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Category: Stephen Sondheim

Tony Awards rulings continue to confuse category placement

April 30, 2010 | 11:57 am

Tony Award On Friday, the administration committee for the Tony Awards convened for the fourth and final time this theater season. The committee is made up of two dozen theater folk, with 10 apiece from the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing -- which jointly host these top theater kudos -- and one each from the Dramatists Guild, Actors' Equity Assn., United Scenic Artists and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.

They rule on category placement -- usually only those performers listed above the title contend in the lead categories at the Tony Awards. However, with the increase in equal billing for all, there is a need to separate out the true star turns from the supporting players. Such was the case with Friday's finding that only John Gallagher Jr. gives a leading performance in "American Idiot" while his cast mates are all in featured roles.

Producers can petition the committee to slot certain performers in one category over another. The Roundabout Theater website touts Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat as starring in "Sondheim on Sondheim." However, Friday the committee conceded that they could all contend in the featured races. Cook won the featured actress Tony Award for her role as Marian the librarian in 1958's top  tuner "The Music Man" while Grammy and Emmy nominee Williams nabbed a lead actress Tony nomination for the 2002 revival of Sondheim's "Into the Woods" and Wopat -- best known for TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard" -- is a two-time Tony nominee for his lead roles in the musicals "Annie Get Your Gun" (1999) and "A Catered Affair" (2008). 

Although the committee's decisions about the nature of the roles in new works are debatable, past Tony nominations should guide them when deciding placement for performers in revivals. Yet this is not always the case. On Friday, the committee decided that Viola Davis gives a leading performance in "Fences" in the same role that won Mary Alice the featured actress Tony for the original 1987 production.

In February, the committee ruled that even though Jessica Hecht was playing the same role in a revival of "A View From the Bridge" that netted Allison Janney a lead Tony Awards nomination back in 1998, she should contend in the featured race. That puts her in direct competition with co-star Scarlett Johansson, who impressed the critics with her performance as a nubile niece lusted after by her uncle.

Nominations for the 64th annual Tony Awards will be announced on May 4.

Photo: Tony Award statue. Credit: American Theater Wing


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Who will be the next winner of the showbiz awards grand slam?

August 15, 2008 |  2:32 pm

Currently, there are 10 people who've won the four peer-group industry prizes bestowed for film (Oscar), TV (Emmy), music (Grammy) and theater (Tony): Mel Brooks, John Gielgud, Whoopi Goldberg, Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Marvin Hamlisch, Mike Nichols, Rita Moreno, Richard Rodgers and music arranger Jonathan Tunick.

Who could be the next to join that lofty pantheon?

The key word is "win" when discussing these awards. Honorary trophies don't count. Therefore, Barbra Streisand isn't on this list because, while she has the Oscar (2), Emmy (5) and Grammy (8), her Tony was an honorary trophy she got in 1970 after failing to win for her two earlier nominations: best supporting actress in a musical for "I Can Get It for You Wholesale" in 1962 and best actress in a musical for "Funny Girl" in 1964.


There's a devilish irony to Babs' loss for "Funny Girl" on Broadway, a performance that would yield her first Oscar when it transferred to the screen four years later (her other Oscar is for songwriting, "Evergreen"). Babs lost the Tony to a star whom she would replace when "Hello, Dolly!" became a film. (A vastly underrated pic, I hasten to say. Snooty film critics skewered it as a flop in 1969, but I think it's one of those wrongly trashed masterpieces like Burton and Taylor's "Cleopatra," but I digress.) Now Carol Channing has her ultimate revenge by having denied Babs entry to the grand slam pantheon.

Memo to Babs: Nowadays the Tonys have a new, special competitive category for one-person shows that's been won by Billy Crystal and Elaine Stritch in the past. The next time you do an absolutely final farewell concert tour, stop along the rialto for a while, dearie, beef up the script with more chatter and you're sure to snag that elusive, real Tony at last.

Who else? I posted this question in our forums and got amazingly detailed reax. Click here to check out Boomer's run-down of where many candidates stand. For example, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elton John just need an Emmy.

