Friday, December 21, 2007

And you say people pay you for your opinions?

From Roger Ebert's review of the new Burton film Sweeney Todd:
The Stephen Sondheim songs don't really lend themselves to full-throated performance, although that has been the practice on the stage. They are more plot-driven, confessional, anguished. Depp and Bonham Carter do their own singing, and very well, too, and as actors, they use the words to convey meaning as well as melody.
Hear that, George Hearn? Len Cariou? You and your foolish full-throated attempts! Clearly, Johnny Depp's weak, pitchless whine is the best possible vehicle for a plot-driven, confessional, anguished aria like "Epiphany"! I've always considered "My Friends" to be a patter song, myself, and I am so glad that it is finally going to be heard as Roger Ebert knows it should.

I suppose this is what I get for violating my longstanding rule against reading or listening to the opinions of Roger Ebert, as well as my other, newer rule against reading or listening to any press about this new movie. From the little bit of coverage I've been exposed to, I've gotten the very clear impression that what Burton really wanted to do was make a movie about the story of Sweeney Todd. He didn't really care so much for the Sondheim part of the equation; he just liked the source material, and the aesthetic choices that were part of the Hal Prince staging of same. I read recently that he cut "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Cut the song that opens the show, closes the show, and moves the story forward throughout the show. Given that choice, I'm not sure it's fair to say he's making a movie of the musical. It'd be like if you made a movie about the life of Maria Von Trapp and said it was based on the stage musical, because you like the way they named the kids in the Rodgers & Hammerstein libretto, but you cut the song "The Sound of Music" and cast Reese Witherspoon in the lead role.

I saw one ad for this movie. In the background there was some generic film-score music -- not Sondheim's -- and then that gave way to Johnny Depp wheezing, "I will have vengeance!" Except without the exclamation point. "I will have vengeance. (But first I'll have a nap.)" I couldn't hit the "mute" button fast enough. Are you, like me, planning to spend the next several months listening to the original cast recording (with its unsuitable full-throated performances) over and over until the hype around this movie goes away?

...Okay, I'm back, because hours later, I am still annoyed by this. I can't get over the idiocy of the statement "Stephen Sondheim's songs don't really lend themselves to full-throated performance, although that has been the practice on the stage." It's not just a wrongheaded opinion; it's an erroneous statement of fact -- and one that contains an acknowledgment of its own inaccuracy. Perhaps what he wanted to say was, "Stephen Sondheim's songs are not best served by full-throated performance..." That would still be moronic, of course, but at least it would be an opinion, in the same way that his follow-up statement about how Depp and Bonham Carter sing "very well" is an opinion, one to which he is entitled, however risible it might be; and in the same way his statement that "as actors, they use the words to convey meaning as well as melody" is (sort of) an opinion, even though it should have been filed under "goes without saying," and the fact that it wasn't exposes how little he seems to know about the genre of musical theatre in the first place. But this isn't about whether I agree with Ebert; it's about Ebert trying to display his expertise while saying something utterly untrue and nakedly self-contradictory. What he actually says, in the sentence I've just requoted, is that Sondheim's songs can't really be performed in the style in which they were written to be performed -- and have consistently been performed for nearly thirty years. It's like saying, "Tchaikovsky's compositions for The Nutcracker don't really lend themselves to ballet." Or "Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' doesn't really lend itself to performance by a piano soloist with an orchestra." It's total nonsense. So I figure there are two possible explanations for how this got into print: (a) Roger Ebert does not know the proper meaning/use of the phrase "lend itself to," and no one has bothered to set him straight. (b) Roger Ebert amuses himself by inserting demonstrably idiotic statements into his reviews, just to see if his editors will catch them, and they do not. Either way it ultimately reflects badly on the folks at the Chicago Sun-Times, I'm afraid.

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