A fascinating, convincing essay by Terry Teachout on why “movie musicals” (Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain) are usually great while stage musicals adapted into movies (West Side Story, Guys and Dolls) usually aren’t. But most especially, why Sweeney Todd offers one smart solution to the problem.
The result is a movie that to a considerable degree succeeds in fusing the seemingly incompatible virtues of the golden-age film musical and the postmodern stage musical. In Sondheim’s own phrase, Sweeney Todd surges constantly forward, enveloping the viewer in an atmosphere of mounting dread. To view it is not to watch a lifelessly literal record of a stage performance but to be immersed in something not unlike a Wagnerian Gesamt-kunstwerk.