Considering Broadway made Julie Andrews a star when she bowed in "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot," it's surprising to see that all she needs is a Tony to place on her mantle next to the Oscar, Grammy and Emmy. Also missing a Tony: Cher, Robin Williams and composer John Williams.


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Tony Awards guru forecasts races for best revivals

March 24, 2008 |  9:45 pm

" 'Gypsy' 'South Pacific' and 'Sunday in the Park with George' will certainly get a nomination — they're the top contenders" for the Tony Award as best musical revival, predicts Back Stage executive editor David Sheward in our podcast chat. CLICK HERE to download the MP3 file and listen! (Note: You May Need to Hold Down Your Computer's Control key while clicking.)

See Sheward's separate predix for what will be nominated for best original musical and play — CLICK HERE!


Sheward does not say what production will probably land the last slot in that race for best musical revival — which contains four nominees, not the usual five — but thinks, "They might put 'Grease' in there, just to fill out the category, but I didn't really care for it. It's just an excuse to get two reality TV stars to appear on Broadway as a gimmick. What's funny is that the characters are supposed to be pseudo hoods, but they're just as nice as everybody else so where was the conflict?"

Sheward is a bit disappointed in Patti LuPone's "Gypsy": "I didn't feel that this was a significantly different take on the material." However, he adds, "I hear that 'South Pacific' is absolutely fantastic," and he calls "Sunday in the Park" an "exciting re-imagining of Stephen Sondheim's show from the 1980s."

In the race for best play revival, Sheward cites "Pygmalion," "Macbeth" and "The Homecoming" as likely nominees. Closest rivals for the last slot: "The Country Girl" and "Come Back, Little Sheba."

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Golden Globes comedy/musical film races: Who's ahead?

December 27, 2007 | 11:59 pm

In the spirit of the holidays, I promise to give members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association a break and not snoop among them until after New Year's Day. Till then, though, let me offer some general prognostication about the comedy/musical film races like I recently did with the drama film slots.

"Across the Universe"
"Charlie Wilson's War"
"Sweeney Todd"

The foreign press really dig that unique Yankee movie experience, the musical. If a successful one is nominated here, even amongst blockbuster comedies, it usually wins ("Dreamgirls," "Moulin Rouge!" "Chicago," "Evita"). Much has been made this year about HFPA members' peculiar love of "Across the Universe," but let's recall that they also adored that low-energy, s-l-o-w-e-d-down screen adaptation of "Phantom of the Opera" a few years back, which flopped at the b.o. and lost at the Globes (to songless "Sideways," no less). So forget "Universe." This year they're also ga-ga over "Hairspray," which was hugely and surprisingly successful and could win, but it's old (came out last summer) and silly, not having "Sweeney's" gravitas and artistic cred. Besides, "Sweeney" is the only rival whose director is also nominated. That doesn't always equal victory. "Babe" won without helmer Chris Noonan being nommed, beating "The American President," whose Rob Reiner made the directors' list. But that overlap between categories usually fingers the winner ahead.

Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd"
Tom Hanks, "Charlie Wilson's War"
Ryan Gosling, "Lars and the Real Girl"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Savages"
John C. Reilly, "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"

When I attend the Golden Globes, I prefer to hang out back in the general press room where you can dish with winners and swap snarky comments with your journo pals. But I'm awfully glad I made an exception in 2004 (for the 2003 awards year) and agreed to sit out in the audience at a banquet table among the nominees. What a shock! Throughout the night I witnessed the sore losers — of which there are legions — get up and leave during the telecast's commercial breaks. That year I sat next to the "Six Feet Under" table. Soon after they lost best drama series to "24," all of the cast members save one scooted, leaving behind Frances Conroy, who had to wait around for the best-actress category. She won. Later that night I spied the poor dear sitting alone at the HBO party downstairs, her Golden Globe in her lap, a forlorn look on her face and not a fellow cast member nearby to help her to celebrate. Jerks!

But the biggest shockeroo of all occurred when the winner of best comedy/musical actor in a film was announced. "Pirates" nominee Johnny Depp didn't even bother to wait until a TV commercial break. After losing to Bill Murray ("Lost in Translation"), the big baby ran out so fast that I thought the Beverly Hilton was ablaze.

