I just returned home from the third New York screening of Tim Burton’s film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which opens four days before Christmas. The screening was held for the group that Chris Boneau, the publicist, referred to as “the Broadway community,” which includes drama critics (John Simon was sitting next to me). It was held at one of the big 42nd Street movie houses, and nearly every seat was full.
I brought along Paul Moravec, with whom I’m collaborating on The Letter. Needless to say, Paul isn’t exactly a member of the Broadway community, but he believes, like me, that Sweeney Todd is the great American opera. Moreover, it’s one of the works that inspired us to write The Letter. Mrs. T being in Connecticut for the week, I decided that Paul was an appropriate stand-in.
Stephen Sondheim came to the theater to introduce the film, looking like a cat who’d just dined on canary under glass. “For those of you who know the show…forget it,” he said. “This is not a film of a musical, it’s a movie based on a musical.” Then the lights went down and the blood began to flow–or, rather, spurt.
As a member of the working press, I saw tonight’s screening under embargo, so I can’t say anything specific about Sweeney Todd until it opens in selected cities on December 21. (It opens wide on January 11.) What I can say is that it is–without exception, and by a considerable margin–the best film ever to have been made from a Broadway musical. The only other one to which it can possibly be compared is Bob Fosse’s 1972 screen version of Cabaret, and Sweeney is, aside from everything else, a better show. (It is, in my opinion, the best musical to have opened on Broadway since the end of World War II.) I also think it might actually do well at the box office, not to mention the next Oscar night.
Halfway throught he film, in the brief pause between “Epiphany” and “A Little Priest,” I leaned over to Paul and whispered, “This is the mark we have to hit.” He nodded.
On the street afterward, I said, “Inspiring, huh?”
Paul grinned. “The work waits…and I’m full of joy,” he replied. Then he disappeared into the night.
UPDATE: A friend writes:
Saying it’s the best film ever to be adapted from a Broadway musical feels like faint praise, since almost all these adaptations fail on the musical level (Chicago, One Touch of Venus), on the filmic level (My Fair Lady, West Side Story), or on just about every level (Mame, Phantom of the Opera).
True–as far as it goes. Alas, I can say no more!