• Stagecraft in the Age of "Sweeney Todd"

    Kat Zukaitis (adapted by Beth Fhaner)
     | Jan 18, 2019
    The Set of Sweeney Todd

    ​John Iacovelli's set for SCR's production of Sweeney Todd.


    Victorian stagecraft owes a heavy debt to the Italian Renaissance, when artists, architects and engineers collaborated to design elaborate machinery for church-based spectacles and operas. Their complicated contraptions rotated painted columns to simulate waves, lowered angelic choirs from the heavens on a system of ropes and pulleys, and even flooded portions of the theatres for water spectacles. In fact, the first modern proscenium (the arch that frames the stage in most contemporary theatres) was developed as a means of concealing the many mechanical devices that were de rigeur in 17th-century Italian productions.

    Proscenium Arch

    The proscenium arch in Venice’s Teatro Goldoni, constructed in the 1720s.

    The story of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is set against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, when rapid technological change catalyzed both an urban population boom and a host of sweeping social changes. The population of London exploded, growing by a factor of six over the course of a century, with nearly four-fifths of its denizens belonging to the working class and frequently living in poverty.

    What was happening on British stages mirrored what was happening in the streets: mainstream theatre took a popular, rather than elitist, bent, and dramatists embraced the expanded storytelling possibilities brought by new technologies. New theatres sprang up in the poorer neighborhoods of London, moving away from a rotating repertory of shows and towards a commercial model that ran the same show every night for as long as it remained profitable. No longer the domain of the wealthy, educated classes, 19th century theatre catered largely to the working classes and had strong roots in the urban experience. Classical dramas in verse were out; melodrama and, later, realism were in. 

    Melodrama Reigns

    Melodrama dominated popular theatre on both sides of the Atlantic in the early part of the 19th century. The basic plot of melodrama was always the same: a virtuous protagonist is pursued by an evil villain, but, after many trials and tribulations, good emerges triumphant. In the early decades of the 19th century, sweeping tales of pirates, castles and dungeons were in vogue; after the 1830s, the domestic melodrama prevailed. The plots were just as sensational, but the settings were contemporary homes in London or the country, and the plays highlighted issues of money, class, crime and family life. In order to keep the genre exciting, playwrights often incorporated the latest novels or true crime stories, and experimented with elaborate effects, novel settings and convoluted plot twists. As the century progressed, realism replaced melodrama as the public’s favorite theatrical genre, bringing with it new trends in stage design.

    Scenery & Special Effects

    For the early part of the century, stage scenery consisted of little more than flat, painted backdrops that stretched behind the actors to suggest a setting. The Romantic movement found onstage expression in the lush, detailed backdrops of the early nineteenth century, which luxuriously portrayed the beauty of the natural world. “Moving panoramas”—in which a very long strip of painted fabric was slowly unwound across the stage by turning spools—offered the illusion of movement, and were used for effects like horse races or voyages. One popular American play, William Dunlap’s A Trip to Niagara, which opened at New York’s Bowery Theatre in 1928, used a panorama to illustrate the entire journey from New York City to Niagara Falls.

    Victorian Scenery

    This engraving by Wilson Lowry depicts a mechanism for producing the illusion of onstage waves, as well as devices to move a ship across a sea and a chariot through the sky.

    As writers sought to sate the public’s taste for adventurous fare, their melodramatic plots called for ever more complicated special effects, leading to the development of highly specialized devices. The “Vampire trap” was a new kind of trapdoor invented for an 1820 adaptation of Polidori’s The Vampyr. It had two sprung doors that swung closed as soon as pressure was released, allowing actors to “walk” through walls or floors. A more elaborate version, called the “Corsican Trap,” was developed for Dion Boucicault’s 1852 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Corsican Brothers. This trapdoor involved a wheeled cart that ran up an ascending track through a camouflaged opening, giving the impression of a ghost gliding upwards through the floor. The play’s runaway success—Queen Victoria herself attended several times—was largely due to the sensational effect of the Corsican Trap, rather than any virtues of the script; and the many other theatres that hurried to produce it all installed a Corsican trap of their own. 


    Prior to the 19th century, lighting effects were limited to what could be accomplished with candles, oil lamp, and sunlight, all of which were dim and difficult to focus. In 1916, Philadelphia’s Chester Street Theater became the world’s first theatre to use gas lighting, revolutionizing the field. The invention of the limelight, first used at London’s Covent Garden Theatre in 1837, provided the means to spotlight certain performers. (Although theatrical lighting technology has since progressed, the phrase “in the limelight” is still used for someone in the public eye.) By the end of the 19th century, electricity began to replace limelights, allowing for still greater safety and precision.