Well, I guess losing can get kind of rough on an ego-pampered star after a while. It was Johnny's fourth Globes defeat. He's lost three more since then ("Finding Neverland," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest"). Last year he didn't throw another tantrum exit because he didn't attend.

This year I think it's obvious that he'll be heading in the other direction at last, up to the podium to accept his first Globe in eight nominations, then heading to the press room to join us. No other actor in this race has a prayer, so I was told by several HFPA members when I snooped before the holidays.


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Golden Globe drama and director races: Who's ahead?

December 15, 2007 |  6:45 pm

"American Gangster"
"Eastern Promises"
"The Great Debaters"
"Michael Clayton"
"No Country for Old Men"
"There Will Be Blood"

Over the past 20 years only once did a film win here without its director being nominated: "Scent of a Woman" (1992). Now the helmers of three films in the race for best drama picture are also up for best director — "No Country for Old Men," "American Gangster" and "Atonement" — so it's safe to assume that one of them will triumph. "No Country" and "Atonement" seem to have the most support within HFPA. I suspect that "Atonement," which has the most noms (seven), will be the champ, but it's a close call and I'm holding off at this point from making an outright prediction.

Tim Burton, "Sweeney Todd"
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Ridley Scott, "American Gangster"
Joe Wright, "Atonement"

Often the awards for best director and picture don't line up like they do at the Oscars. In fact, the two categories split 5 times in the past 7 years (10 times in the past 20). That's because voters like to spread the love around. If they go for "Atonement" for best picture, they may want to give the director's trophy to the Coens for "No Country." And they may want to do so for another reason. After two decades of past noms ("Fargo," "The Man Who Wasn't There" — but not "O, Brother, Where Art Thou," which made the Oscar list), the Coens have reached icon status. That's who voters favor in this category, opting, for example, for Robert Altman ("Gosford Park") the year they picked "A Beautiful Mind" as best drama picture. "Atonement's" Joe Wright can win. Rookie Sam Mendes triumphed when his "American Beauty" did in the best-pic race, but the most venerable veterans tend to get their due here. That's the chief voting trend.

And that's why relative newcomer Schnabel probably doesn't have a strong chance. The esteemed Ridley Scott holds a big I.O.U. — the Globes went for Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger") the year "Gladiator" won — but "Gangster" doesn't have artsy pretention.

That leaves us with the most curious contender in this contest: madcap Tim Burton. He's an icon and overdue for Globe notice (he's never even been nominated), but his chances are hurt by his "Sweeney Todd" being stuck in the comedy/musical lineup. Over the past 40 years only twice has the helmer of a film on that list claimed the laurels. John Huston won for "Prizzi's Honor," which claimed that best-pic trophy, too, for a film that really belonged in the drama race. Also, Barbra Streisand triumphed for "Yentl," and that was probably just because voters love to slobber over celeb helmers like they do at the Oscars. Heck, the Globes even gave this award Clint Eastwood for "Bird" the year that "Rain Man" won best drama pic (1988). Huh?

In Burton's favor is that "Sweeney" has artistic pedigree, being a Sondheim Broadway classic. I know of a few HFPA members who consider "Sweeney" to be their favorite film of the year, but I don't know how strong its support is among other voters. Not yet.

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PODCASTS: Johnny Depp & Stephen Sondheim dish 'Sweeney' with us

December 6, 2007 | 12:21 am

DreamWorks unveiled "Sweeney Todd" to 700 members of the Hollywood elite tonight at the big theater on the Paramount lot, a grand fete hosted by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Stacey Snider in honor of attendees Johnny Depp, Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim.

Listen to our podcast chats with Johnny Depp — CLICK HERE — and with composer Stephen Sondheim — CLICK HERE . (Note: You may need to hold down your computer's control key while clicking.)


Even though Johnny portrays a demon barber who ruthlessly slashes the throats of innocent chaps who drop by his shop (then drop down through a trap door in the floor after getting the closest shaves of their lives), he tells us, "I love the character. He's super complex because there's a whole lot going on there. Fifty-one percent of the people say he's a madman and 49 percent say he's the original victim in the plot."

