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Warner Home Video presents
Sweeney Todd—The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1982)

Sweeney Todd: For what's the sound of the world out there?
Mrs. Lovett: What Mr. Todd, what Mr. Todd, what is that sound?
Sweeney Todd: Those crunching noises pervading the air.
Mrs. Lovett: Yes Mr. Todd, yes Mr. Todd, yes all around.
Sweeney Todd: It's man devouring man, my dear—
Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett: And who are we to deny it in here?

- George Hearn, Angela Lansbury (from the song A Little Priest)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: May 11, 2004

Stars: Angela Lansbury, George Hearn
Other Stars: Cris Groenendaal, Sara Woods, Edmund Lyndeck, Calvin Remsberg, Betty Joslyn, Ken Jennings
Director: Harold Prince, Terry Hughes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (stage violence, use of weaponry, thematic elements)
Run Time: 02h:20m:15s
Release Date: April 20, 2004
UPC: 053939675023
Genre: musical


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A+A-A D-

DVD Review

I first saw Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's brilliant musical thriller, during its original Broadway run in 1979, and it immediately consumed me like no other show ever had. Back then, I was an impressionable high school junior, and the intricate plot, sinister mood, wickedly black humor, and melodic, almost operatic score dazzled my adolescent sensibilities. My passion for Sweeney knew no bounds—I dragged family members and friends to the show, bought the cast album, and memorized the lyrics. I never tired of watching Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou craft their Tony Award-winning roles, and when the musical embarked on a national tour (with George Hearn replacing Cariou), I saw it again—for a fifth and final time—in Chicago. Can you say obsession?

So imagine my ghoulish glee when Warner announced it was releasing Sweeney Todd—The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on DVD. Filmed before a live audience in 1982, the show makes a seamless transition to the small screen. Director Terry Hughes maintains the theatrical flavor of Harold Prince's original production, but isn't afraid to let his camera roam the stage. As a result, the musical becomes more intimate, the tension more taut, and the power of the unforgettable performances of Lansbury and Hearn intensifies. Although the lens can't quite capture the set's massive scope, the seedy atmosphere of 1846 London still permeates the action and highlights the social themes that add so much depth and texture to the show.

"Sweeney Todd will get you if you don't watch out" was a popular cautionary phrase back in 19th century England, warning citizens that the pervasive face of evil is often cleverly masked, and lurks where one least expects it. The demon barber's twisted legend has been shaped and molded ever since, and Hugh Wheeler's riveting adaptation (based on a play by Christopher Bond) spices it up with several clever surprises. The musical begins with Todd's return to London, fifteen years after he was sentenced to a British penal colony on a trumped up charge. A flashback chronicles how the "naïve" barber was banished by the corrupt and lascivious Judge Turpin, who coveted (and later raped) Todd's beautiful wife, Lucy. After the distraught Lucy poisons herself, the unscrupulous judge adopts Todd's young child Johanna as his ward, and now, years later, intends to marry her.

Todd (Hearn) can barely contain his rage, and ceaselessly plots revenge. He reopens his "tonsorial parlor" atop a meat pie shop owned by the admiring Nellie Lovett (Lansbury), and soon the two form a macabre yet enterprising partnership—Todd exacts vengeance on mankind through random acts of butchery, while Nellie boosts her faltering business by carving up the remains of his victims and stuffing them into her…well, you get the idea.

Grisly subject matter for a musical, but Sweeney Todd is far from the average Broadway entertainment. In fact, the show more closely resembles a tragic opera, as twists of fate conspire against the characters, who vent their angst and sorrow in soaring musical soliloquies and duets. Themes of social injustice, abuse of power, and the quite literal metaphor of man devouring man add—pardon the pun—meat to Sweeney Todd, making the show far more than the simple "musical thriller" it professes to be.

