Unlikely as it sounds, director Tim Burton missed all the jokes in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The origins of the celebrated 1979 musical, written by Stephen Sondheim in collaboration with Hugh Wheeler, lie in the vaudeville-style English music hall tradition and in 19th-century penny dreadfuls.
He assumes his still posture two feet from the table. He is not grabby, his tongue is not hanging out, he is quiet.
He wants to leap, he wants to snap up meat and blood. You can tell. But what he does is sit as the gods his masters and mistresses fork steak and potatoes into their mouths.
He is expectant but not presumptuous. He can wait. He can live with disappointment. He can abide frustration and suffer suspense.
He watches for signals, he listens for calls of his name from above.
At hints that he may be gifted with a morsel, he intensifies his already rapt concentration, he looks his god in the eye, but humbly, sure of his innocence in his need, if his need only.
On the (often rare) occasions when gifts are laid on his tongue, he takes them whole, then instantly resumes the posture of attention, beseeching, listening, alert, the posture of hard-won faith that will take no for an answer, yet ever and again hopefully return to the questioning.
This is the last outrage, what women do in secret, slipping their fingers under bras or nightgowns on wild, moon-driven nights, needing to true the circle of their breasts, wanting to lunge below desire, beneath arousal and beyond the sweet milk-happiness of feeding children to find the nuclear godawful contraband their bodies might be hiding—the refrain danger, danger, singing in their minds.
At dusk I slip into a pew, enthralled, alert, combing through the week to find what might destroy me, to send it away. Lawyer, accused, bent to root out scandal, my hands judging. And also, maybe guilty.
I often tell screenwriting students not to avoid the difficult scene. By “difficult scene” I mean one involving a serious confrontation, a declaration of love or infidelity, or a confession of sin or weakness. These are scenes that lesser writers try to work around, since they are so difficult to write. But these scenes are the cornerstones of a meaningful story.
Can you tell me what to want now? I can’t go on, no turning back. We’d sing, “Jesus on the main line, tell him what you want. Just call him up, tell him what you want, what you want.” But these six months, they came to me, I tell you— tire tracks and footsteps flattened the grass ’round the green tent—my words made such sound toward the crowd—they bent, repented. But I knew I was nothing, I just stalled in the river’s flow. I waited for you, tensed as a dog’s hind leg crouching before bread crusts and melon rinds. Miz Black yowls “Call him up, call him up now!” But you’re here, and I’m blown, a cattail’s sag, I am birds dispersed—pepper in the wind.
One morning this summer I was basking in the sun With the brother closest to me in age. We had been Brought up almost as twins but then took disparate Roads, as twins do. He was sobbing and I was near Tears and the ocean was muttering. I heard a heron. We had been having the most naked open talk we’d Had in many years. I wanted to tell him how deeply I loved him but words are just so weak and shallow. So I talked about the forsythia bush we used to hide Under together. It was the safest place on the planet. The light was always amazing in there and it wasn’t Ever muddy somehow and you were draped in gold. It was a hut a huddle a tent a canopy a cave a refuge. Sometimes you have to use a thing to say something Else. We do this all the time. We talk sideways, yes? But sidelong is often the only road that gets to where You know you need to go. So much means lots more Than it seems like it could mean. Tears, for example.
John Coleman, who died recently, presided over Haverford College during the tumultuous Vietnam War era. He sympathized with students’ antiwar protests but also tried to channel the antiwar movement in constructive ways. When students considered burning the American flag, Coleman placed a washing machine at the center of the campus and encouraged students to wash the flag instead. He persuaded dozens of college presidents to sign an antiwar statement. On sabbaticals he took blue-collar jobs to explore the gap between academics and workers (Inside Higher Ed, September 12).