Sweeney Todd Music and Songs

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

27 in. x 40 in.

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"The music is so important," says Zanuck. "The story is being told through the singing. We were determined that every cast member use his or her own voice. Everybody sings themselves."

And yet apart from Laura Michelle Kelly, who plays the Beggar Woman, not one member of the "Sweeney Todd" cast was a professional singer.

"Stephen Sondheim writes the most complicated music in the history of the musical theatre, so for these performers it's like a mountain climber climbing Mount Everest without oxygen and without Sherpas," explains John Logan.

To give all the actors something to rehearse to, music producer Mike Higham, who had previously worked with Burton on "Corpse Bride," created a version of the score without any singing.

"To be able to hear the various layers, the string section, the horns, to hear them almost isolated, was a real eye-opener," remembers Depp who laid down most of his songs as demos in Los Angeles before recording them again in London. "I didn't realize it was that complicated. Even when I saw it on stage, it didn't seem that complicated to me, or listening to the CD. But when you hear it without the vocals, there are these really incredibly dissonant chords."

"When the harmonies happen, they're so beautiful because it sounds so unlikely," says Bonham Carter. "But what I love is that there's always an emotional sense. I've got `Wait,' which is a lovely lullaby. It seems rather simple, but underneath it's horrible. The piano sounds so disturbed but that, of course, is the character of Sweeney's state of mind. A lot of themes and the unease and the fact it never resolves itself is a reflection of Sweeney's mind, heart and emotional landscape."

The music was recorded over a four-day period at London's Air Studios and the 64-piece orchestra assembled for the film was the largest orchestra ever to have played Sondheim's score. "We added 30 violins, some more horns, a tuba, just to give it a bigger, fatter, wider sound," Higham explains. "This is definitely its own unique thing."

The recording sessions were overseen by Stephen Sondheim and conducted by his musical supervisor Paul Gemignani. "To sit there with Tim on one side and Stephen Sondheim on the other was a fascinating experience for all of us," remembers Zanuck. "This was his arena because he can hear a flute that's slightly off, the same way that Tim can see out of the corner of his eye an extra one hundred yards away down the street."

Once the score was laid down, the songs were next. But before any of the tracks could be recorded, the cast was required to rehearse for Sondheim who flew into London for a few days to hear them. "That was really nerve-wracking," recalls Bonham Carter. "I'd been cast by him, then I had to sing for him. But thankfully, he was fine."

Adds Timothy Spall, "I can sing, but I'm not a singer. To have to sing in front of him was a bit like doing `Hamlet' in front of Shakespeare, really."

Though Sondheim was naturally concerned about the musical adaptation, he was just as focused on the performers themselves. He explains, "I prefer actors who sing over singers who act. That doesn't always do the music good, but it does keep the story going and that's what I believe is important."

The songs were recorded over a period of six weeks throughout November and December 2006 at Air Studios and Eden Studios, London. "I did the majority of songs in demo form in the studio in Los Angeles," Depp explains, "then came to London and re-recorded them with the orchestra music. The process felt oddly natural to me, music being my first love and all."

It was Bonham Carter, however, who had not only the most songs to sing, but arguably the most complicated ones too. Her character's signature song, "The Worst Pies in London," required her not only to sing but to make an entire pie from scratch while doing it. "It's a brilliant song," she notes. "Sondheim did write it as a bravura piece for the actor. It's very complicated. It's incredibly fast and it's really brilliant at setting up her character because it sort of captures her as somebody who just goes off her tangents, is all over the place, frenetic, it just speaks to how she thinks. But equally, it gets over the fact that she's running a pie shop, it's not doing any good business and she's down on her luck. And she makes a pie at the same time as singing all this, so it's quite hard work."

Bonham Carter even took lessons in pie making from a period pie maker, and the movements of her character making the pie had to be factored into the recording sessions. "In film, when you do anything, you have to do it exactly the same because of continuity," she continues. "You have to do every single thing on the same lyric. I think I've sung that song so many times now, probably nearing 500 times, factoring in when I started singing it, the auditioning, and then recording it and making the different choices."

With the story of "Sweeney Todd" told mainly through music and lyrics as opposed to dialogue, the recording sessions became more than just about the cast getting the songs musically correct. Because the actors would be singing to their pre-recorded tracks on set, they had to find their performance in the recording booth and commit to it there and then, rather than months later during filming. "It's a very different discipline," says Depp. "The second you laid down the song you made your choices, you committed months in advance. At the same time, you've got to match yourself to it on set, but make it bigger, make it better."

Principal photography began on February 5, 2007 at Pinewood Studios in England, where Burton had previously filmed both "Batman" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." On set, the cast was required to lip-synch to the playback of the songs, a difficult enough discipline even for professional singers. "You've got to act it as if it's new and yet you are obeying something you've done in the past," Bonham Carter reveals. "Don't look as if you're remembering, illustrating or demonstrating something - you've got to be in the moment or try and do something to keep it alive. In some ways, I thought I wanted to do it live, but the sound wouldn't be as good."

"Watching Helena and Johnny, I'm amazed," says Laura Michelle Kelly, a professional stage singer making her movie debut in "Sweeney Todd." "I wouldn't have imagined that it was the first time they'd had to sing in public view. Everyone was so confident. It helps to be able to express a lyric as opposed to singing it with no meaning and they've taken to it like ducks to water. Most people find Sondheim the hardest thing to sing, what with the tempos and the changes and the lyrical melodies; all of them are difficult. Some people try for years to do what they're doing just naturally. I learned a lot watching them."

For the film, Burton was determined to remove anything that smacked of being too "Broadway" in terms of the orchestration or the acting. "On Broadway you're sitting in an audience and a song ends with a ta-da, cue for applause, and you don't want to do that in a movie," he insists. "On one level you say you're doing a silent movie so there's a certain amount of acting style that you might say is a bit broad, but at the same time you try and cut out completely any Broadway kind of singing, although there are a couple of moments. So it was a weird dynamic to find. Being broad like you might be in a silent movie or an old horror movie without being Broadway."

"This is not a recording of a Broadway show, this is a movie," says Logan. "Tim has been hyper-conscious of anything that smacks of being too emotive, too presentational, too `cute' in terms of the actors over-performing or playing to the back balcony, because there's a certain amount of scope to the score that could allow a performer to overact, to play too large; it's a very large story with very sweeping emotions and full-bodied music. Tim has been wonderful about keeping it real, keeping it honest and making sure these are real people going through this terribly difficult story and not shying away from the really harrowing emotions. As a theater fan and a movie fan, I think he's doing the perfect thing, saying, `We respect the stage play, we love the stage play, it will always be there in our hearts, but this has to be first and foremost a work of cinema.'"

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