Archive for Stephen Sondheim

Mommie Fear Fest

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-33166

Occasional guest writer David Melville contributes a piece on Mervyn LeRoy’s GYPSY, screened recently at Edinburgh Filmhouse.

A year or so back, some callow critics dubbed Sweeney Todd “the first horror movie musical.” Understandable – given its lusty cannibalism and torrents of blood gushing from slashed throats – but not strictly true. Stephen Sondheim, the composer/lyricist of Todd, helped to create the genre as far back as 1962 (or 1960, if you count the Broadway original) with the profoundly terrifying Gypsy.

A musical biopic of strip-tease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee, the film was directed by Mervyn Leroy from a stage show with lyrics by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne (Funny Girl) and book by Arthur Laurents (The Way We Were). Rather than focus on the star herself – who, played by Natalie Wood, is surely the most winsome and genteel stripper in history, on screen or off – Gypsy is built around Rosalind Russell as her maniacally overbearing stage mother, Mama Rose. Here’s one lady who will do anything – and I mean anything – to see her little girl’s name in lights.

For much of the film, Mama Rose drags her two daughters (Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, and her allegedly more ‘talented’ sister, Baby June) around the dustbowls of Depression-era America, performing in a vaudeville act of unique and awe-inspiring ghastliness. A platoon of chorus boys prance about inanely; there’s a dancing cow; it all ends in a rousing stars-and-stripes finale. Had it only been shown to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, those scientists might truly have shocked him into submission

Whenever the act starts to pall, Mama Rose rallies her troops with one of those show-stopping songs that Broadway divas so relish – if only to wake up punters who are snoring in the back row. Rosalind Russell, who cannot actually sing, transforms her hit numbers – “Some People” and “Comin’ Up Roses” – into dramatic monologues. Think of Clytemnestra, about to be slaughtered by her children to avenge her murder of their father, only a bit more bone-chilling. (Ethel Merman, who created the role on stage, reprised “Comin’ Up Roses” for the 1981 inaugural gala for President Ronald Reagan…and fear took on a whole new meaning.)

At last, down on its luck, the troupe is reduced to performing in a sleazy strip joint. Horrified at first, Mama Rose nonetheless volunteers her daughter as a stand-in when the star stripper winds up in jail. It says a lot for the creepiness of Russell’s performance that this moment plays like a sordid and horrifying act of betrayal. (Just compare her to Susan Sarandon in Pretty Baby, who initiates her 12-year-old daughter into prostitution, but seems just a likeable good-time gal.) The little minx takes up the challenge and the rest is history – or, at any rate, camp showbiz history…which will do just as nicely, thank you, in a movie of this ilk.

As a study in deranged mother love, Gypsy is infinitely more horrific than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – which takes place in a far more sane and reassuring moral universe. We may intuit, from the tics and twitches of Anthony Perkins as Norman, what a devastatingly dysfunctional presence the deceased Mama Bates must have been. But we never see her alive on camera, as we do Russell – ranting and raging and looking, incidentally, far more like a Grand Guignol drag act than ever poor Tony does in his wig. Oh, that throaty drawl of a voice! Ah, those outsize mannish hands!

vlcsnap-29745

That poor little Gypsy and her sister (who went to become the 40s starlet June Havoc) do not start disembowelling chorus boys in the shower, or finish the film in the confines of a padded cell, is a mystery to which they alone know the answer. The American critic Paul Roen is right, I believe, when he describes Gypsy as “a Technicolor prologue to the Crawford/Davis opus Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Released in the same year, the two films attracted – and continue to attract – a remarkably similar audience. One might say that Gypsy is scarier, while Baby Jane has better musical numbers.

In 1993, Gypsy was remade for TV starring Bette Midler. Although she is a vastly more accomplished musical performer than Rosalind Russell, the Divine Miss M falls flat as Mama Rose. Camp and cuddly and bursting with fun, her presence robs the story of its chilling emotional subtext. Simply put, she is just not scary. And fear, in its most primal and deep-rooted form, is what Gypsy is all about.

David Melville

With thanks to Nicola Hay.

Addendum — I just watched the film myself on the small screen. Mervyn LeRoy has certainly calcified a bit since his snappy days in the ’30s, but the widescreen filming of the stylised sets is pleasing, and everybody seems to be quite aware of the story they’re telling, in all its darkness. The “Hollywood ending” is cursory and deliberately unconvincing-as-hell. The screenplay adds an unnecessary voice-over from Russell that fragments things rather than holding them together, but whenever Laurents’ scenes are allowed to play out, they work as brilliant filmed theatre, and there’s not a weak song in it. The studio system may have been in decline, but this is one of its finer last gasps. DC.

