Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sweeney Todd - Design for Murder

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Skylight Opera - Milwaukee, WI
Drawings, photos and scenic design copyright © 1997, 2007 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

One of my favorite design jobs ever was designing the set for a production od Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD for Skylight Opera in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the spring of 1997. The show was directed by Jonathan Pape.

One of the first Broadway shows I ever saw was the original production of SWEENEY TODD starring Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou back in 1979. I loved it! But as much as I loved the original I felt a strong desire to be different in mine and to stay away from the "spinning-cube" unit-set of the original. So without too much chat here's what I did.

Below you will see several scenes from the show. Each starting with my watercolor sketch (the first thing I showed the Director) then photos of the 1/4 scale model I built, then my production photos of the design in performance. Enjoy!

My set was a collage of old London building elements that could move up and down, appear or disappear. It was a two level set - with stairs on either side leading to the upper-level and another staircase - used mainly to get to the Barber Shop, just off center. There was a tunnel at center where a tongue-like platform could emerge dressed with props and furniture to provide the various interiors.

The picture above shows the opening moments of the show when Sweeney and Anthony first arrive in London. The center panel (with the window panes) flys up to reveal Mrs. Lovett's Pie Shop. The pantomimed flash-back then occurs behind the window on the second level (as seen in the production photo below).

SWEENEY TODD - Sketch "Mrs Lovett's Pie Shop"

SWEENEY TODD - 1/4" Scale Model "Mrs Lovett's Pie Shop"

SWEENEY TODD - Production photo - "Mrs Lovett's Pie Shop"

As an experiment, I tried a couple sketches in purple. For a while I worried that the gray was a little too real and thought a brooding passionate color might be good to heighten the melodrama a little - but neither the director or I liked it. Below is a purple sketch for Johanna's first scene, "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" with Anthony emerging from a foggy London tunnel. The production photo below is a little dark - but the set basically matches the sketch.

SWEENEY TODD - Sketch "Green Finch and Linnet Bird"

SWEENEY TODD - Production photo "Green Finch and Linnet Bird"

At the end of Anthony's "Johanna" number, in the dark night time set pictured above, we finally saw all of the upper city-collage fly out revealing a soot-filled London cityscape. The city crowd pours in and young Toby marches across the upper level, he stops at center and begins to sing "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir." At the end of his long intro he he simply kicks the Pirelli advertising banner off the upper level and it unfurls over the tunnel opening from which Pirelli will make his imposing entrance a few minutes later.

SWEENEY TODD - Sketch "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir"

 SWEENEY TODD - Production photo "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir"

For the first part of ACT II I opened everything up. Sweeney is up top slitting throats, Mrs. Lovett is down below selling meat pies. The very large sooty-London cityscape drop in the photo above) was painted by me. As I remember it was 24 feet by 36 feet. It was begun by two local painters but they were not up to the task and when I arrived in Milwaukee, the drop was, well, a painting disaster. So I had to repaint it myself vertivcally (as opposed to flat on the floor) . Correcting a bad painting in the air is a lot harder than doing it right the first time flat on the floor. I made it look okay but it was a real chore to salvage that drop!


SWEENEY TODD 1/4" Scale Model - Act II

I have not covered every scene here, but this is a good sampling of one of my favorite design jobs. If you have questions by all means ask away!

Oh, I will add one thing. I was terrified the actors were going to ask me, as designer, to be the first person to be dumped from the barber-chair down the dark chute to the meat-room. Luckily, the Technical Director went first and I dodged the bullet.

I never did take the ride. Phew!

"Attend the tale of the scared designer..."

Drawings, photos and scenic design copyright © 1997, 2007 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ready? Ok! Trailer

Hi Guys,

Up above is the first trailer for the movie I designed last summer. Take a look at it! I'm very pleased with it. The film also won three awards at FILMOUT San Diego - our first festival appearance! The film won Best U.S. Narrative Feature Film, Outstanding Emerging Talent for our Writer/Director James Vasquez, and Best Actress for Carrie Preston.

The film is also now scheduled in the following festivals around the country:


Ready? Ok! Go watch the trailer!


Monday, April 21, 2008

Choking your Chicken

Back in the earliest days of the 20th century, when my grandmother was a little girl, she witnessed the events that led to this blog, the events that led to a favorite family story of the infamous day when my great grandmother tried to choke her chicken.

