Fan-Directing: Sweeney Todd

The recent PBS showing of Sweeney Todd in concert nudged a lot of ideas I have about the show again. Since I’m not a director and never want to be one, I sort of figure the only way I’m going to get those ideas out in any fashion will be to write my way through them.

This is long. It contains spoilers if you don’t know the show. It’s also probably more than a little esoteric. Feel free to turn back now. You’ll get no more warnings from me.

Baiting the Hook

While the final “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” calls the show out as a cautionary tale, the bulk of the text pretty heavily belies that classification. Up until then, the ballads want you to “attend,” but they largely praise Sweeney. He’s strong and quick and clever and the ensemble implores him to “lift [his] razor high.” Whatever tragedy it ends up being, the lion’s share of the show is much more clearly a revenge fantasy (with a healthy dose of dark comedy) which the ensemble (and if it’s done right, the audience) is utterly behind.

Due to the outcome, though, on another level Sweeney Todd is about a slew of characters who are attempting to force the world to obey their individual wills, and about every single one of them ultimately failing miserably to do so. It’s a study in ambitions frustrated and twisted over and over again, where even getting what you’re after results in losing what you really want.

Those are the thematic roots of my idea: what if the staging reflected this tension of individual vs deluge-of-humanity more directly? What if the audience could see the mob infusing the principles with its fury, see the mass will twisting and turning and dictating, essentially forcing the tragedy upon the principles for some never-fully-voiced reason?

These Are My Friends

As much as the themes of the show are at work in the slightly-off way I want to stage things, there are two very specific moments from the show that I think work as precedents for what I’d make more prevalent:

As it’s often staged, the first “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” sees the ensemble effectively call forth Sweeney. We open on a body being buried, as well as–in some cases–a box of ashes. The ballad builds until everyone is participating in a long, keening, dissonant “Sweeeeneeey!” And, as if called forth, Sweeney steps out of the grave. There’s a very clear element here of the ensemble calling Sweeney (back) to life.

Then, in Act II, there’s a small sequence as Sweeney composes his letter to trick Judge Turpin into returning to the barber shop (where he’ll meet his bloody fate). A quintet of ensemble members sing pieces of the letter. It’s more integrated than the other, recurring “ballad” sections, and with strange echoes, the singers seem to play up the resonance of the lines he’s writing, emphasizing which ones he lingers on. “She will be waiting…” they sing together at one point, then a soloist echoes “waiting,” since, of course, that word in particular means much more to Sweeney. The line between what Sweeney thinks and what the ensemble voices is especially faint here, and it’s always stuck with me.

Sweeney Pondered and Sweeney Planned

Setup finished, we get to the heart of my notions: all of the above mashed up in my head to this idea of Sweeney Todd not as a person in his own right, but as an expression of the will of the mob. What if they aren’t relating Sweeney’s tale, but actively constructing it?

I probably need to stop here and acknowledge the 2004 John Doyle revival, which casts itself as a performance given in the heart of an insane asylum. Obviously the “constructing narrative” elements are there, but I think it goes much too far into the realm of putting on a show. I can’t argue that an insane asylum isn’t an appropriate metaphor (especially since the show itself uses that metaphor late in the second act), but despite the liberal buckets of blood poured on stage for that particular production, it feels far less, well, sanguine than I think the show deserves.

Despite my position that our ensemble is creating this story, I want a world that feels more real. Especially because, I think, there comes a point where the story overcomes the people creating it….

But now we’re getting into the particulars, so let’s just get into them.

No Place Like London

I think Sweeney works best in his original context: 19th century London, filled with commoners suffering and struggling and generally not enjoying all the magical improvements the Industrial Revolution is providing the rich. It’s dark, it’s dirty, and it’s full of frustrations. And because of that it feels real and immediate and in your face.

Given what’s about to happen, I think this is important. I want the audience to see and feel that the ensemble are as real as the principles here. They aren’t detached from the squalor; they’re inundated by it. The ensemble is going to be doing some things that set them outside the story, but I don’t want them to feel like they’re outside life. These aren’t capricious supernatural folks toying with people from above. They aren’t going through some questionable therapy scenario: they’re very real, very angry people who are enacting this revenge fantasy as much because of their own personal pain as for the benefit of the audience. This is a visceral catharsis for them.