    Before the advent of recorded sound, theatres relied upon a variety of specialized mechanical devices to create common sound effects. A thunder run, which consisted of cannonballs being rolled through chutes, was a must for any storm scenes. Thunder sheets and rain- and wind-makers were also kept in the wings. It wasn’t until 1890 that recorded sound was introduced into the theatre--the first documented instance being a phonograph recording of a baby’s cry.


    Greater ease of travel and communication brought previously unknown locales into focus—and made far-off, seemingly exotic countries popular settings for Victorian plays. Along with a desire for adventure came the pressure to deliver a seemingly authentic experience. As the 19th century progressed, both sets and costumes became more detailed and more realistic.

  • An Interview with Author and Playwright Mo Willems

    SCR Staff
     | Jan 18, 2019
    Naked Mole Rat Book Cover

    Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed book cover.

    Meet Mo Willems

    Mo Willems

    ​Mo Willems

    Mo Willems is an American writer, animator, voice actor and creator of children’s books. He first became interested in cartoon art when he was a child and began his professional career as a writer and animator for PBS’ “Sesame Street,” for which he was awarded six Emmy Awards for his writing. During his nine seasons at “Sesame Street,” Willems served as a weekly commentator for BBC Radio and created two animated series, “The Off-Beats” (Nickelodeon) and “Sheep in the Big City” (Cartoon Network). While serving as head writer for Cartoon Network’s “Codename: Kids Next Door,” Willems began writing and drawing books for children. His debut effort, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, became a New York Times Bestseller and was awarded a Caldecott Honor (2004). Since then, Willems has written more than 50 children’s books, including Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, which was published in 2009.

    In this interview from Publishers Weekly, author Mo Willems talks with critic John A. Sellers about naked mole-rats, his writing process and the message behind the story of Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.

    John A. Sellers: So, I’ve looked up pictures of real naked mole-rats. They’re kind of terrifying. What made you decide to feature these creatures in your new picture book?

    Mo Willems: Unfortunately, the answer to most questions I get is, “Because it’s funny.” Just like the pigeon, I suppose, naked mole-rats weren’t taken. Bunnies and mice and cute little piggies—they’re pretty much taken. Also, I thought it was time to do an underground story.

    JS: I’m not sure if it’s the teeth or the wrinkly skin that’s more upsetting.

    MW: They do look like members of my extended family.

    JS: Was the fact that there’s a fun adjective in the animal’s name a factor?

    MW: Absolutely—it’s a funny name for an animal. A bear isn’t called a furry tooth bear, so certainly there’s a play on words there that made it fun.

    JS: But your naked mole-rats are actually cute. Do you try to capture certain innate qualities of animals when using them in your books?

    MW: I’m always trying to do as little as possible, because I want my audience to put in as much as possible. In this case, the formal challenge was to be able to show emotion without a mouth. You can’t tell if they’re smiling or frowning. You have to do it entirely through body language. I’m not sure if it was an influence or not, but while I was working on this book, I had gone to the Charles M. Schulz Museum. I got to meet Jean Schulz, Sparky’s widow, and they gave me one of his nibs, which I used. The characters kind of “Snoopified” after a while. There’s something so ungainly about naked mole-rats. Since I couldn’t make them ugly, I decided to make their heads as big as possible—like one small tremor and they would all topple over. They are precarious in their posture.

    JS: Have you had the chance to read this book to kids yet?

    MW: I have. I’ve read the F&G [folded and gathered], which is the last step before a book is bound, printed and published to a few groups of kids. It’s always interesting to see their responses. They react to things you wouldn’t expect them to, and don’t react to things you think they would. All the other naked mole-rats yelling “Ew!” and “Gross!” [upon seeing Wilbur in clothing] seems to be hilarious, which is gratifying.

    JS: But despite the G-rated nudity, this seems at heart a fairly straightforward story about being true to yourself. What’s your take on the best way to present a “message” in a story? How much does that factor in when you’re putting a book together, if at all?

    MW: I almost try not to put a message in a book, because I want the audience to come to it and find out what they think about it. What I’m interested in is seeing what they think this story is about. It’s certainly a book about community. I’m usually wrong when I say what my books are about, but in my mind, if there’s anything there I was bringing to it, it was a plea for moderation. It’s not a book where, at the end, everyone is dressed. It’s not about changing opinions from right to wrong. Hopefully it’s more subtle and more peaceable.

    (Interview adapted from Publishers Weekly website.)

    Learn more about Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience and buy tickets.

