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.


BubbaDan said...

THANK YOU! These are AWESOME! I sent you an email. hope you get it.
Fantastic and creative!!


FarSideSoprano said...

I love this concept - so much more expansive than the cube with all the necessary elements.

FarSideSoprano said...

I just love this concept - so much more expansive than the cube with all the necessary elements. Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Thank you! This is a great help with a scenography paper I am working on.