Attend the Tale

Quick aside to clarify: I’m never talking below about adding any text to the show. When people “say” things that aren’t in the original score / book, I’m referring to thoughts they’re conveying through body language and staging. I don’t want to put a single new word in anyone’s mouth. Sondheim and Wheeler wrote plenty of good ones; they don’t need more.

So, there we are, in 19th century London. Citizens in squalor and desperation mill about. Instead of a graveyard, though, I’d want us in the heart of London, in the middle of what passes for the working class. That loud, shrill whistle takes on a more concrete role, as the sound that lets them stagger out of work for the day. Only, of course, the day keeps going. There is no rest. There’s only different kinds of misery and watching the rich gentlemen and ladies live their lives by walking on the backs of the increasingly-frustrated poor, and there’s nothing said poor can do.

But what if there is? The Londoner who will eventually embody Toby, after being brushed aside and ignored, steps up to the first few people who will sing with him. Toby asks them to “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” and almost immediately it catches on. They add to it, expand it. This story of a man who killed all those damnable gentlemen, oh, yes. And the story spreads, through the ensemble. Their voices grow, and so, too, does their insistence on having a Sweeney. But who will it be?

The crowd begins focusing on a few different men, choosing sides as the more cacophonous section of the song builds. They look men up and down, cast them aside. Some are eager to take the role, but don’t fit the bill for whatever fickle reason the angry mob happens to hold. And then, shortly before that keening call to Sweeney I mentioned above, they find him: some previously-mousy member of the ensemble, who has the look they want, whose mousiness means they can impose their will on him.

He resists, this man, meekly trying to break out of the crowd which is surrounding him. They have the wrong man, surely. He’s a nobody, a nothing. But the crowd won’t let him out, closes in on him, essentially envelopes him as they call upon Sweeney.

I think our Sweeney should start meek for more than just the sake of contrast. In the show itself, Sweeney is mostly a reactive character. He has stuff done to him, then he turns dark and bitter and eventually violent, but he’s almost always being played (mostly by Lovett), up until his final act of violence, at which point he breaks down. That the citizen who will embody him in this revenge tale writ large should be a bit of a spineless sort prior to being chosen, then, feels accurate, feeding into the themes.

Back to our opening, where suddenly the crowd parts, darkly proud and enthralled, to show us Sweeney. He’s the first to sport red, and we see his small piece of it now prominently displayed. Our sheepish man is now filled with anger and menace as Sweeney calls out his first lines, and the mob is equally kind of enthralled by him. The call and answer at the end of the first ballad shows off the fact that he is the expression of their voice and rage and all manner of darkness they’ve been holding down.

I Was Thinking Flowers

Here’s the thing: I want to do something that is more than “we’re acting out this story,” obviously. These aren’t actors, but citizens, possessed by the story, entering it and enacting it, but in a way that they can’t, for the most part, control. With a couple exceptions that I’ll get to, once you’re in the story, you’re stuck inside it. You’re living it, not acting it.

Because everyone’s part of the same time and place, though, we need something to help designate who’s inside the story and who’s still part of the mob forcing its will upon them. I think Sweeney Todd is a dark and dirty sort of world, though, so bright shocks of color seem wrong. This is where a costume designer would have to come in.

We need something(s) smallish that lets the audience know who’s in and who’s out of the story, but which can be taken and assumed (and removed, eventually) pretty quickly. While a few characters will get prep time, most will be possessed pretty much right on stage, and with very little time for any kind of full change.

I say “red” above, but I’d fully expect that a costume designer could come up with something far cleverer. I don’t have especially awesome ideas of what that is, I’m afraid, but I recognize that something costume-centric has to exist to serve our purposes. I could call it just about anything, but I need a placeholder of some sort, and “red” seems as good a one as any. If you feel like internally translating “red” to “whatsis” or something else because you’re in that kind of mood, have at.

Whatever it is, our reds would be consistent with each character, wearable, and easy to put on and take off. I figure they would definitely be different for each character, but would share something (obviously I’m assuming color at the moment) that makes it clear to the audience sooner rather than later who stands apart.

Ah, Sir. Ah, Miss.

Anthony and Johanna are ostensibly the romantic couple in the tale. I’m going to go on record right out of the gate as calling bullshit on that notion.

Here’s the thing: I think Sweeney Todd has, at best, one actual innocent soul in it. That’s Toby, and even then I’m sure someone could argue against that (and what I’m setting up may make a lie of that notion, as well). This show is almost all about cynicism and the worst of humanity. If it were an uplifting tale, Anthony and Johanna would be smart enough to run away, instead of come back to witness the bloody aftermath of Sweeney’s final revenge.

