Anyone looking for a bloody, good show with a meaty story will be satisfied when “Sweeney Todd ” takes the stage.
The production, presented by The School of Theatre, will show previews starting at 7:30 p.m. and performances continue until Nov. 5 in the Pavilion Theatre.
Having decided on the show at the end of spring semester, the cast and crew of “Sweeney Todd” have been working diligently and consistently to put the show together, even through the summer, Shannon Knox, scenic designer, said.
The show is under the direction of Susan H. Schulman , who has had previous experience with directing the show as she directed its first Broadway revival at the Circle in the Square Theatre, earning her a Tony nomination in 1990 .
Schulman said she had the same vision for this production as she had previously, and she called the Pavilion Theatre the “perfect space” for the way she envisioned the show.
“I fell in love with it all over again,” she said.
She said she discovered more in the play’s material each time she does the show, finding more in the music and in the book. She said the show has a lot of depth and has many levels to it. She also said because the actors are of such a young age, the relationships between the characters are much more believable.
“Because these performers are young, they bring a more visceral response to the material that I find fascinating,” she said.
Setting the scene
The story takes place on Fleet Street in a dreary London setting in the 1850s. Most of the scenes occur in Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop or in Sweeney Todd’s barbershop, conveniently located on the floor above Mrs. Lovett’s. Because of this, the set had to be constructed to show each location.
Knox found out she was the scenic designer last April and has been working on “Sweeney Todd” ever since. She said it was her favorite show, calling it the reason she wanted to design for theater.
Knox (senior-theater design technology/scenic design) was in charge of designing everything from the floor of the stage, which was covered in painted gray cobblestones, to Sweeney Todd’s barber chair, which leads his victims down to the bake room where the “meat” pies are made.
She fused her own vision for the set with Schulman’s ideas. She said in the beginning, scenic designers read the scripts and come up with their own ideas and it becomes a collaborative process. Schulman said she thought it was scarier and funnier if the audience is right where the action takes place.
“We start with what the script needs, everything else is what I feel is appropriate to develop the world of the play,” Knox said.
After drafting the designs, she said she handed it off to the scene shop, and later the paint shop. She also handed drawings of props to the prop shop. The design team consists of crews in areas such as costumes, lighting, sound, tech and props. She said it was important that they all work together.
“The result shows how well we’ve been working with each other,” she said. “It’s important we all have a unified vision.”
She said they wanted an “environmental” feel to the set so that the audience would be thrown on Fleet Street in the middle of the 1800s.
“Whenever I design, I like to think about the audience members mainly, think of it from their point of view and what I want them to experience during the show,” she said. “I try to make an environment that shows off the actors the best, too.”
Knox said she wants the audience to be distracted from their lives and become a part of the atmosphere, a feat not hard to accomplish in the Pavilion Theatre, where the front row of seats is basically on the stage. Schulman said the lighting also adds to this environmental feel.
The biggest piece Knox wanted to focus on was Sweeney Todd’s chair and giving it the feeling of being a pedestal. The chair is set up in the middle of the piece that houses Sweeney Todd’s barbershop. She called it a “shining red beacon” that is grotesquely creeping over the top of the set.
Dressing the part
“It looks like everyone is in rags, but it is expensive,” Costume Designer Richard St. Clair said.
St. Clair, an associate professor of theater as well as the Class of 1980, said the theme for the costumes was “mid-century petticoats, not hoops,” giving it a 19th century flavor without the large hoop skirts.
Some pieces and fabrics used for the costumes were found in London. St. Clair said he had found a shirt that Sweeney Todd wears that looks “old timey” and he also found a piece for the character Judge Turpin to wear.
He said he takes the character itself as well as the actor into account when coming up with ideas for costumes.
“A designer takes inspiration from all over the place,” he said.
One instance of inspiration he found for the character of Beadle Bamford was the coachman from Disney’s “Pinocchio.” The beadle is not a particularly nice character, unlike the actor portraying him, St. Clair said. He said he needed to give the character something that made him more “menacing” and gave him more edge. He said if a costume could be mean, this costume would be it.
The costume designers did all of the distressing, dying, aging and other alterations needed to give the costumes a raggedy look, such as the costume for the Old Woman, which St. Clair said had many ragged pieces made “lovingly with holes.”
Many of the characters, especially the chorus members, have frequent and quick costume changes, which St. Clair said many of the costumes were rigged for.
Aspects of the costumes that many wouldn’t think about are the wigs being used in the show. The character Mrs. Lovett uses two wigs, one for before her business begins to pick up and a second to show she has more money. Another wig used is for Joanna’s blonde tresses. These wigs, however, have hand stitched human hair along the hairline, to make it look believable, St. Clair said.
The wigs even had a separate budget. They were rented for a fraction of the cost from John Carter in New York, who has made wigs for sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” St. Clair said. Because of the proximity of the actors to the audience, the audience would notice what the wigs look like, St. Clair said.
“The wigs have to look natural,” he said. “This house is a challenge because of how close the audience is.”
The easiest part of the process St. Clair went through was finding the shoes for the show, which he said is usually the worst part.
The theater department inherited all of the shoes from the Broadway production of “Titanic” after it had closed. Paying only $700 for shipping, St. Clair said, all of the shoes could be used for this production. The shoes are “high, lace-up turn of the century boots” that come in all different sizes.
St. Clair said he enjoyed the research aspect of the costume design process the most and said the process as a whole is collaborative with the actor, but he said none of the costumes were too difficult to actually make.
“I love this show so much that every costume is an absolute pleasure,” he said.
Putting the Pieces Together
There are over 100 props used in the production. Two of the most important symbols in the musical are pies and razors, Jeff Maloney, the props master for the production, said. Maloney said he had requested to be this role because the show itself is challenging.
“This was a show where most things had to be made,” Maloney (senior-BFA theater, scenic design) said.
From the dressers and cabinets to the pies themselves, many of the furniture and supplementary accessories used were custom-built, he said.
“This show is high on consumables,” he said.
Mrs. Lovett’s pie business is supported by 60 fake pies and 10 real pies — apple pie made the Penn State Bakery on campus, to be exact.
He said the show is challenging in general because it has “a lot of tricks.”
One of these tricks is the use of razors. There are two sets of razors used in the production, one of “shiny, beautiful” razors and another that have turkey baster bulbs for the fake blood when Sweeney Todd shaves his victims.
Schulman said making the use of props seem natural, like using the razors or holding the pies, is the most difficult task.
“There’s so much physical activity that goes on while they sing and to make it seem effortless is the hardest part,” she said.
The finishing touches
After working for months to put the pieces together, they had one week to install the set into the Pavilion Theater where it will stay for the duration of the show’s run.
Each part of the production involved people who may not have been working on the same thing, but all worked together.
“Musical theater is all about collaboration,” Schulman said.