Sondheim deserves tremendous credit for sculpting the hackneyed legend into an enduring masterpiece. His score runs the musical gamut, containing soulful ballads (Not While I'm Around), passionate elegies (There Was a Barber and His Wife), light arias (Green Finch and Linnet Bird), bouncy ditties (By the Sea), and complex fugues (Kiss Me, Johanna) featuring breathtaking harmonies. There's even a bona fide Broadway classic among the group—the melodic, sweeping Pretty Women. But while Sondheim's music thrills the senses, the genius of Sweeney Todd lies in its lyrics, and the composer outdoes himself with poetic imagery, devastating double entendres, tongue-twisting patter, and a deceptive simplicity that crystallizes the show's visceral emotions and underlying themes. (A single word—"naïve"—resonates long after the final curtain falls.) The musical's operatic structure also forces Sondheim to convey substantial chunks of plot through his songs, but his wit and sensitivity make such an arduous job seem effortless. Sweeney Todd may be thick with story, but its deep well of emotion and magnificent music ultimately eclipse the potent tale.

Of course, it would have been easy for Sweeney Todd to become bogged down by its darker elements, but Sondheim's score and the outstanding performances of Lansbury and Hearn add a devilishly light (and often hilarious) touch to the gruesome proceedings. Lansbury especially relishes the delicious black humor, and her portrayal of the earthy, ditzy, romantic, and cunning Mrs. Lovett is arguably her finest in a career spanning sixty years. Although a musical veteran, Lansbury never before tackled such an intricate and demanding score, yet she sails through its rigors with ease, and possesses a lovely purity of tone that will surprise those unfamiliar with her Broadway heritage.

As for Hearn—well, to say I've always been a champion of Len Cariou's original characterization of Todd is an understatement, but on this viewing Hearn won me over with his tour-de-force performance. More wild and manic than Cariou, Hearn nicely channels Todd's fury and disgust with humanity, but also exhibits flashes of Todd's inner torment and the warm-hearted soul he used to possess before London's cannibalistic culture devoured him. The supporting cast excels as well, especially Cris Groenendaal as the heroic sailor Anthony, Edmund Lyndeck as Judge Turpin, and Ken Jennings as the simple-minded Toby (all veterans of the original Broadway production). At times, Betsy Joslyn is a bit shrill as Johanna, but aptly embodies the feather-brained ingénue.

Stephen Sondheim has penned a gallery of classic musicals, but for me, Sweeney Todd is his crowning achievement. This amazing production, preserved for posterity on DVD, evokes all the excitement and exhilaration of seeing the show on Broadway, and effectively renewed my dormant obsession with this musical masterwork. I highly recommend it, but be forewarned... Sweeney Todd will get you, too, if you don't watch out.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Sweeney Todd was one of the last television productions shot on archaic two-inch videotape, but Warner has painstakingly produced an exceptionally clear transfer, filled with bright colors, fine detail, and solid contrast. Long shots occasionally possess a slight fuzziness, but close-ups are all razor sharp, and the transfer's vibrancy nicely offsets the musical's dark setting and grisly subject matter. When done properly, video transfers can be a thing of beauty, and Sweeney Todd is a prime example. The production looks like it was taped last week, not 22 years ago.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The impressive DD 5.1 audio was remastered from the original 24 track masters, and provides crystal clear sound with subtle surround effects. Levels are naturally high, so only moderate volume is required for top-notch fidelity. Distortion, however, is totally absent, even during the most intricate and robust musical numbers. At times, the multi-part harmonies and simultaneous singing make comprehending the lyrics nearly impossible, but such is the nature of Sweeney Todd, and the audio transfer is not to blame. Atmospheric effects (especially the jarring, piercing whistle) enjoy marvelous clarity, as do the principal vocals, which sound almost as good as the original cast recording.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Sadly, the disc contains no extras—probably due to the show's length and high-quality transfer. Too bad, though, there wasn't enough room to squeeze in a commentary featuring Sondheim, Lansbury, and Hearn. Now that would be something worth listening to.

Extras Grade: D-

 

Final Comments

Pop a few pot pies in the oven and revel in the sheer brilliance of Sweeney Todd. Angela Lansbury and George Hearn feast upon Stephen Sondheim's succulent musical thriller, and Warner provides a delectably rich transfer sure to satisfy the show's legion of fans. Broadway theatre just doesn't get any better than this. Bon appétit!

 


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