There’s just too much offal at play here for me to believe Sondheim and Wheeler are honestly trying to write a sweet, heroic love story for these two, and I think the text bears me out.

First of all, take a real look at some of the lyrics of Anthony’s “Johanna”: “Even now I’m at your window … I am in the dark beside you … buried sweetly in your yellow hair.” These are creepy lyrics, especially from someone who’s said all of two words to this girl, if that. He’s not interested in getting her out of her current situation, mind you. He just wants in, and as far as I’m concerned, he “wants in” the same way Judge Turpin does.

Anthony’s a sailor, just back in port after a long journey at sea. He turns down the Beggar Woman because he’s young and good looking and well aware he can get pretty much anyone he wants. Then he sees Johanna, and is immediately told he can’t have her.

Screw that. I’m already in there, he effectively responds. Guys, come on. Anthony is basically a stalker.

Johanna, too, isn’t the naive waif she might seem. Let’s remember, she’s spent the last 16 years or so growing up under the Judge’s increasingly lascivious gaze. And she’s somehow managed not to fall victim to him. Johanna is painfully well acquainted with What Men Want, and has spent years figuring out how to make use of her ostensible naiveté and innocence to keep from letting the Judge take that.

Let’s remember, this is a man who had no problem holding down and raping a woman in the middle of roomful of party-goers. Johanna’s managed to keep him at bay while living in his house. If this girl’s vapid and guileless, you should probably enroll Mensa in remedial classes.

Of course, it’s also becoming evident that she may not have much time before she can’t keep him at bay any longer.

Enter Anthony, practically drooling at the prospect of getting up close and personal with her. Johanna isn’t in love with him any more than he is with her. She’s something he can’t have and therefore needs to prove he can get. He, on the other hand, is her ticket out of hell.

“Kiss Me” takes on a very different meaning in this context. Anthony has snuck in with the hope of making his little creeper fantasy come true. Johanna, on the other hand, playing up the scatterbrained, fragile innocent angle that–as I said–she’s been using to save herself from the repugnant Judge, effectively makes it clear to Anthony that he will never get what he wants until he gets her the hell away from the Judge.

Thus Anthony’s hastily-constructed–and poorly enacted–escape plan is hatched.

It’s sad that one of the optional cuts that can be (and often is) made in the script is a scene in which Johanna manipulates the Judge in order to steal the key to the house and drop it to Anthony below. I think it’s a great one for showing our ingenue to be a woman with agency and resources despite the fact that her situation is designed to remove both.

Married on Sunday

To play up some of the subtext here, I think it might be interesting to use an existing young, married couple from our ensemble crowd. This is a twisted little role-playing scenario to them. They take off their wedding rings on stage, give each other a passionate kiss: this is going to be so hot. And since it’s a bit of a game, the audience is already sort of prepared to see them as toying with one another.

In other toying, I think this is a good spot to play up Toby’s role in things. He started this story, but has yet to enter it. A moment where our Toby steps up to be Anthony, but is bumped aside by the couple sets a bit of tension that we’ll use later.

For now, Anthony and Johanna claim their red, and the first strains of “No Place Like London” send Johanna offstage and Anthony into his opening number.

Don’t I Know You, Mister?

I’m of two minds for the Beggar Woman / Lucy. It might work just fine to have a woman begging within the crowd, only to be thrown into the story as a means of getting rid of her. Throw on her red, shove her forward, and make Anthony deal with her.

On the other hand, given who she really is, and that Lucy–like Todd–is a character broken by the events of her story, I think it might be better if she has a relationship with our Sweeney as we find him originally. Obviously that would be a brief moment during the first ballad, after which he’s pulled from her.

The introduction of the Beggar Woman, then, is the first chance this woman has to enter the story, to try to reclaim her … whatever he is to her. They shouldn’t be wearing wedding rings like our Anthony and Johanna. I like the idea of making their particular relationship muddy. But I think it would be a nice moment to see her turn from pleading with the crowd to let her enter the story to having her pleading for alms, and then just as disturbingly turn on the crazy.

Folks might argue that this gives too much away. Personally, I’m not sure we’re really meant to be all that surprised at who the Beggar Woman is, and I don’t know that half a second of held hands in the cacophony of the opening ballad will be any more noteworthy a clue to sharp audience members than the fairly obvious “I’m Someone Important” recurrence of the character in the first place. Still, I’m torn.

