Thursday, December 27, 2007

Squeamy Todd. Read, for some clarification on Me.

OK, no, I haven't seen it yet. I am seeing it tonight after a much-anticipated half-priced meal at Grendel's Den with Anthony. Further updates will certainly follow. I have to say, I've been kind of obsessing about it. The movie, not the food, though they do make a mean pesto. I wish I could be unadulteredly excited about the film, but instead I feel a nervousness more akin to the first day of work, rather than in anticipation of nightmares about Johnny Depp dressed as a throat-slitting cosmologist.

Why so glum?, you might ask, and indeed, many of you have. Johnny Depp, pinstripes, Sondheim, gritty, dirty, Burton-izedly accurate London .... and Sondheim signed off on it, so what could be amiss? Let it be observed that based on the previous sentences, I do see the positives inherent in this artistic collaboration. And it isn't the cutting that bothers me -- I myself have been known to streamline material to help it tell a story -- and I trust Burton to make moviemusical choices that I can stand behind (there's always the obligatory 'this scene usually takes palce in a room but let's move it to the street). In other words, I trust Sondheim as an orchestral adaptor and Burton as a director ....

But I can't help but feel that this movie is a step backward for the art of American opera. I was able to articulate my grievance as soon as I read this sentence from A.O. Scott's New York Times review: "Mr. Depp’s singing voice is harsh and thin, but amazingly forceful. He brings the unpolished urgency of rock ’n’ roll to an idiom accustomed to more refinement, and in doing so awakens the violence of Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics and melodies." It's not the first part of that second sentence that I have trouble with; it's the second. Sweeney Todd has been produced by some of the top opera companies in the country and it is on baritone Bryn Terfel's list of his top 3 favorite roles. Now, I hope Mr. Scott will forgive me if I am wrong, but I am not sure that he has listened in depth to Len Cariou's performance, or to Bryn Terfel's performance, or even to Michael Cerveris's performance, and certainly not to the most powerful performance I've ever heard, done by former-Javert and amazingly terrifying Todd Alan Johnson in 2005.

So, to use a melodramtic phrase, how dare he say that an untrained "rock 'n roll" voice "awakens the violence" in Sondheim's music? This is what most people want to think, and now the most-read newspaper in the world has confirmed it. Great. Just because Mr. Depp is choking on his own uvula and screaming his guts out, does not mean that his singing is more emotionally-charged or even more violent than a well-trained, intelligent voice full of color, technique, and, yes, ANGER. It can be done, folks. Who's seen Wagner? Who has seen fucking Sondheim (who listened to Britten who listened to Wagner, but that's beside the point).

And now, everyone who is simply afraid of opera and opera singers, and even what I like to call helden-musical theatre, will sit content, knowing that the "rock 'n roll" voices of the day, the NON voices of the likes of Mrs. Helen Bonham Carter Burton have been able to take a work of art out of someone else's medium and "shake the dust off of it" or "lighten it up" or "tell it like it is", and that makes me ANGRY.

Come on, people. It's not a medeival trope. It's Sweeney Todd. It doesn't need that much dusting off. I'm all for updates, for emotional truths, for beautiful art direction. But Sweeney Todd is an American opera, or at least one of our best American musicals. Now American cinema has dressed it up and funded it really well. Great, right? NOT GREAT. Because Burton and, dare I say it, Sondheim himself, have robbed Sweeney Todd of one of its defining characteristics. It's now a "rock opera" with Crooners instead of Singes. It's Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, or Diana Ruskin, these people are better than Helena Bonham Carter. I know that Sondheim usually picks actors who are actors first and singers second, but come on .... it's a little bit of a stretch, and it smells like Money. And if there's one thing Sondheim doesn't need more of, it's probably that.

So, we've taken Sweeney and changed it into something where music matters less than almost everything else. And that hurts my sensibilities, I'm sorry to say, and I'm objecting on principle. Because this Sweeney is indeed accessible, because this Sweeney is bloody and devoid of all the beautiful and challenging restrictions of the theatre, the vast majority of Americans will probably pick this one when they think Sweeney. It's exciting and beautiful, but it's not quite Sweeney ... the Sweeney that already exists and IS violent and IS moving. Worse than bad community theatre, this one is so in the public eye that I can't help but see it as a kind of big Wal-Mart blocking eight lovely little country stores right behind it. I fear it will breed more anti-opera, anti-musical theatre, and maybe even anti-intellectualism in our already spoonfed culture.

Call me insecure and jealous if you want. It's happened before. And I might enjoy the movie tonight, as a movie. But it's not an opera. And I want my opera back, because I want America to hear it.


Wiry said...

Yes, I know I could just tell you this in person, and I'm sure we'll have plenty more to talk about after tonight and after I finish my blog on Sweeney, but a quick word.

I agree completely that part of the reason the Sweeney movie was done the way it was is because people think they don't want to hear opera. Opera has the unfair rep of being utterly inaccessible, which, in my experience, is like many stereotypes - a grain of truth puffed up into a bag of salty prejudice. This isn't anything new - the advent of rock and roll made mainstream the notion that "good" i.e. well-trained, correct singing is not essential for music.

However, for the most part, musicals have been a bastion of quality singing (and acting). Musicals and jazz (is it any wonder so many jazz standards are from forgotten musicals?). But, this has changed in recent years. My dad has been dragging me to the tourist trap, Ellen's Stardust Diner, for years now. But the recent onset of the Wicked asthetic has turned the All That Jazz-crooners into Menzelian belters. Don't get me wrong, I like me a belt, but we're talking ear-splitting shrieks. It's so rare anymore that one finds a song were lyrics or subtlety are key, as opposed to ham-handed bellowing. Suddenly, subpar singing has become the accessible norm - the novelty elements (dance-ability, say... half the people on the radio aren't really singing) being more key than voice.

Anyway. The good news is that movies always cause an upswing in the source material's sales. So, much like books getting snapped up upon the release of its movie, I imagine many will be picking up the original and revival albums and hearing not only the cut songs, but the original singers as well. And these are people who otherwise would not have heard the original Sweeney. And, I hate to say it, but they might very well prefer the Burton version vocally. It's a comfort level thing - making a movie with meh singers isn't just about getting good actors, it's also about drawing in an audience who won't be intimidated. For, if they got someone who could sing Sweeney as it really ought to be sung, it's likely fewer people would see the movie (combining the lack of star factor with the good-singing phobia) - and then, nobody would be going back to the stage versions at all. The main issue to me seems more one of general public taste, and the question is how to render it more sophisticated while combatting the inevitable anti-intellectual backlash.

S0PHIE8 said...

Okay. I saw it, and I don't really feel like fighting, so I will point out this instead:

The previews before Sweeney Todd, at least in Portland ME: 1) Scary Jessica Alba movie about getting donor eyes that see dead people. 2) Scary teenage movie about college kids messing in ancient ruins and getting demons under their skin. 3) Mamma Mia.... One of these things is not like the other....

So clearly, this movie is trying to bridge a gap that shouldn't be built over, at least not in my mind.

Nate said...

This is the kind of argument that a liberal arts student always makes-- I am guilty of it a hojillion times over and over again, albeit about different stories in different mediums.

I just wanted to say that this was one of the more impassioned and eloquent statements of the argument that I've read in a long time, and I want to congratulate you for it.

You know, from out here in left field.