Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Companion to the film by Tim Burton
By Mark Salisbury
Available December 11, 2007
I put this book — simply titled Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street — on my Amazon wishlist sight-unseen a few months ago, thinking it to be some kind of novelization of the Tim Burton big-screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical. Imagine my delight when a beautiful 11×9 full-color hardcover companion to the film arrived a week ago (courtesy of my thoughtful mother-in-law)!
The Sweeney Todd story is based on the supposed real-life 19th-century barber/serial killer who slit the throats of his adversaries, then his accomplice Mrs. Lovett would dispose of the evidence by grinding up the bodies and baking them in her meat pies.
While I already knew the story of Sweeney Todd, having seen the musical production on PBS when I was a child, I didn’t want what I knew would be Burton’s unique spin on the tale to be spoiled for me. Since the film didn’t arrive in theaters until December 21, I was faced with a dilemma: Wait to read the book until after I’d seen the movie, or tear right into the pages right then and there. I left it on my dining room table for a day or two until I just couldn’t stand it anymore — I had to look inside!
The book opens with a very brief forward by director Tim Burton and the first few pages contain images of Burton on set and previously released productions stills. The writing begins with a prologue about the legend of the Sweeney Todd, which first made it to print in a Victorian Penny Dreadful, then quickly grew to rival the tale of another 19th-century London serial killer — Jack the Ripper.
By page 20 or so, you’re definitely entering into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t go any further. I put the book down and waited until this past Friday night after seeing the movie starring Johnny Depp (which I loved!) to reopen the book, which serves as the film’s official companion.
Author Mark Salibury worked closely with Burton and the production team to create this behind-the-scenes look at the film, which contains over 200 photos, concept drawings, and production designs, including initial watercolor paintings by Burton, concept art by Dante Ferretti, and costume sketches by Colleen Atwood.
The book details the decisions to cast Johnny Depp as the legendary vengeful barber and Helena Bonham Carter as his enamored partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett, as well as the stellar supporting actors. While Depp was hired without anyone having ever heard him sing, Carter — who’s Burton’s wife — had to prove that she belonged in the production.
There’s a chapter on finding the specific look for Burton’s film, which would remain faithful to the original story, but also include Burton’s signature morbidity and darkness infused with moments of quirkiness (see the film’s “By The Sea” segment). Another chapter details the film’s London sets, headed up by designer Dante Ferretti.
Burton’s film could not exist if not for Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics for the 1979 Broadway musical, so a chapter is dedicated to the music of Sweeney Todd and the challenges faced with bringing it onto the big screen.
This hardcover companion contains extracts from the screenplay and interviews with the cast and crew, and finishes with “Attend the Tale,” a 70-page truncated version of the movie script, complete with accompanying lyrics and captioned photos and sketches. The book is a definite must-have for fans of the Sweeney Todd legend as well as Tim Burton loyalists.