Sweet Polly Plunkett

The transition music out of “The Barber and His Wife” and into Lovett’s pie shop is this awesomely chaotic, banging sort of instrumental. It rather perfectly embodies what I want the moment to be like when our Mrs. Lovett claims her role.

Unlike Todd, Lovett is proactive. She’s the primary instigator in a lot of plot, so it seems right to have her be someone of agency outside the world, as well. Sweeney is a product shaped by the nasty world. Lovett’s not waiting around that long.

So as the chaotic, bang-y music plays, one Londoner roughly pushes, shoves, and likely pulls hair to get the other women out of her way so that she can claim her red, grab up her rolling pin, and corner Sweeney Todd before he leaves her shop.

Another Lad Who Once I Had

Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford are introduced in a flashback, to some rather playful music. The nature of who and what they are comes out slowly in that little dumb-show. This is also, I should note, one of the first places where the commoner ensemble can participate.

I think it’s rather perfect that its setting is a masquerade.

On the heels of the first fully comedic number, “Worst Pies In London,” the crowd has started to feel, as a whole, that this is a rather twistedly amusing game. So while ensemble members take up masks, and play at being voyeur rich folks (not recognizing, of course, the resonance that holds with the Grand Guignol they’ve incited), Judge and Beadle snatch up their red and enact their back stories.

I don’t have as distinct an idea for who these two men should be prior to joining the story. I imagine they’re both relatively jovial, though. They take up their red, after all, in the play-acting section. I don’t think they have any idea what they’re signing up for.

Which, as it stands, is fairly appropriate given how clueless the two characters are to the plot at hand.

May I Have Your Attention, Please?

Prior to “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” our Toby has had to watch Johanna and Anthony entering into their little sexual dance. As such, he’s had quite enough of being sidelined from the story he started.

The Londoner who will be Pirelli reaches for some red, but as he picks it up, Toby grabs it, giving Pirelli a different piece and swinging him off-stage. It’s my turn. You can have the next one. Pirelli doesn’t much care, so he follows his momentum off-stage as Toby grabs up his red to start singing.

This also, on a level that darkly amuses me, means that Toby effectively chooses the first person to die.

All in Masks

I should mention here that, thus far, the ensemble has not taken on any red when they enter into scenes as a crowd. They’re filling in responses from the wide world, but aren’t fully engaging. Like with “Poor Thing,” the crowd’s participation starts in upbeat moments (for a show about murder, rape, and cannibalism, that is), and is part of their having a bit of fun with the story as it trundles along.

I have a notion that principles / people with red never quite make eye contact with these crowds. Because the crowd can also observe and affect things in the story when they shouldn’t be seen. It’s a tricky notion, but I think it’s manageable. Toby’s giving a presentation, after all, and Sweeney / Lovett are talking out loud so people hear them en masse, rather than speaking directly to anyone. Even in “God, That’s Good,” Lovett could reasonably be talking to folks without bothering to look at them.

As the ensemble is effectively invisible when they nudge the story along (more on that in a minute), I think it might be worth the trickiness of it all.

Teach Me How to Sing

The first time this “no red for the crowd” rule changes is the shaving contest. If our rule is that you can’t fully interact with anyone in the story without fully entering it, then being one of the volunteers for the contest requires two men who will temporarily grab some red.

And when the contest is over, we’ll establish one of the restrictions of our concept: you can’t leave the story on your own. Our two contestants will be ready to walk off without the ensemble, out into the world of the story, until someone else removes their red.

Whomever this is holds the red for the newly-released chaps to see. They’ll quickly acknowledge that they now remember their place and re-join the crowd as we enter another ballad. That this is the “pondered and planned” iteration is appropriate, as we’re starting to ask the audience to understand some of the ramifications of what’s happening.

I recognize it’s slightly odd, but it becomes important in the second act that entering the story gives up one’s ability to leave it. Someone has to free you from the story, otherwise you are victim to it. And that, itself, is tied into what I’m wanting to do to make death matter in a framed tale like this.

The Engine Roared, the Motor Hissed

With all the pieces on the board, then, it’s time to talk a bit more about how I picture the ensemble / mob imposing itself on the principles without, I hope, upstaging them. I want a nice balance between the characters interacting on their own, and the crowd stepping in to force the story in the direction it wants.

