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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

you know that ‘Sweeney Todd’ is an opera, don’t you?

Sweeney Todd hasn’t even opened yet, but people can’t stop talking about it. Not the movie so much — though it deserves to be talked about: it’s brilliant, my No. 2 movie of 2007 — but the marketing. To wit: Will mainstream moviegoers be mad when they discover that what has been sold to them is not a typical baroque Tim Burton horror comedy but a complex and less than hummable opera? Sure, the Stephen Sondheim musical is also gory and outrageously funny, but this movie version of it is at least 90 percent sung. There’s very little straight dialogue in it.

Not that you’d know that from the trailer:

The little bit of singing barely registers: it’s all talk, talk, talk. (Even the “cut your own trailer” feature at the official movie Web site offers hardly any clips of singing for wannabe trailer-makers to work with.) Lewis Lazare in the Chicago Sun-Times started a bit of a frenzy last week when he wrote a piece sputtering with rage over how misleading the trailer is … though, notably, this did not appear in the Entertainment section but the paper’s Business pages: his focus is on whether the marketing will backfire on Warner Bros., not on any cinematic issues. Popwatch picked up on it and noted that the TV ads are similarly deceptive: even the one ad that sells it as a “musical” makes it look like Harry Potter, which it most certainly bears no resemblance to whatsoever.

Me? I’m enjoying sitting on the sidelines and watching commenters at Popwatch and also over at Ain’t It Cool News get themselves worked into a frenzy. Some are insulted that pop-culture watchers are suggesting that audiences are idiots for not already being aware of the fact that Sweeney Todd is a Sondheim musical. Some comments are proving themselves cultural ignoramuses by proudly announcing that they had no idea who the heck this Sondheim guy is, and damn, this is a musical?

All I know is this: I remember a few years back, ticket counters at New York City multiplexes had made up special signs alerting ticket buyers to the fact that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was, in fact, in Chinese with subtitles. This suggested to me that people were stalking out of showings of that film and complaining to the management, perhaps even demanding their money back, annoyed at having to “read” the movie. If moviegoers in the most cosmopolitan, most informed city in the country could somehow escape hearing a vital fact about a hot movie, the same is going to happen with Sweeney Todd, too. It hardly seems like a matter of any doubt.

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