I had best explain. My great grandparents, Louis Dillard Kirkpatrick (Daddad) and Mary Campbell Kirkpatrick (Mamie) lived with their daughter (my grandmother, Edna) in Bridgeport, Texas. They owned a large house on fourteen acres of land. They had pecans, various fruit trees, and they kept chickens. If the dinner-time meal was to be chicken, Mamie would ask Daddad to please go get her a chicken, and he'd go out to the hen house and select a tasty looking bird. He would hold it by the head and with a quick spin of his wrist, the chicken's head would come off, and he'd take the chicken to my great grandmother for cleaning and cooking.

But one day, she forgot to ask Daddad to get her a chicken. She had witnessed the deed on many, many occasions. And she thus thought, "Oh foot! I can kill a chicken! I've seen Louis do it a hundred times!" So she went out into the yard, snuck up on the feathered dinner-on-legs, and grabbed it by the head. It squawked and flapped its wings, and she took a deep breath and started to spin the chicken around. And she continued to spin the chicken.

The chicken was not amused. It still squawked and flapped its wings. But Mamie kept on spinning the chicken. Whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, around the chicken went! All the other chickens looked on in wonder!
Whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, around the chicken went!

Eventually, my great grandmother let the chicken go. With a sigh, she went into the house to find something else to make for dinner.

According to family legend that chicken eventually died of old age - with its head permanently wrenched, turned backwards looking over its shoulder. When my great grandmother would see the chicken out in the yard she would look at it with remorse and sigh ... "Oh, Louis, oh ... oh..."


Friday, April 18, 2008

Much Ado About Easy-Bake Ovens

EXTRA! EXTRA! Stupid Children get fingers caught in Easy-Bake Ovens! "Roasted Child-Digits" only 185 calories each!

So read the papers and blared the radio a couple months ago ... Dumb kids, dumb parents, dumb recall, dumb world... However, this silliness did bring up multiple memories and tales-to-tell of my own adventures with MY Easy-Bake Oven. And being a good little queer boy I didn't burn MY fingers. I made tasty things to eat!

If I recall correctly I got my Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas when I was about six or seven. I really liked it - mainly because it worked! You could actually "bake" cakes and stuff in it. The oven used two light bulbs, one in the top and one in the bottom, surrounded by a highly-reflective aluminum shell. You mixed the cake mixes in little bowls, greased up the little pan, and slid it into the oven where it baked for a time. When it was ready you pushed the cooked cake out the other side of the oven, and a baker you were!

The packaging shown above looks much as I remember MY oven - the late 1960s "Flower Power" decals included. I also recall thinking that the little girl featured on the box wasn't too bright. Look at her little cakes. You are SUPPOSED to bake TWO layers of cake and frost them together with a layer of icing in the middle! It's boring to simply frost a single layer!

My two big memories about my Easy-Bake Oven involved my Dad. He was all for it - indeed he was the baker in the family. When I made my first cake I was distressed that when I pushed it out the far side of the oven a sharp blade (inside the oven) hacked off the top of the cake and made a very flat shaved-off cake layer. This didn't seem right and wasted some very edible cake. My Dad agreed, so out came the tools, he opened up the oven and removed the "cake-shaver." Voila! Unshaved cakes.

The Easy-Bake Oven also gave my Dad an opportunity to give me a lecture on the evils of Capitalism. The oven was a really good toy, well-made, and fairly priced. But the company really gouged you on the cake mixes and frosting packets. And I was baking a LOT of little cakes!

So Dad explained all this stuff about monopolies, and evil-marketing strategies designed to take advantage of little boys, and he took me to the grocery store where we purchased inexpensive JIFFY cake mixes, frosting mix, corn-bread mix, and such. We found a little clear plastic container and carefully measured a "real" Easy-Bake mix, and using tape and a marker, made an Easy-Bake measuring cup so I could easily use the "real" cake mixes in my oven. These real mixes were even better than the expensive "Easy-Bake" ones. There were more flavors! I could make things like corn-bread! And this made the oven seem more "legit."

We chose the JIFFY mixes because they were the only mixes that already had the eggs and stuff in them. Thus they were ADD WATER ONLY just like the Easy-Bake mixes.

Toys wear out and I have no idea what became of my Easy-Bake Oven. But when I was nine, we traveled to Bridgeport, Texas because my grandfather was very ill. My Dad took care of me and my sister in the motel room while Mom was at the hospital all day. One afternoon, while walking the main street of Bridgeport, we wandered into a "five-and-dime" store and I spotted a treasure I had to have!