A lot of this will be from individuals or small groups. I don’t want an ensemble to have to mill about the set for the full run of the show (which isn’t anyone’s idea of short). That way lies madness and mutiny, and it makes my back ache just thinking about those poor souls.

Establishing them on the outskirts, however, with lighting allowing them to fade offstage seems a reasonable way for it to feel like they might always be there, just out of reach. And a few secret entrances into sets that let them seem like they’ve always been there when they just stepped in when you weren’t looking could help. Again, obviously, the importance of good production people comes into play. The illusion of the crowd’s omnipresence will depend in large part on good lighting and sets.

The Work Waits

In any event, with minimal contact, key moments would wind up partially incited by one or more ensemble members. In all cases, the principles don’t respond to the ensemble members as if they’re really there, though it’s clear the crowd is partially the incitement. These fall into a few rough categories, and I’ll give a few examples of what I’m thinking of in each case:

1) Glancing inspiration. This is probably the one that would happen most. Here the appearance, gathering, or just pointed changing in the looks of the ensemble correspond to, as Lovett once says, “bright ideas pop[ping] into” the heads of the principles.

* A group of young ladies who might normally be Anthony’s type look up to Johanna to draw his gaze there.
* An individual looks into the trunk with Pirelli, and Lovett notices his coin purse to take.
* Sections of the crowd point Sweeney in the direction of those souls in the audience he menaces during “Epiphany.”
* A gathering of souls on her side of the stage near the end of Act I coincides with Lovett feeling inspired. The shifting of the crowd to Sweeney’s side of the stage brings him in on the plan which launches their pie-making innovation.
* One or more souls point or gather near Lovett to draw Toby’s attention to Pirelli’s purse.
* A few lingering crowd members glance oddly at the pie Toby’s eating, at which point he finds first the hair, then the finger.
* As one of the two moments that inspired all this, I wouldn’t forget “The Letter.” Definitely here, the quintet are dictating to Sweeney.

2) Invisible obstacles. This is similar to the first, but the crowd members physically put themselves in the way of a moving principle, which corresponds with a sudden change in direction.

* Someone stands in the Beadle and Judge’s path when there is a sudden thought for the Judge to see Sweeney for a shave to impress Johanna instead of going home.
* Another person or persons block the exit from the barber shop as Sweeney is about to leave Johanna alone, invisibly reminding him he’s forgotten something for which he has to return.
* A crowd member stands in Anthony’s way, turning him in the direction of Johanna at Fogg’s asylum.

3) Prop and set manipulation. Certain key props would be held / revealed / manipulated by one or more members of the crowd. The members would effectively be taking the place of furniture that would normally hold them.

* Someone produces Todd’s razors as Lovett remembers them / goes to get them.
* Someone opens the trunk for Pirelli to fall in, and for Johanna to hide in and exit.
* One or more members of the crowd help ferry the key from Johanna to Anthony.
* Members of the crowd produce the paper and quill Sweeney uses to write the letter to Turpin.

4) Just plain tossing folks around. I think in a couple of spots, it may work to have the crowd physically pushing and pulling principles. This one needs to be pretty rare, but, for example, I think it might be fun to have Anthony pulled and pushed quickly onstage near the end of “Pretty Women,” as members of the crowd decide they want to draw out their revenge fantasy. I suspect the same thing might work once or twice with Toby or the Beggar Woman. Most of the other characters feel wrong for that kind of thing.

Poor Thing

I mentioned above that I want there to be more of a sense of the reality of death in this production than there was in the Doyle revival, and in the second act, the rules we’ve established about entering and leaving the story become important in making that work.

Drunk on the fun of “God That’s Good,” Sweeney’s first victim in the second act dons some red and goes to sit in the chair. Not wanting to be left behind, a second grabs red just as the first is being killed. It’s not until after this second death that we see the body of the first, brought out to one of the edges of the stage, where, yup: he’s dead. For reals and all.

Appalled by this, no one wants to touch him to remove his red, so he stays there as the second victim dies, and people on that side of the stage begin to realize their Sweeney isn’t just killing the rich and entitled. Everyone is on his list now. Mind you, not everyone cares. Some of the crowd are feeling the same bloodlust as Todd. In this act, the crowd is slowly losing its detachment, is becoming infected with Todd and the story just as much as they are themselves influencing the principles.