  • "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed" – A Story Overview

    SCR Literary Staff
     | Jan 14, 2019

    Naked Mole Rat Logo

    The Characters

    In Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, six actors play 17 different characters.

    • Daniel Bellusci: Wilbur J. Mole Rat, Jr.
    • Melody Butiu: Grande Mole Rat/H&M Singer 4
    • Joel Gelman: Venti Mole Rat/H&M Singer 5
    • Nicole Cowans: Tall Mole Rat/H&M Singer 3
    • Marquell Edward Clayton: Grand-Pah Mole Rat/Stark Naked/Naked Mole Rat 4/H&M Singer 2/Announcer
    • Gina D'Acciaro: Weather Mole/Naked Mole Rat 5/H&M Singer 1/Potential Customer/Secret Service

    It’s morning in the underground colony of naked mole-rats. And that means it’s time for the morning song, when the whole colony comes together to celebrate their nakedness. But today something’s amiss: Wilbur is missing. His friends—Grande, Venti and Tall—are sure that he’s happily naked (and moisturized) somewhere. But still, it’s not like Wilbur to miss the morning song.

    In fact, Wilbur isn’t particularly happy. He’s grown tired of the monotony in the tunnel, from the never-changing weather to the always being naked. And then suddenly—as if in answer to his daydreams—a hat falls from the sky. And then a shirt. And then a pair of pants, a blazer, a tie! With a full outfit at his feet, Wilbur decides to do something no naked mole-rat has ever done before: Wilbur gets dressed.

    When Wilbur shows off his new outfit to Grande, Venti and Tall, they are shocked, disgusted and, frankly, offended. Naked mole-rats don’t wear clothes! But, Wilbur likes the way he looks, and sees nothing wrong with his tasteful ensemble. And so, against the advice of his friends, Wilbur decides to share his passion for fashion with everyone and open his very own clothing store.

    The grand opening of Wilbur’s store, Hats and More, causes quite a scandal. It even makes the naked mole-rat news on CNN, the Constantly Naked Network. Then, when more clothes mysteriously begin to rain down from the sky, the colony erupts into a panic. Grande, Venti and Tall are fed up and decide that there’s only one way to deal with Wilbur’s strange behavior. It’s time to visit Grand-Pah, the oldest, greatest and most naked mole-rat ever. Perhaps he can set Wilbur straight.

    Wilbur’s clothes shock even Grand-Pah and he orders that the colony assemble for a proclamation. (A proclamation from Grand-Pah is serious business.) Meanwhile, clothes are still raining from the sky... Amidst all this chaos, Wilbur realizes that his simple decision to get dressed has had serious repercussions. And yet, he isn’t sure what to do next. Will the colony ever accept a not-so-naked mole-rat? Should he just give in and go nude? Or is it, perhaps, best that Wilbur leave the colony altogether?

    Learn more about Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience and buy tickets.

  • The Trappings of a Musical Thriller

    Andy Knight
     | Jan 11, 2019

    Sweeney Todd Logo

    Artists on Stephen Sondheim:

    Stephen Sondheim

    Stephen Sondheim

    “He has changed everything about the American musical theater, and given permission and inspiration to thousands of artists who didn’t realize the theater could matter so much. He is a brother, and father, to us all. Words really can’t convey how much we owe him”

    — Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater

    “It’s hard to overemphasize Sondheim’s influence on American musical theater. As a young man, he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the songwriting duo who revolutionized musicals with Oklahoma! in 1943. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote fully integrated songs that advanced the plot and revealed hidden depths in their characters; in their hands, musical theater matured into a storytelling art form. Sondheim built on Hammerstein’s innovations by experimenting relentlessly with subject matter and form: from his early lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s music in the seminal West Side Story (1957) and for Jule Styne’s music in Gypsy (1959) to more than 50 years’ worth of scores that have pushed the boundaries and subject matter of musical theater in every conceivable direction. He is musical theater’s greatest lyricist, full stop. The days of competition with other musical theater songwriters are done: We now talk about his work the way we talk about Shakespeare or Dickens or Picasso—a master of his form, both invisible within his work and everywhere at once.”

    — Lin​-Manuel Miranda, author of Hamilton: An American Musical

    “His music is so complicated and luxurious, it must be sung as he wrote it. It’s hard but infinitely more rewarding for the singer to accomplish.”

    — Patti LuPone, actor

    Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
    His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
    He shaved the faces of gentlemen
    Who never thereafter were heard of again.
    He trod a path that few have trod,
    Did Sweeney Todd,
    The demon barber of Fleet Street.

