort of gift would you bring Johnny Depp, if he were to invite you to his home in the south of France? Six years ago, his director pal Tim Burton turned up with an original cast recording of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. ''I thought, That's weird,'' says Depp. ''I wonder why he gave me that.'' Broadway zealots have long been obsessed with the show, which won a Tony for Best Musical in 1979. But like most of the general public, Depp is not a Broadway zealot. He never got around to discussing the music with Burton. Still, he came to admire the sweet-and-sour mix of harmony and dissonance in Stephen Sondheim's intricate songs. ''I wouldn't say it's something I would listen to every day, necessarily,'' he admits. ''It's quite large and operatic. I've never been a big-musical sort of guy.''

Neither has Burton, actually. The director can't stand most burst-into-song movie-musical conventions. But he has always loved the heightened, melodramatic mien of Sweeney, in which a kindly man becomes a crazed serial killer. And he's managed to enlist Depp in creating a remarkably faithful film adaptation in which most of the action unfolds in song, pulling it off with something close to carte blanche from key DreamWorks and Warner execs.

It's mid-October, and Burton is holed up in a postproduction facility in Manhattan, where he has until mid-November to deliver a final copy of the movie. He says this is the first time he hasn't had to submit a film to the test-screening process (although there have been screenings for marketing purposes). ''The studio people realize that the movie is what it is,'' he says. Besides, it's made up of interlocking musical sequences. ''It's not like there's other stuff to cut into it to replace anything.''

An early look at a version with only a rough sound mix confirms some expectations — the film is dark, desaturated, and visually stunning — and yields some revelations: First, Johnny Depp can actually sing, and second,the movie's got more spurting blood than a season's worth of E.R. Like the show, Sweeney Todd spins a gruesome tale of vengeance in 19th-century London. Unlike other, more whimsical characters in the Depp-Burton canon, including sad sack Edward Scissorhands and nutty candyman Willy Wonka, this guy is hard as a cobblestone: a heedless, psychopathic murderer. Depp's Todd starts slitting the throats of innocent customers as an expression of rage after a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) steals away his wife and daughter. (He also squares off against a nasty rival barber, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as Borat.) ''That was always the difficulty,'' Depp says, ''taking a character like that and attempting to make people feel for him, at the same time that he's slashing people up. Not easy.''

But easier, perhaps, than Helena Bonham Carter's job in playing Mrs. Lovett, Todd's ghoulish partner in crime. Desperate to be part of Todd's life and to exorcise his wife's ghost, she becomes his business associate, grinding victims into meat pies and selling them to an unsuspecting public. ''It's so sick,'' she says of the subplot, wondering about the reaction. ''I hope we get away with it.''

NEXT PAGE: ''I just didn't see the character developing with me doing scales in front of a piano and a vocal teacher going, 'No, no — bring it up from the bollocks'''

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