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Oscars 2008: So what if Johnny Depp can't sing?

October 21, 2007 |  2:49 pm

That does it! This time it can't be, oops, an accidental oversight. The omission of Johnny Depp singing in a trailer previewing the film adaptation of the Broadway musical "Sweeney Todd" was suspicious enough when the first trailer came out. Gossipmeisters buzzed: Ha! I knew it! Johnny can't sing. This film's gonna be a flop! What the heck was director Tim Burton thinking casting Johnny in the first place?! Desperate to do damage control after that scuttlebutt made the rounds, studio reps chimed in: No, no! The movie's great! Just wait and see.

But now another trailer is out and, again, Johnny ain't crooning. What gives?

Composer Stephen Sondheim, who has seen it, says not to worry. It's great (and he doesn't have to be diplomatic — Sondheim's a notorious crank), but adds a curious warning.

"It's not the Broadway show," he told Roger Friedman of "It's only an hour and 45 minutes. A lot of the score has been cut. They've made it its own thing. You have to go in knowing that. But what they've done is great."

OK, OK, but Johnny still has to sing some tunes. Uh-oh! Inevitable disaster ahead?

Perhaps not. Such terror is what kept Rex Harrison locked in his dressing room in the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Conn., in 1955 when "My Fair Lady" was first set to go before a try-out audience. Harrison had never before sung in public — for good reason. He couldn't carry a tune. What were Lerner and Lowe thinking when they cast him in the lead of a musical planned for Broadway? It was a miracle the stage show finally opened in New Haven that night. When Harrison locked himself up, everything seemed so hopeless that the cast, crew and orchestra were given permission to disperse. Later, when Harrison begrudgingly opened the door an hour before curtain time, stage managers went berserk trying to round up the troupe. The show, alas, went on and became a classic hit.

Here is Harrison, ahem, "singing" "I'm an Ordinary Man" from "My Fair Lady":

Harrison went on to win the Tony Award for best actor, "My Fair Lady" won best musical and the production became the longest-running show in Broadway history (a distinction today held by "Phantom of the Opera"). When the show was adapted for celluloid, Harrison and "Lady" claimed the Oscars for best actor and picture next. Today Harrison is one of only eight stars to win an Academy Award for a Tony-winning role. The others: Jack Albertson ("The Subject Was Roses"), Anne Bancroft ("The Miracle Worker"), Shirley Booth ("Come Back, Little Sheba"), Yul Brenner ("The King and I"), Jose Ferrer ("Cyrano de Bergerac"), Joel Grey ("Cabaret") and Paul Scofield ("A Man for All Seasons"). Technically, there are nine, but Lila Kedrova won her Oscar first for "Zorba the Greek," then the Tony.


It's fun to wonder if Harrison might've pulled off the same triumph earlier in his career with "The King and I." After starring opposite Irene Dunne in the all-drama, no-songs "Anna and the King of Siam" in 1946 (nominated for five Oscars, it won two — I personally own William S. Darling's statuette for best set decoration), he was offered the lead in the musical version, "The King and I," but refused because he admitted that he couldn't croon.

"Sweeney Todd" won Tonys for best musical and actor in 1979, but Len Cariou had the lead male role. No one has an inkling of how Johnny Depp may do in the part now. We do know that he was so hopeless as a singer in 1990 that director John Waters had Depp's singing dubbed in "Cry Baby." But "Sweeney" director Burton hasn't pulled a Marni Nixon — Johnny bravely tackles the job himself. And good thing. After Audrey Hepburn swiped the Eliza role from stage sensation Julie Andrews (who lost the Tony Award to Judy Holliday in "Bells Are Ringing") and didn't do the singing (Marni Nixon secretly subbed, just as she did for Natalie Wood in "West Side Story" and Deborah Kerr in "The King and I"), Oscar voters refused to nominate Hepburn even though she portrayed the fair lady in the title of the film that won best picture.

But perhaps we "Sweeney Todd" fans shouldn't worry much, given how successful Harrison was in "My Fair Lady."

Looking back on the earliest stage days of "My Fair Lady," Julie Andrews once recalled that Harrison was "very, very demanding and selfish because he was scared to death because he had never sung before . . . . He couldn't sing, but he had an innate musicality which enabled him to kind of do a sing-speak sound, which was great and exactly right because it blended straight out of dialogue into song."

So let's be optimistic and assume that maybe Depp can do the same sing-speak thing if he can't carry the actual musical notes. But even if he can meet the musical challenge, we must still wonder about something else.

If Sondheim has seen the movie, then it's finished. Why hasn't anyone else? At this point on the calendar, some "long lead" journalists usually get to view December releases — critics who write for monthly magazines.

Why is DreamWorks hiding "Sweeney"? Because there's a problem with it that needs hiding? Or because the studio got stung last year by feeding early, extravagant expectations over another classic-Broadway-musical-turned-celluloid, "Dreamgirls," and now wants to keep the lid on this one as long as possible?