Thanks a lot, Hollywood.

section of Sweeney Todd album cover
From the front of my Original Cast Recording album cover.

One of my favourite plays—certainly my favourite musical—is Sweeney Todd. (Actually, based on the ratio of music to spoken words, it’s not really a musical, it’s an opera.) I’ve seen the play itself, both onstage and on television. We own the original cast soundtrack and a video of the Angela Lansbury production. I proselytize to perplexed friends about how wonderful it is.

It’s surprising in some ways that I love it so much, since I hate horror in general and this is a thriller that slides very close to that edge. But in this case I have no problem at all with the blackness and grimness of the subject matter—a Victorian barber who slaughters his clients and his inamorata who turns them into meat pies for profit, all while plotting revenge for dreadful injustices—and the over the top melodrama with which the story is presented.

I love the very, very black humour, as in this discussion of culinary possibilities, with the wonderful Angela Lansbury: A Little Priest.

One of the things I love most about the play is the music by Stephen Sondheim and the way it contributes to the layered, complex juxtaposition of beauty and horror. Songs like “Pretty Women” and “Johanna” are sweet and lovely, but the story that unfolds in parallel is brutal and horrific. Here’s how the Johanna (Reprise) bit does that in the play. The violence is certainly there, but it’s highly stylized. Realistic throat-cutting is a bit tricky on stage, after all.

So last week I finally got round to watching the movie version from Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter. They did a good job; good production values, good acting, surprisingly (to me) good singing.

But… I should have known better and stuck with the play. Movies are a whole different animal, and not constrained by practical and technical issues in the same way plays are. It’s my own damn fault, I should have remembered that, or at least STOPPED WATCHING once I realized what it was going to be like. But I didn’t.

The important difference, for me, between play and movie? The violence was not, on the whole, stylized.

It was explicit and, sometime literally, in your face. Which for me tips it right over that edge from melodramatic thriller into pure horror. And as I said, I hate horror. YMMV.

Here’s the thing that really pisses me off. The explicit gore has contaminated my relationship to the very thing I love so much. Now every time the tune of “Johanna” slides into my head, my mind flings up images of spouting blood.

Wonderful. Maybe this effect will wear off eventually.

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