21 November 2007

He'd seen how civilized men behaved...

I have a weakness, as I remarked to a friend the other evening, for stories of redemption and revenge. I'll take either any day, and both together given a choice.

Both? Well, yes. revenge may be a dish best served cold, but it's rarely filling. In the end, revenge is empty, as Inigo Montoya realised having finally slain the six-fingered man - redemption beats it hands down. Think of Orestes, or the Beast in whatever version of the fairy tale you care you sample, or Darth Vader, or best of all Edmond Dantès, the eponymous antihero of The Count of Monte Cristo. Yes, for all that that masterpiece of nineteenth century pulp fiction is focused on revenge, it ultimately gains much of its power from Edmond's eventual rediscovery of the humanity that he had lost in the darkness of the Château d'If. It is only through learning how to forgive and remembering how to love that he finds peace.

But sometimes, sometimes, you can get a hell of a story just focused on revenge. Or justice. There can be times when it's difficult to tell which is which. That's just one of the ways that friends come in handy - if you're in danger of losing your moral compass it's useful to have a few stars to navigate by. Life without friends can be as perilous as it can be dull.

All of which leads me neatly to the great Stephen Sondheim's greatest masterpiece.

Sweeney Todd, due to be hitting our screens in a month or two, depending on where you are, and surely not to be missed, is an astounding story of a wronged man who, consumed by a desire for vengeance, becomes a monster.

By turns hilarious, heartbreaking, and horrifying, it is about as profound a study of greed, hypocrisy, and obsession as you'll ever see. It's magnificently written and thrillingly scored, and features at its centrepiece what must be the finest and funniest attempt at linking cannibalism and capitalism in the history of music.

(I've no idea if there are others, but if so, I'm confident they pale next to the wonderfully witty wordplay of 'A Little Priest'.)

To say I'm a fan of the show is to put it mildly. I've seen it twice in Manchester, the first production there being probably the best thing I've ever seen on the stage, and twice just a few months ago in Dublin, a production described by the Guardian as a 'miracle'. Not content with occasionally seeing it in the theatre, though, I have a DVD of a 2001 concert performance, and two versions of it on CD.

Yes, I know, I've yet to acquire the DVD of the show with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury as Todd and Mrs Lovett, but I'll get round to it eventually. There's no rush.

With so much invested in the show, I have to admit that I've been a little bit worried about the prospect of the film. Granted, all the ingredients seemed fine - I can't imagine a director better suited to this than Tim Burton, and the likes of Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall look perfectly cast. Even Sacha Baron Cohen could prove an inspired choice as Pirelli. But what of Jonny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter? They look great, and can certainly act, but can they sing? That's where this will stand or fall, after all, as unlike the kind of musicals I grew up hating on telly, Sondheim's shows don't involve people strolling along chatting and then unaccountably bursting into song; they're almost entirely sung, with only the occasional bit of spoken dialogue bridging the songs.

I'm not worried anymore. The early word is good, and the trailers look encouraging. I have a feeling that this is a tale we can look forward to attending.