Correspondence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2008 by dcairns

vlcsnap-1313064

‘interesting fact: if you google “david cairns”, shadowplay comes out at the bottom of the page; if you google “christina alepi”, shadowplay is the first result. (!) Typing my own name is the quickest way to get to your blog (after bookmarking, but it can’t beat googling my OWN NAME!)’
~ Christina Alepi, via Facebook.

A few things happening with the old email and Facebook, which I just joined in a spirit of “Why not?” Maybe once I year I do something daft like that: about a year ago I started a blog. Yep, Shadowplay celebrates her birthday on December 1st. Will have to think of some special way to mark it. Suggestions welcome.

Some time back I got one of the few bits of negative commentary I’ve had here, after reviewing a depressing British horror “comedy” called THE COTTAGE. I’ve tended to avoid trashing stuff most of the time, since it’s nice to be nice and it seems more interesting to find the exciting or strange bits of films and pare away the dull stuff, but when it comes to modern British cinema I sometimes get a bit upset. Anyhow, the piece attracted an irked comment from someone pretty obviously connected with the movie, but I never knew who. But when I joined Facebook, it swept through my emails looking for contacts, and suddenly identified the commenter as actor Reece Shearsmith, one of the stars of the film. Mystery solved!

Not sure how I feel about this, since I’m a fan of the first two series of The League of Gentlemen, and would have said at least some nice things about THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN’S APOCALYPSE, which seemed an honorable attempt to do something interesting in British cinema. So it’s not like Shearsmith was ever on my shitlist. (Do I have a shitlist? Note to self: compile shitlist.) I may have said something about his performance in THE COTTAGE not quite working, but that’s kind of the same as calling him a flawless genius, since the rest of the film doesn’t work the way a dead horse doesn’t work as an air freshener.

More pleasant correspondence: after the excellent Charles Drazin suggested I contact David Thomson and let him in on The Great Duvivier Giveaway, my scheme to reshape the movie canon, in hopes of getting him to change his mind about Julien Duvivier and maybe rewrite his rather critical piece in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, I wrote to Thomson with a disc of LA FIN DU JOUR, and received this very charming reply:

Dear Mr Cairns,

I was touched to receive your letter and the DVD of La Fin du Jour.  On the spot, I proposed you to the House of Edinburgh Saints (your only fellow there is Mark Cousins – maybe you know each other).

[We do.]

As it happens, yours is not the first plea on behalf of Duvivier. The other one came from no less than Stephen Sondheim (at the Telluride Film Festival). So I am re-examining the matter, and I am very grateful to you for the prompting.

More to come, I’m sure.

All good wishes

David Thomson

So I seem to be in good company. I wonder, if you’re David Thomson, if you’re constantly getting grabbed by bloggers and composers and bums off the street who want to convert you to the cause of John Ford or Tony Richardson or William Wyler?

Makes me think I’m lucky I only have the cast of THE COTTAGE to contend with.

In other news: I was vaguely thinking of starting Borzage Week in a week’s time, but since I have a number of pieces all ready and nothing else to post of any substance, I’m bringing it forward to Monday 17th. That’ll still give us time to invent something suitably exciting for December 1st.

On His Todd

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2008 by dcairns

Sweeney Scissorhands 

So we attended the tale of SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Tim Burton version.

On the whole I liked it. The score has a massive amount of sheer OOMPH, the lyrics are spectacular (if you want dance numbers, just watch those words leap to and fro), and I enjoyed the performances, especially Sacha Baron Cohen and Timothy Spall. I was intrigued to see that Johnny Depp’s vocals boast their own producer…a touch of digital pitch-correction going on there, Fiona suggests.

There are a few unfortunate things about the film, and I’m going to dwell on them, I’m afraid. It’s a testament to the strength of the story and score and acting that the film entertains as well as it does, because these problems could really butcher a lesser film.

1) The Look. I think it’s too murky, and this combines with the C.G. backdrops and the theatrically enclosed narrative to make it rather claustrophobic. This might be OK if it’s your kind of thing, but since films with a very C.G. look — like “300″ — tend to feel a little stifling no matter how the filmmakers try to open them out and give them sweep, I’d have awarded points to Burton for breathing some air into this.

(Very dark films sometimes look sharper on DVD than on the big screen — Darius Khondji’s most eye-straining work sometimes has this quality. So Dariusz Wolski’s smeary work here may likewise shine on home vid — the stills look much clearer than the movie did when I saw it. Perversely, Wolski’s lensing of DARK CITY was radiant by comparison.)

thru a glass very darkly indeed

2) The Plot. I don’t know the play but I was sure there had been some kind of ineffectual tampering when we got to the aftermath of the climax. I looked it up on Wikipedia and, although I hadn’t guessed the exact nature of the changes, tinkering had indeed taken place and the ending of the original sounded markedly more effective. I can’t go into this without major spoilers, but it’s largely a structural thing. Burton has never had much story sense, tending to favour image over word and missing the Hitchcockian principle of telling stories with pictures. Burton’s images are often stand-alone tableaux or, at most, gags.