What does Johnny think?

"I belive he's a victim," he said. "I believe he's a tragic figure."

When I asked Sondheim if he was skeptical when he heard that Johnny — who has never before sung on screen — would portray the lead in the film adaptation of his Broadway musical, he replied, "No, I've always preferred actors who sing instead of singers who act and generally I've tried to cast that way with the shows in New York. They have to be musical. They have to be able to carry a tune. They have to have a sense of rhythm.

"Legitimate voices, so to speak, can be too big for the screen, particularly this," he added. "The screen is much more intimate, a realistic medium. In order for singing to work on the screen, it has to be acted and it has to be small."


ABOVE FROM LEFT: Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Richard Zanuck, Stephen Sondheim.


ABOVE: Johnny, we hardly knew ye before tonight, but Depp hung out with producer Richard Zanuck at left and chatted casually with scores of attendees.

Rave reviews buoy 'Diving Bell's' Oscar hopes

December 2, 2007 | 12:42 pm

After unspooling at Cannes to critical acclaim and a best-director palm for Julian Schnabel, Gallic biopic "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" opened Divingbell1Stateside to rave reviews. The Meta Critic survey of 13 notices yielded a chart-topping 92 while the wider canvas of critics used by Rotten Tomatoes produced a score of 90 based on 40 reviews.

"Diving Bell" tells the tale of French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who learns to communicate via blinking his left eye after being paralyzed by a stroke. "A story like this would seem almost impossible to film," notes Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times. "And even if you figured out a way to do it, how would you prevent it from becoming one of those schematic, overly sentimental 'triumph of the human spirit' efforts that send sane viewers screaming for the exits?

"Starting from Ronald Harwood's script, filmmaker Schnabel, who learned French to make the story in its original language and won the best director prize at Cannes for his trouble, has avoided the obvious pitfalls and made virtues out of necessities. His imaginative and sensitive film, starring France's gifted Mathieu Amalric, is simultaneously uplifting and melancholy, suffused with an unexpected sense of possibility as much as the inevitable sense of loss.

"This has happened in part because Schnabel, though he's directed two other films, is at his core a visual artist. Working with the exceptional Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, he has infused the proceedings with the kind of imaginative feeling for rich and fecund imagery he brought to his earlier 'Before Night Falls.'" READ MORE

Sondheim shows 'Sweeney Todd' to Lansbury and pals

November 29, 2007 |  2:18 pm

Composer Stephen Sondheim obviously is quite proud of Tim Burton's screen adaptation of his "Sweeney Todd."


He held private screenings for V.I.P.s in London last week and in New York City last night. At the Manhattan unveiling were the two stars who won Tony Awards for originating the lead roles on Broadway in 1979 — Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou — plus Patti Lupone who headlined the recent Rialto revival. Also there was all-time Tony champ Hal Prince, who picked up the fifth of his 8 Tonys for directing the 1979 show.

"Ms. Lansbury stayed and chatted after the screening for about an hour before we took her to her car," a studio rep reports.

Attending the London screening: Paul McCartney, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Barbara Cook, Trevor Nunn and Cameron Macintosh.

Tonight "Sweeney" will be shown to U.S. media in New York and Los Angeles for the first time. I'll be at the New York screening being held at AMC Lincoln Square at 7 p.m. ET. Technically, there's an embargo against reviewing the film, but I think we journos are permitted to give general impressions and report on audience reax. Afterward, I will report what I can.

OSCARS POLL - VOTE: Who was really the best actress of 1997?

November 29, 2007 |  6:57 am

With buzz building for "Sweeney Todd," it appears that Helena Bonham Carter could be a lead actress Oscar contender again. Her only other nod was back in 1997 for playing another scheming woman who manipulates a man in "The Wings of the Dove." Both roles, that of Kate Croy then and Mrs. Lovett now, required the well-bred actress (a great-granddaughter of a British prime minister) to get down and dirty.

