A Musical That's a Cut Above

There will be blood this holiday season, and it won't all be spilled in the Texas brush or California's oilfields. Drop for drop, the most gory movie is—improbably—a musical set in industrializing London. "Sweeney Todd," Tim Burton's bleak adaptation of the legendary 1979 Stephen Sondheim show, draws blood during the opening credits and doesn't stop spilling guts until the film's final tableau of a couple in posthumous embrace, sporting his-and-her slit throats. "If you're going to make a movie about a serial-killing barber and cannibalism, you shouldn't soft-pedal it," says Burton, a "Sweeney" fan since he accidentally discovered the show ("The poster looked cool," he says) in his college days. "But I never saw it as being gratuitous. I just wanted it to be in the spirit of those Grand Guignol theater pieces, which were very over-the-top, bloody and melodramatic. That was just part of the story."

Did we mention this is a musical? You might not have figured that out from the "Sweeney Todd" trailers, which feature nary a sung note. That seems like an especially strange choice given that "Sweeney" is practically an opera—a good 75 percent of the film is sung. Then again, neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter has ever warbled a note professionally, so maybe there's a reason for the nonmusical commercials. Burton says he isn't trying to hide anything. "We really can't show 30 seconds of music, because that doesn't do it justice, but it is a musical, and people should know that," says Burton.

Interestingly, no one even asked Depp to audition. "That made me laugh," says Burton. "After years of having to talk everyone into having Johnny, they're, like, oh, sure, let's do an R-rated musical with somebody we don't even know can sing." On the other hand, Bonham Carter competed with several actresses for the role of Mrs. Lovett—even though she is Burton's longtime girlfriend. "I didn't want to make it seem like, oh, I just gave my girlfriend the part," he says. "I put her through the wringer." Burton did plenty of sweating himself. When he showed a rough cut of the movie to Sondheim about a month ago in London, Burton says he left the room and went to a pub. "I didn't want to be there," he says. "I don't think I've ever been so nervous showing anybody anything ever. I was freaking out." Seems like a small price to pay to direct a movie that's to die for.

A Musical That's a Cut Above | Culture