    With these foreboding lyrics, the ensemble sets the stage for Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Jan. 19-Feb. 16, 2019). The story begins on the docks of 19th-century London, where a young sailor, Anthony Hope, and a brooding middle-aged man, Sweeney Todd, take in the city after a long journey at sea. For Todd, the return to London is an opportunity to seek answers. Fifteen years earlier, he was a successful barber in the city, with a young wife named Lucy and an infant daughter named Johanna. But Todd lost everything when the powerful and spiteful Judge Turpin, who coveted Lucy, exiled him. Now back home, Todd is determined to learn the fate of his wife and daughter.

    On London’s Fleet Street, Todd enters a shop that sells savory pies. There, he meets the off-kilter owner, Mrs. Lovett, who, without bidding, laments over her failing business, which she attributes to a scarcity of fresh meat. When Todd asks about the room above the shop, Mrs. Lovett tells him the story of the previous tenants—the unfortunate barber Benjamin Barker, his wife and their little baby. When it becomes clear that the mysterious Sweeney Todd is, in fact, Benjamin Barker, Mrs. Lovett reveals the sad fate of his family: Lucy was raped by Judge Turpin and then poisoned herself, and the parentless Johanna became Turpin’s ward. Enraged, Todd vows to avenge the injustice done to his family by killing both Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford, the Judge’s accomplice. Mrs. Lovett, who long carried a torch for Benjamin Barker, sees nothing wrong with helping out an old friend.

    Anthony, meanwhile, has fallen in love with a beautiful young woman named Johanna. Without revealing that Johanna is his daughter, Todd agrees to help Anthony free her from Judge Turpin and offers them a place to hide—his newly established barbershop, located in the room above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. Todd also plans to murder the Judge and Beadle there, by promising them the closest shave they’ll ever get.

    But when Todd’s plan is nearly exposed, and the Judge escapes his barber’s chair intact, the murderous Todd and the resourceful Mrs. Lovett concoct a new plan to satisfy their needs. In Todd’s mind, all men deserve to die now and he vows to kill all his future customers. And Mrs. Lovett, desperately in need of fresh meat, knows just what she’ll do with the bodies. What happens next—“well, that’s the play, and he wouldn’t want us to give it away.”

    Sweeney Todd took its first bow on Broadway in 1979 and has since cemented its place as a modern classic in the theatre canon. The musical is adapted from a 1973 play by British playwright Christopher Bond, although the story of the bloodthirsty barber and his pie-making accomplice dates all the way back to a penny dreadful (a cheap serial publication) from the mid-1800s. While the musical retains the sensational characteristics that made the demon barber of Fleet Street titillate readers and, later, theatregoers—the story, perfect for melodrama, received numerous stage adaptations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—it brings something else to the table: a score by Stephen Sondheim.

    In his review of the original Broadway production for The New York Times, critic Richard Eder wrote, “[Sondheim’s] score is extraordinary. From the pounding ‘Sweeney Todd Ballad,’ to a lovely discovery theme given to Todd’s young friend, Anthony, in various appearances, to the most beautiful ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ sung by Johanna, Todd’s daughter, and through many others, Mr. Sondheim gives us all manner of musical strength.” It’s true that Sweeney Todds score feels undeniably diverse—at times, it’s almost operatic, with its use of recitative and sophisticated choral work; at other times, it lives comfortably in musical comedy (think “The Worst Pies in London,” sung by Mrs. Lovett). The lyrics, also by Sondheim, match the fluidity of the music. They’re dark and threatening in one moment, cunning and funny in the next, then heartbreakingly sincere in the next.

    Sondheim’s score won the Tony Award in 1979. It was the composer’s fourth in that category (and he has since won two more). Sweeney Todd also won Best Musical, Best Book (by Hugh Wheeler) and Best Director of a Musical (Hal Prince). Its stars—Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury—took home Tonys, too. The production was a commercial success, with a Broadway run of 557 performances and a subsequent national tour.

    It is no surprise then that, over the past 40 years, Sweeney Todd has been performed all over the world, in both amateur and professional houses. Directors are hungry to stage the outlandish story, and performers are equally hungry to sink their teeth into the meaty roles (pun intended) of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Notable revivals of the musical include a 2005 Broadway production, directed by John Doyle, which stripped away the stage spectacle and used a small cast that doubled as the show’s musicians. In 2007, Tim Burton directed a film adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. And in 2017, an off-Broadway revival transported audiences into Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop—literally—with a site-specific staging at the Barrow Street Theat​re (reinvented as a pie shop, complete with communal dining tables).