A decade ago, Carter was but one of four English roses in the race, all pricked at the finish by the sole American — Helen Hunt, winner for her thorny portrayal of a put-upon single mom in "As Good as It Gets." While Hunt had taken home the Golden Globe (comedy) and SAG award, she had been ignored by all of the critics groups.

Was this because of her television pedigree? At the time, she was in the middle of a seven-year run with Paul Reiser as Manhattan marrieds in "Mad About You" and had already won the first two of four consecutive Emmys as best comedy actress. While her track record in films was spotty — battling tornadoes in "Twister" gets you MTV Movie award nods, not Oscars — triple Oscar winner James Brooks, also a TV vet, cast Hunt opposite the irascible Jack Nicholson in "As Good as It Gets." Holly Hunter had turned down the role, citing the two-decade age difference with Nicholson, but 26-years-younger Hunt had no such problem playing the tart-tongued waitress who swaps quips and spit with Jack.


Since her unexpected Oscar win, Hunt's career has faded fast. After her series ended in 1999, she starred in four films of varying quality in 2000, made one of Woody Allen's lesser comedies in 2001, and appeared in "A Good Woman," an ill-conceived update of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan," in 2004. After taking time off to have a baby, she tore a page out of Barbra Streisand's book and wrote, produced, directed and starred in "Then She Found Me," a comedy-drama about a woman in a mid-life crisis. While THINKfilm picked up the distribution rights at the Toronto filmfest in September for a spring 2008 release, Hunt has no future projects planned.

Back to 1997: Carter had won the National Board of Review as well as recognition from the L.A. and broadcast film critics for her riveting role as the anti-heroine in this sumptuous screen version of the Henry James novel. Five years earlier, she had had seen her on-screen sister Emma Thompson sweep the awards derby starring in another literary adaptation, E.M. Forster's "Howards End."

Carter's chief rival on Oscar night was thought to be Julie Christie, who could well be her main competition again this year for her astonishing work as an Alzheimer patient in "Away From Her." Born in India in the last days of the Raj, the upper-class Christie won the lead actress Academy Award back in 1965 as a bed-hopping babe in "Darling." More than three decades on, she was winning plaudits in 1997 for playing an unhappily married woman in Alan Rudolph's love-rectangle drama "Afterglow." She was named best actress by both the New York Film Critics Cicle and National Society of Film Critics and took home the Independent Spirit award the night before the Oscars for her subtle portrayal of a woman on the verge.

The fourth nominee, Judi Dench, was starring in her first film after decades of toiling on the British stage, and 12 years after her first substantive movie role in "A Room With a View" (Carter's film debut). She had won the Golden Globe (drama) for playing the widowed Queen Victoria in "Mrs Brown" and was fast becoming a favorite by Oscar night. Though she lost then, Dame Judi returned the next year to win the supporting-actress award for playing another monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, for all of 8 1/2 minutes in best picture winner "Shakespeare in Love." Her competition then? Two Brits — Brenda Blethyn ("Little Voice") and Lynn Redgrave ("Gods and Monsters"), one Aussie Rachel Griffiths ("Hilary and Jackie") and one American, previous lead actress winner Kathy Bates ("Primary Colors").

Since that win, Dench has had four more nods including one in 2001 for "Iris" with her younger self in that biopic played by the fifth nominee from Oscar night 1997, Kate Winslet. At 22, Winslet became a two-time loser in 1997, having been nominated in the supporting actress race two years earlier for playing Emma Thompson's younger sister in "Sense and Sensibility." (A decade on, she is the youngest actress to have had five nominations, but alas no win). Winslet may just have to make do with having starred in the biggest grossing film of all time — "Titanic" — which turned out to be quite the juggernaut on Oscar night winning 11 statues.

When Hunt won, many thought she had caught the wave of momentum that got her co-star, Jack Nicholson, his third Oscar. Indeed, they were only the seventh on-screen team in Oscar's first 70 years to win both awards for lead actor and actress. However, the more jingoistic Oscarologists think that she won because she was the only American in the race.

Does that theory really hold up? See separate post below. Meantime, give us YOUR vote for the 1997 race, please.

