Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Despite the fact that Hollywood releases only one or two major musicals each year, the genre constantly seems to be at the forefront of critics’ minds. The scarcity of musical offerings is at once a cause for concern (for those wishing the genre was not perpetually on its deathbed) and excitement: they’re still being made, after all! And because so few musicals are produced, those that do make it down the pipeline are often backed by big names and bigger budgets, resulting in crowds and Oscar-baiting spectacle. Along with the Western, the musical is a largely forgotten relic of the bygone studio days that evokes nostalgic reverence among much of a public that constantly hopes for a revival. I recently saw two musicals: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in movie theaters and Spring Awakening, on Broadway. Both struck me as strenuously unorthodox entries in the genre that, while trying to subvert the clich├ęs of the form, sacrifice much of its joy.

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway musical) goes against the cheery musical grain by cloaking itself in darkness and spilling buckets of fire-engine red blood. The plot sees Sweeney (Johnny Depp) seeking vengeance on Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who years earlier kidnapped his wife and daughter and sent him into exile. Along the way, he meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), baker of the “worst pies in London.” Sweeney hones his skills for an eventual confrontation with Turpin as a maniacal barber whose customers, once he has slashed their throats, find their way into said meat pies.
The plot is devious fun, and tailor-made for the quirky Burton, who once again excels at lending an eerie gothic edge to his films. The Victorian London of the film may hew closely to the grimey and depraved version seen in countless other movies and books, but it is an ambience that, for me, never tires. But for a musical to work, the music has to be good. And Sweeney Todd’s music mostly left me cold. This might be symptomatic of the production essentially being an opera: the music is not intended as a flashy diversion from the story, but is rather how the story develops, with few speaking scenes to break it up. Amateurish singers (particularly Bonham-Carter, whose voice is distractingly bad) compound the problem, leading me to appreciate the set design and occasionally successful dark humor and little else.

Spring Awakening flouts Broadway convention with raunch. Adapted by Duncan Sheik from a 1891 German play about burgeoning sexuality amongst repressed teenagers, it features simulated masturbation and sex and fair amounts of exposed young flesh. As with Sweeney Todd, the musical frame momentarily casts this sensual frankness in a shocking light. But modern audiences have undoubtedly seen far lewder content not only in movie theaters and sordid computer downloads, but on their own televisions on daytime soap operas. Spring Awakening does not attempt to be puerile or even titillating. It is a tragedy. But its tragic story of doomed young love has been recycled endlessly. The score is competent though it contains only a handful of great tracks. The formula is stale: there are unrequited crushes; squirmy homosexuals and melodramatically severe, one-dimensional authority figures. Appropriate to the simplistic material are frequently amateurish (if musically talented) actors. By trying too rewrite all the rules, Spring Awakening focuses too much on the flesh at the expense of the heart.

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