(MASSIVE SPOILER:

Todd spares his daughter’s life for no convincing reason, and then she disappears from the narrative altogether. In the play, the authorities arrive at the end, obviously alerted by her, so at least there’s a pay-off to her survival. The film also soft-pedals young Tobias’ madness at the end, so that his killing Sweeney isn’t quite credible.)

Razorhead

3) The Squeamishness. This might be an odd thing to charge an 18-Rated musical with, but it seemed to me that the makers were rather shy of the whole cannibalism thing. You wouldn’t know, from the mise-en-scene, that there was anything unusual about the pies all those extras were munching. I can sort of understand Burton wanting to hold back on the horrors of the kitchen until they are discovered by little Tobias — except that doesn’t sound like the sort of narrative concern that would even occur to Timbo. It feels like he’s been told he can have his head with the throat-slitting, but could he please hold back on the old anthropophagy? And since that’s what the whole film’s about, it strikes me as an unfortunate area to ellide. When somebody doesn’t actually want to tell the story they’re telling, it never bodes well.

Sheer Barberism

4) The Momentum. The thrust of the story is maintained fairly well, and that’s something that musicals often sacrifice in order to celebrate a moment. But this film has too oppressive a milieuto really get away with that, so it needs to drive forward, from a bad situation to a worse: without shark-like constant forward motion, the audience isn’t going to want to hang about waiting for the next sordid crisis. The sequence which damages the momentum most is the song “By the Sea,” which doesn’t advance the story at all, but may be absolutely essential as the only scene to admit bright light, blue sky and fresh air into the film. It helps the sense of space even as it damages the sense of time. My theory is that the song may have been necessary on stage to show how Mrs. Lovett feels about Todd, but due to the huge amounts of emotional information conveyed by Helena Bonham-Carter in close-up, it’s redundant several times over in film terms.

5) Alan Rickman. Although he fills his trews prodigiously, Rickman has an unpleasant singing voice and is too predictable a baddie to offer much here, except when Judge Turpin has a sentimental moment. Rickman wisely makes the most of these: it’s unexpected to see how moved Turpin is by Todd’s lie that his ward has “repented” and wants to see him again.

6) Blocking. David Bordwell has argued very coherently that the art of complex blocking in Hollywood films has almost been lost. Characters either “walk and talk” or “stand and deliver” — no longer do they stalk around each other and move from close-up to long-shot and back within a single take. Burton has a reputation as a visual stylist, but he struggles to bring the songs to dramatic life through dynamic movement: shot as if they were dialogue scenes in a very dark episode of Eastenders, the songs feel somewhat squashed. Since this musical doesn’t use dance at all, a choreographic interplay of camera and actor would have been nice — oddly, this is something Burton has often brought to action sequences in other films. He does a bit of his trademark swooping, but that’s a bit overpowering. The Minnelli touch is lacking.

Hair today

7) The deplorable absence of Christopher Lee. It was announced early on that Lee would play a part, but he was later dropped (along with the other ghosts). He would have been the best singer in it. Lee has suggested that his part was cut due to time difficulties: Johnny Depp’s daughter became ill during filming and some shooting days were lost. In which case, one can only sympathise, and admire Depp’s performance even more.

Still, despite my admiration for Johnny and Helena’s work here, I can’t avoid a little thought experiment, as to who could have been cast if the film had been rushed into production in 1979, after the play’s premiere…

BLUE SKY CASTING #5:

SWEENEY TODD: the British horror version

demon in need of barber

Director: Piers Haggard. His experience with the BBC period musical Pennies From Heaven and the Tigon horror BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW makes him a fitting choice. and his lovely and talented daughter Daisy would have been just the right age to play the baby Johanna. (Daisy, who always cries at the end of KING KONG because the big gorilla reminds her of her dad.)

SWEENEY TODD: Christopher Lee.

MRS. NELLIE LOVETT: Barbara Steele.

ANTHONY HOPE: Tim Curry.

JOHANNA: Britt Ekland, dubbed by Annie Ross.

TOBIAS RAGG: Dexter Fletcher.

JUDGE TURPIN: Peter Cushing.

BEADLE BAMFORD: Donald Pleasence.

BEGGAR WOMAN: Sheila Keith.

ADOLFO PIRELLI: Vincent Price.

Hmmm, I can’t quite decide which version I’d rather see. With my usual perversity, I think I’ll plump for the one that doesn’t exist.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 361 other followers