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In 'Sweeney Todd,' Blood Will Most Certainly Flow

How to begin a musical about a barber who slashes his customers' throats and a baker who grinds up their corpses to fill her meat pies? If you're Tim Burton, you start by raining blood from the skies.

To the rhythms of Stephen Sondheim's clashing chords, with their conscious echoes of Bernard Hermann's horror-film scores, big red drops splash thickly on 19th-century London's rooftops — rubies in a sooty, industrial landscape. The blood dribbles down to spatter machinery, pool in gutters and slop down sewers, a scarlet flood rushing out to sea. All this to introduce an optimistic young sailor, so pretty he looks a little like Claire Danes, arriving by ship with a pale, sunken figure he's rescued.

"I have sailed the world," sings the younger man, "but there's no place like London."

"Life has been kind to you," the older replies, also in song. "You will learn."

So will London: Sweeney Todd was once Benjamin Barker, a barber with a wife and child. But a judge sent him to prison for life on false charges. Escaped, and back in London under his new name, he's bent on vengeance.

Now, when I first heard Johnny Depp's voice on the Sweeney CD a few weeks ago, I worried that Sondheim's murderous barber, the dark center of a show widely hailed as a Broadway musical masterpiece, had been turned into Sweeney Manilow. But while Depp has a pop voice, rather than an operatic one, his vocals roughen up nicely once Sweeney gets angry. Let the judge escape his clutches, and this demon barber snarls with the best.

Being a singing actor, rather than a real singer, works pretty well in the film's darker moments — and when the mood lightens, as when Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett comes up with a bright idea for what to do with all those bodies that would otherwise be piling up. Her meat pie shop, she reminds Sweeney, is right downstairs.

Screenwriter John Logan has slashed a few songs to bring the running time down to two hours — which zip by, propelled by Sondheim's gorgeous music, Burton's pulse-elevating direction, and heavenly performances from actors we mostly didn't know could sing: Alan Rickman in fine voice as Sweeney's creepy nemesis Judge Turpin, Sacha Baron Cohen trading in his Borat accent for an operatic tenor.

And one startling choice — casting child actor Ed Sanders in a part usually played by an adult — will give chills to those familiar with the stage show. This little tyke plays a crucial role when the going gets cutthroat, and Burton makes it do that with an artful vengeance, each slashing unique.

The director also has some bone-crunching notions about how to get all those bodies down to the kitchen. The Guignol, in other words, is certifiably grand — and so is Sweeney Todd. Attend the tale.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.