Stephen Sondheim helped to slash 'Sweeney' for the screen

November 16, 2007 |  4:14 am

A poster in the comments section of my review of the 17-minute preview of "Sweeney Todd" (click here) quarrels with the claim that Sondheim director Tim Burton has cut out an hour of the original Broadway musical while adapting it to screen. Admittedly, I haven't timed the stage version, but Burton is quite specific about minutes in our chat backstage (click here and listen to the full podcast) when describing his adaptation process.

That process, by the way, included the involvement of composer Stephen Sondheim. As Burton notes, they pored over the original show together as Sondheim said, "This can go, sure, but that should stay in. You can trim this song a bit." Burton keeps 26 songs in the film, but many of them are performed only in part. Even though he trimmed the role of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) significantly to make the movie more Sweeney-centric, he kept her great songs like "Nothing's Going to Harm You" and "The Worst Pies in London." In the end, Burton says, he was thus able to chop the 2-hour, 45-minute musical to a 1-hour, 45 minute film. I'm sure he means those numbers as ballpark.

Prediction: 'Sweeney Todd' will win the Oscar for best picture

October 31, 2007 | 10:55 am

If you've checked out our first Buzzmeter (CLICK HERE, then click on any link to "Individual Panelists' Rankings"), you'll see that I buck the pundit tide and boldly predict that "Sweeney Todd" will win the Oscar for best picture.

No, I haven't seen the film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim Broadway classic yet, but I have now heard from enough viewers to feel confident that I'm making a shrewd, if recklessly early call. They're all deliriously passionate about it — in fact, they're as mad for it as Sweeney is for his revenge-wreaking razor — and so far it's the only film on the scene to inspire this kind of joy.


"Sweeney Todd" does that to people, even though they're actually rooting for a deranged chap to slash men's throats. It's a proven recipe for Oscar victory, tattling on Hollywood's sick dark side. Let's recall that the last musical to win best picture — "Chicago" — also asked viewers to cheer on characters to get away with murder.

But "Sweeney" does it much more deftly in an artistic way. Sondheim's musical score is a masterpiece. By comparison, "Chicago's" score is bad Britney Spears. Viewers can't help but get swept up in "Sweeney's" lush melodies and raging drama, as they're seduced into egging on his quest for vengeance against old Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who wrongly sent him to prison in order to steal his wife, then, after she reportedly dies upon swallowing poison, plans to wed and bed Sweeney's lovely young daughter.

I was in New York City in 1979 when "Sweeney Todd" first cast its mad spell on audiences. Broadway went berserk. Media and Manhattan's fancy folk couldn't stop talking about it. Beware: America's moviegoers are about to go through the same mania when they inevitably become smitten with its irresistible bloodlust, artistic brilliance and twisted love tales.


Being a fan of the Rialto production, I had misgivings about this screen adaptation at first. I heard that director Tim Burton cut out lots of its musical score and made it very Sweeney-centric. He significantly trimmed Mrs. Lovett's role — the goofy, love-struck baker who fills her meat pies with his victims because it "seems an awful waste," she sings. "I mean, with the price of meat / what it is/ when you get it / if you get it."

But now I hear that Burton didn't cut out, well, the real meat of her role. She still breaks audiences' hearts even while Sweeney continues to ignore her, which means Helena Bonham Carter is a serious contender for best actress at the Oscars. Her stage predecessor, Angela Lansbury, won the equivalent Tony. The show won eight in all, including best musical, director (Hal Prince), actor (Len Cariou). The only category it lost was lighting.

Thus — since Burton & Co. do not, apparently, screw things up —I think "Sweeney" is a good bet to sweep the Oscars next. Yes, there's the serious issue of Johnny Depp's "singing." He doesn't do it well, but I hear that he sells his feelings with such passionate bravado that he compensates adequately, much like tone-deaf Antonio Banderas managed to pull off — miraculously — in "Evita." When Depp gives up even trying to sing, I hear that he attempts a kind of sing-speak, which worked fine for Oscar- and Tony-winner Rex Harrison in best picture champ "My Fair Lady."

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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.

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