    Now, it’s director Kent Nicholson’s turn to take on Sweeney Todd. For South Coast Repertory’s production, which​ starts Jan​. 19, Nicholson, who helmed last season’s hit production of Once, is looking at the story in the tradition of penny dreadfuls. “In that spirit,” Nicholson says, “we’re approaching the piece as if it’s being told by a troupe of performers in the 19th century, using theatrical techniques in the design which mimic those of that era. By combining these with more modern stage elements, we hope to weave a magical and fun version of the story.”

    While Nicholson’s production will highlight the story’s theatricality and humor, he also hopes it will bring the musical’s commentary on class to the forefront. After all, Sweeney Todd is the tale of a man driven to insanity by the upper crust’s absolute power. The law—controlled by the corrupt Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford—not only fails to protect him, but it altogether ruins him. For Nicholson, this idea is captured perfectly in a line sung by Todd in “A Little Priest,” the cheeky and twisted act one finale: “The history of the world, my sweet—is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.”

    With its wordplay and comedy, its lush score, its romance and its lurid story, Sweeney Todd promises to delight a range of audiences, from lovers of musical theatre to lovers of the macabre. Perhaps Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett—in another line from “A Little Priest”—sum it up best: “We’ll serve anyone, meaning anyone—and to anyone at all!”

    Learn more about Sweeney Todd and buy tickets.

  • Party Play: "Culture Clash (Still) in America"

    Beth Fhaner
     | Jan 07, 2019

    Although it’s been a decade since the comedy trio Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ricardo Salinas and Herbert Siguenza) last appeared at SCR, the acclaimed group has returned with their timely new play, Culture Clash (Still) in America. With their ongoing exploration of the cultural intersections and societal stress points among a diverse array of Americans, Culture Clash (Still) in America grabbed the attention of the First Night audience and never let up, delivering an hour and a half of biting satire, comedic spontaneity and an honest, poignant look at life in multicultural America.

    As Culture Clash marks their 35th anniversary in 2019, the prolific group’s latest work kicked off the New Year on the Julianne Argyros Stage and theatregoers showed their appreciation with enthusiastic applause, generous laughter and an immediate standing ovation. Led by Lisa Peterson’s expert direction, the comedic trio presented a memorable evening of hilarious, incisive observation for First Night attendees.

    Honorary Producer and First Night attendee Ernesto Vasquez greatly enjoyed seeing the play, along with his daughter Monica Guillena, who stepped in on behalf of her mother, Socorro, who was unable to attend the performance. Vasquez commented, "Culture Clash is a sharp as ever with their wit and humor—and so incredibly relevant to current political and social conversations."

    Guests who attended the cast party at the Avenue of the Arts Hotel, which was a co-sponsor of the event, were greeted with a trapezoid backdrop with red, white and blue upward-focused lights. The inviting space also featured a mix of high and low cocktail tables, which were draped with white linens. The white China mums with red-tinted baby’s breath in large blue glass vases, along with some smaller clear vases, also added a finishing touch.

    The celebratory soirée featured a menu highlighting “American” food, and partygoers feasted on an array of delectable bites, including passed hors d’oeuvres such as pigs in a blanket served with spicy mustard, in addition to peanut butter and jelly “Cristos” topped with powdered sugar.

    Besides the savory appetizers, ​several hot food stations offered an extensive selection of delicious fare such as a meatloaf and mashed potato martini station that offered toppings of chopped parsley, pan gravy, peas and bacon crumbles. A gourmet mac ​n' cheese station—with Chef’s choice of two types of mac n' cheese—was a big hit with the festive crowd, as well as buttermilk fried chicken sliders, which were served on Brioche mini-buns with spicy mayo, cheddar cheese and pickles.

    The evening’s signature cocktail was a “Citrus Clash”—a delicious beverage comprised of tequila with grapefruit soda and a splash of lime.

    For a sweet finish to the evening, guests indulged in mouthwatering desserts that ​also paid tribute to America such as blueberry cobbler, mini apple pie tartlets, white chocolate pretzel rods with red, white and blue sprinkles, and tasty popcorn served in cones—all scrumptious treats that few could resist!

    First Night theatregoers were delighted to have the opportunity to meet director Lisa Peterson and the members of Culture Clash—Richard Montoya, Ricardo Salinas and Herbert Siguenza—during the party. All the while, lively conversation and laughter continued to swirl around Culture Clash (Still) in America, the acclaimed group’s new work that continues to showcase their special brand of irreverent, thought-provoking social satire.

    Learn more about Culture Clash (Still) in America, and buy tickets.