Suzy's oven also worked via light-bulb, but it was bigger and looked and functioned more like a "real" oven. You placed your food in the oven through the hinged oven-door on the front of the oven.

Well, Dad sensibly saw this as a way to keep me occupied and amused during those long days in the motel room and he got it for me. This oven came with an assortment of "cake mixes," too, but it was suggested somewhere that one could also make pie! So when we went to the grocery store for the old reliable JIFFY mixes we got some JIFFY pie-crust and a jar of jam and I became the "Boy Baker of Bridgeport" for a time.

So here I sit thirty-five years later, I love to cook and I bake pies from scratch.

But the world has changed. Think of the fun to be recalled in 2043 when some forty-something brat will be writing mini-essays on how when he/she was ten, he/she stuck their fingers in their toy-oven, burnt them to shreds, sued Easy-Bake for Billions, and they are forever doomed to a life of store-bought baked goods.

Bon appetit, David

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Almost Movie Time - READY? OK!

Lurie Poston and Michael Emerson (Ben on LOST) on location shooting "Ready? OK!"
Photo Credit: Adriana Breisch.

As you may recall, last summer I served as Production Designer of an Indy feature film. Well it is called READY? OK! and it is premiering at FILM OUT SAN DIEGO, Thursday april 17th. I can't wait to see it! A few early reviews have come in, too.

Beth Accomando, at KPBS radio, reviews FILMOUT SAN DIEGO and offers a great review of the movie toward the end of this several minute long sound file.

There is also an early print review from the
North County Times. You can also read it online here - with a few pictures, too.


Thursday April 17th, 7:15 pm
Ken Cinemas

4061 Adams Ave
San Diego 92116

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Gimme Some Skin

I am currently working on AIDA for San Diego Opera - no, I was not cast as Radames (or Amneris) but am instead serving as body-makeup artist. What does this job entail, you ask?

Well, I must arrive at the opera two hours before curtain time and venture into the lower depths of the theatre where I (and several other makeup folk) get to spend three hours applying body makeup to various supers, dancers, and some of the chorus.

The vast majority are men ranging in looks from stunningly beautiful to elderly teamster. For about two and a half hours these assorted men wander over to the body makeup area in their opera-supplied skin-pink underwear and I ask them if they are Egyptian or Ethiopian. Depending on their answer they are made up with either Light Egyptian or Dark Egyptian body makeup.

They are escorted over to an empty spot on the plastic-covered floor and I spray them down with a water bottle. This makes the makeup flow better, quicker, and more evenly. Using small round sponges and pancake make-up of the chosen shade, I proceed to daub, wipe, pat and otherwise apply the makeup to pretty much every exposed inch of them save their heads, hands, and feet -- which are their own responsibility.

We are basically just trying to apply an even, smooth color. There is not much time for subtlety. I have worked up a few tricks and quick-and-easy frills to this crank-em-out process. I try to make sure the body makeup fades realistically into their necks and faces which are sometimes too light or too dark. I also usually apply a quick dappled sponge effect to darken the tops of their shoulders, like natural sun exposure creates. And a last little trick of mine, when doing their backs, is to start with a very dark spongeful of makeup down their back bones. This makes a little valley of makeup which can then be feathered out with the sponge. It not only avoids streaks but also adds a subtle hint of muscle definition to their backs.

Other elements of the job include hiding tattoos, doing a body makeup quick-change on eight dancing girls in about eight minutes, and then a lot of clean up afterwards: washing sponges, refilling water bottles, preparing for the next performance, etc.

It's kinda funny having a job where a man in his mid 20s comes up to you in his underwear and apologizes for not shaving his armpits better.

This Light Egyptian makeup has an interesting backstory. It was developed by Max Factor for Lena Horne who desperately wanted to play Julie in the 1951 remake of SHOWBOAT. The studio apparently worried that Horne was "too light" and Max designed Light Egyptian to darken Lena Horne's skin to an appropriate shade for the studio. Then as Ms. Horne has told it, "They went and hired my good friend Ava Gardner to play Julie and covered HER in MY Light Egyptian!"

So in a few hours I must head to the theatre for my opera chores. SOMEBODY has to do it!

Aida, Aida, I just met a girl named Aida . . . that's a different show, isn't it?


Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Slashing Sweeney Todd

Well, the web seems inundated with reviews of Tim Burton's film version of Sweeney Todd, some smart, many stupid. A friend in NYC said a bunch of goth kids came into the bookstore where he works and they'd just seen Sweeney. When they heard that the original Mrs. Lovett was created by Angela Lansbury the darling goth tykes responded, "Eeeww! That dumpy old woman! Was she the best they could get?"

Kinda makes a fella wanna move to France. . .

The original Stephen Sondheim Sweeney Todd opened in 1979 and it was my very first Broadway show. I got my chance to see it on a family trip to NYC when I was sixteen. It was only a couple months after Sweeney had opened and it still had the original cast of Len Cariou, Angela Lansbury, and Victor Garber. It really was extraordinary.

I have seen most of the important Sweeneys since: the New York City Opera version circa 1987 with Timothy Nolen and Joyce Castle, the 1989 Circle in the Square Broadway revival with Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler, the 2005 Broadway revival with Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone. And the video version of the Lupone/Hearn SWEENEY concert, and of course the Lansbury/Hearn video. Heck, I've even seen the old black and white non-musical British film The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), starring the amusingly named Tod Slaughter. I also designed a large-scale production of Sweeney for Skylight Opera in Milwaukee in 1997. Click Here for Pics and Blog.

Ok, now that my throat-slitting creds are established ...

I saw Burton's Sweeney on opening day and found it very enjoyable for the most part. I think it is probably Burton's best film since Ed Wood. I really wanted to like it and at the time I managed to convince myself that I did. I thought it looked really good. The smog-choked London of the 1840s was made quite real. Johnny Depp is certainly the right age and has the intensity to play Sweeney well, as does Helena Boham Carter to play Mrs. Lovett.

Burton has heavily cut the score for some unfathomable reason. At first I thought it was due to length, but on checking running times I found Burton's film runs about fifteen minutes LONGER than the full-length stage version does. Perhaps Burton truly wasn't up to directing a musical. I understand the reason for cutting the "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd" chorus parts. They are a theatrical conceit, and a stronger opening could be created for the film without it. But omitting the Act I quartet is bizarre. It's crucial to the development of the score. And paring down "A Little Priest" makes it seem like Burton simply didn't know what to do with the song. Or perhaps Depp and Bonham Carter simply weren't putting it over.

Spoiler Warning!

In the film Depp's and Bonham Carter's voices seemed fine. But as I've listened to the soundtrack since, they both sound very tentative and like they are at an early read-thru of the score. There is just not enough character in their singing, especially Bonham Carter's. In her opening number, "The Worst Pies in London," she should be chewing the hell out of the song - yet it has so little energy, it is so flat. Somehow Burton has stripped all of the comedy from the song. It needs to be lived and felt and made spontaneous. Mrs. Lovett is a very poor woman trying to get by selling meat-pies. She is supposed to be delighted that Todd--"A customer!!"
--has just walked in the door. Instead, Bonham Carter gives us a Mrs. Lovett that is so underplayed it becomes confusing. On the one hand she should be trying to make a schilling by selling Todd a pie and on the other she wants empathy as she admits her pies are disgusting and gross. This slightly schizophrenic point-of-view is essential to Mrs. Lovett's character. It is what enables her to rationalize her way into serving cadavers as entrées. This multi-dimensional quality is largely missing from Bonham Carter's performance. And to top it off, the lyrics are simply hard to hear and understand.

Alan Rickman makes a wonderful Judge Turpin. Indeed, he would have made a great Sweeney. Sascha Baron Cohen (and his manhood) ably play Adolpho Pirelli. Though again a comedic moment goes for naught when Cohen switches from his over-the-top Italian accent to his Irish accent. Why is nothing funny in this movie? Jamie Campbell Bower sings beautifully as Anthony the young sailor, but he looks so pretty and girlish that it's hard to believe he serves any purpose on a ship other than butt-boy to all the "real" sailors, and it seems more likely Johanna should be rescuing him.

Burton made an interesting choice in the casting Ed Sanders as Tobias Ragg. Toby is most often played as a rather dim-witted young man/teenager. Burton cast a little kid who comes across as about eight years old. He has a lovely voice and makes "Nothing's gonna harm you" sound really wonderful. This is no reflection on Sanders abilities, but a kid that age simply can't act well enough to carry his weight in the drama. An genuinely little child has no real chance of "protecting" Mrs. Lovett from harm; and in the final scene when Toby is exposed to the horrors of the bake-house and meat grinder we need to hear a cry of terror and pain that makes our blood grow cold. Young Mr. Sanders just yells, "Mrs. Lovett, let me out," like maybe he has to go to the bathroom really bad.

