Supernal Dreams: BERNARD HERRMANN score inspires SWEENEY TODD

I recently watched John Brahm’s Hangover Square,  a film I have long wanted to see, mostly due to hearing it’s superb score and piano concerto by Bernard Herrmann.  Thanks to the beautiful new Fox DVD set of three John Brahm films, which also includes The Lodger (with music by Hugo Friedhofer) and The Undying Monster (with music by David Raksin), all of these terror classics are now available in beautifully restored prints.     

Laird Craigar as the mad musician, driven to murder by sudden, discordant noises
Laird Cregar as the mad musician, driven to murder by discordant sounds.

What I found a bit bizarre, though, was reading the press notes for Sweeney Todd only a few days after watching Hangover Square,  for the first time and finding that Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score was the actual inspiration for Steven Sondheim to write Sweeney Todd.    

It’s also interesting to note that Sondheim went back to see Hangover Square two times, while Burton went back to see Sondheim’s play of Sweeney Todd in London twice! 

So here are comments from Tim Burton, as quoted in the Paramount press notes, and from Steven Sondheim, as quoted from his 1993 appearance with Jeremy Sams at the Lyttelton Theatre in England:     

TIM BURTON:  I’m not a big musical fan, but I loved Sweeney Todd.  I didn’t know anything about Stephen Sondheim. The poster just looked kind of cool, kind of interesting. It’s like an old horror movie but the music is such an interesting juxtaposition, being very beautiful while the imagery is kind of old horror movie.  And it was interesting to see something bloody on stage, too.  I went to see it twice because I liked it so much.

STEVEN SONDHEIM: I’ve been a movie fan since I was a kid. I’ve always like melodramas and suspense movies. There was a movie I saw when I was 15, Hangover Square, with a Bernard Hermann score. It’s an American movie which took place in London, starring Laird Cregar as an insane composer who was musically way ahead of his time in 1900.  Every time he would hear a high-pitched note, his mind would go blank and he’d go out and murder the nearest person.  He doesn’t know what he does in these blackouts, and he goes to George Sanders, who is the police psychiatrist, who says, “Dear fellow you’re in a lot of trouble”.  He’s arrested right in the middle of playing his piano concerto, but insists on finishing the concert, and sets the entire concert hall on fire.  Everyone leaves and he’s left playing surrounded by flames. Bernard Herrmann wrote the concerto in such a way that it ends with solo piano with low chords.  It’s a brilliant score, a one-movement piano concerto.  When I was fifteen I sat through the movie twice because in the middle there’s a three-second shot of the score on the piano.  I memorized it and I can still play it. As a matter of fact, when I visited the Library of Congress, they showed me a number of Bernard Herrmann manuscripts, including Citizen Kane, and they said that they’re going to try and get me a copy of the score for Hangover Square. Herrmann had a way of making suspense lushly musical, and he had a harmonic line which I thought was just right for Sweeney Todd.  I didn’t consciously copy him, but it was Hangover Square that started that kind of thought process in my head. 

TIM BURTON: Steven is a formidable character.  He’s very intelligent, very passionate, he’s a genius at what he does, but the thing that I have really respected and felt very grateful for is him letting it go.  It’s not a stage thing. It’s a movie. Go for it. I felt very supported by that.  The other thing that impressed me and immediately made me like him was, when I first met him, he was talking to me about how he wrote this like a Bernard Herrmann score.  And what’s really interesting, when you take away the singing, and it happened when we were recording it, it is like a Bernard Herrmann score—it’s really amazing. As soon as he said that I thought, ‘I’m in, completely.’ 

About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

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