You may have guessed that I am not a big Tim Burton fan. I think he has a wonderful imagination and a strong personal style, but I have always felt he needed to be more tightly reigned in, that his ideas were too often brilliant first drafts that were never refined enough or thought through, that often his ideas were simply there because they were "cool" and if they made hash of the story-telling or characterizations, it seems Burton thinks, "Who cares, it's cool"! Here are a few of the most disturbing "Burtonisms" in the film:

The Opening Credits
It seems hard to believe that Burton will blow his wad in the opening credits by showing the audience the barber chair, the chute, and the meat grinder full of body parts. A good story teller would make the audience wait and build up the suspense. Why enact the plot in mediocre CGI animation before the film has even started?

The Tower Bridge
Moments into the film Sweeney goes sailing down the Thames under the Tower Bridge. The film appears to be set circa 1840, but the Tower Bridge wasn't built until 1894, some fifty plus years after the film takes place. Whether this was Burton's idea, or Production Designer Dante Ferretti's, it was a stupid mistake and makes both men look unprofessional. I have seen several other blogs online talking about this goof and a number of people seem to argue back: "But it's a musical! Since when does a musical have to be accurate? People don't sing in the streets either!!"

Well, that's not the point. It's bad because I wanted to be paying attention to the story and music and not be jarred out of my seat by architectural anachronisms. I don't want to see the Eiffel Tower on a backdrop for Les Miz either! Science Fiction films don't HAVE to be historically accurate, but if Peter Jackson had put the World Trade Center in his 1933 period-correct KING KONG because he thought it looked cool - well, it would have been stupid!

Passing Sentence and Key-hole peeking
To show the quality of Judge Turpin's character there is a scene where the Judge passes a sentence to "Hang by the neck until you are dead" on some poor prisoner in the dock who has committed a petty crime. In the show it's a young man and the severity of the sentence to the crime is considered sufficient to show the Judge's character. Burton ends the scene by pulling back to show the condemned prisoner is a little kid, possibly six years old, weeping hysterically. Ahh, subtlety.... In another scene the Judge watches Johanna through a secret peek-hole. It's in the original show, it's creepy, and helps define character. Yet for some odd reason Burton explicitly has Judge Turpin watch Johanna sitting in her window, engaging with the sailor and throwing a key to him. Yet later on when Judge Turpin hears Johanna has made these plans he seems to have no idea he watched it all himself earlier that day. The scene could have been solved by having the Judge simply quit peeking before Johanna throws the key. Go figure.

Little Bald Boys
Casting little kid Ed Sanders as Toby seems like a good idea when he's singing. But his big solo number is about his job selling a hair growing tonic and how he went from being completely bald to having a full head of hair. Hmmm .... I don't know many bald little boys, do you? It makes no sense.

The Meat Grinder
Mrs. Lovett's meat grinder is so over the top it seems ridiculous. It stands about seven feet high with an opening many feet across. Why? Where did she get a several ton cast-iron meat grinder? Huh? Also, Burton as usual must throw subtlety to the winds. In the show Toby finds some hair and then a fingernail in a meat pie, he puts two and two together, and figures out what's going on in the horrific bakehouse. In Burton's scene Toby finds a whole finger. It's just crass and doesn't allow the audience to make the journey and see the horror grow as Toby figures it out.

End Credit Music
The film ends with a bloody tableaux of Sweeney holding Lucy, both dead and bloody. Then the credits roll and we get an unimaginative jumble of music from the film. This would have been such a perfect place to hear "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd." At the end of the credits Depp and Bonham Carter could even have risen from the dead, like they do in the show, for a post credit "Gotcha!"

It isn't a bad film. I will certainly buy the DVD. But it could have been so much better. Burton doesn't seem to understand that the comedic moments are there to let the audience catch their breath, to relax the audience, so he can scare them all over again. Sweeney needed to be a roller coaster ride of giggly gruesome humor and stark terror. Burton's Sweeney is very one-note. Burton has put his imagination into everything from the little bald boy to the six-ton meat grinder. It's in the CGI smog-filled London and the cockroaches in the pie shop. It's in the squirting blood and in the whole finger that Toby finds in his pie.

But here, perhaps, is the rub ... Burton's vision is so "imaginative" that nothing is left to the audience's imagination, and it's a shame Burton doesn't understand that that's where true horror lies.

Copyright © 2008 D. H. Maxine