The third potential victim comes from the side of the stage that hasn’t witnessed the truth of what’s happened, possibly obscured by those who want this revenge fantasy to grow bloodier. He’s already donned red by the time his little girl recognizes the danger. She rushes to grab red of her own even as some of the crowd try to stop her, and succeeds, shifting from a frightened rush to save her father into a playful frolicking that takes her into the barber shop just in time.

The two dead men will be shifted far enough offstage so that the actors don’t have to lie there for the next several scenes, but, as another Sondheim show tells us, “no one leaves for good.”

Lunatics Yelling at the Moon

As the Fogg’s Asylum scene begins, our crowd is still not fully integrated. They’re playing at crazy, though the real thing has been slowly seeping into them as the act has built. When Johanna / Anthony shoot Fogg, however, it’s the last instigation they need. Everyone essentially loses it, and just about all of them go crazy trying to find and don red.

Of course, as with just about every other resource at the time, there’s not enough red to go around. “City on Fire” is, in part, a sequence with people entering and being ripped back out of the story in quick succession as the scarce and coveted red is yanked from person to person.

Remember our two dead men from before? Here’s where they come back. Dragged out during one of the ensemble sections of this number, their red is torn from them so two more people can fully subsume themselves in the story. And when that happens, the men come back to life. We’re setting up the final “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” here, but also, really, zombie barber victims don’t exactly seem out of place in a sequence that declares itself “the end of the world.”

Seriously, the more messed up and confusing this whole sequence is, the better. I want the “out” for death to show up here so I’m playing fair, but in the middle of a manic jumble where I’m not shouting “Look! Look what happened here!”

Eventually, lead by our returned dead folk, those members of the crowd who are horrified at what’s happening manage to pull the red from the others, who scatter off to witness the end of all they’ve wrought.

It’s the End of the World

After the chaos of the “City on Fire” sequence, the crowd sort of comes back to its senses. They recognize that what’s happening only ends one way, and they start acting to make sure that happens. They help Johanna hide, though only so she can see just what her father truly is. One may even yank Johanna into running when Lovett’s cry distracts Sweeney as he’s about to unwittingly kill his daughter.

Definitely it’s a member of the crowd who shines the “furnace light” that shows the Beggar Woman’s face clearly and lets Sweeney know just what he’s done. Then the final tragedy plays out. Crazy Toby stands there in the wake of it until a member of the crowd (my inclination is one of the two men who rose from the dead during the lunatic section, now standing in as police?) yanks his red from him to finish this all out.

Toby is back to himself, but also realizes what’s been wrought. Because here’s the thing: like I said at the start, Sweeney Todd really doesn’t seem to be judging Sweeney harshly until the final ballad. It’s a sharp, sudden shift for the ensemble to suddenly speak of this as a cautionary tale. Having a sudden shift out of Toby and back into his Londoner self, I think, emphasizes that break.

Toby grabs the red from Johanna and Anthony, who have their own shift back during their lines, and they all move through to remove the red from the others, as well. As during “City on Fire,” removing the red brings the dead back to life so they can sing. The reactions of those pulled back into the “real world” will vary based on the characters, but all of it feeds into the warning we’ve now moved into giving. And this movement helps mask Sweeney’s sneaking out of the way.

As we’ve established that people are having their red reclaimed, though, it’s not wholly surprising when our Sweeney and Lovett show up for the last few lines. Red in their hands, they hold it as a reminder of what they’ve done and what it might mean.

Hush, Love, Hush. Wait.

In the swell of music at the end, the full ensemble begins throwing their red into a pile center stage, gathering around it. One of the interesting bits of the final ballad is an especially long pause between “Fleet” and “Street,” the final two lyrics. Bringing the cast center gives them plenty of space to march for the edges of the stage and the exits during that pause without quite leaving.

It’s hard to resist, though, the temptation to use a final bit of staging to point out just what the final ballad says: that Sweeney might be lurking in all of us. After most folks have exited on the final lyric, there’s just enough music left with which I can send in one or two folks. I go back and forth about whether that’s the “crowd selves” for Sweeney and Lovett, or whether it should be two non-featured ensemble players (probably younger ones). I’m inclined toward the latter, as it speaks to not learning from others’ mistakes.

Either way, that final music sees a rush center from whomever toward that pile of red center stage, with each one snatching and raising up a piece triumphantly at the end and donning it, thus letting the audience know that this bloody story is the kind of thing that lingers and returns and is never quite over so long as there are people to tell it.

Once Upon a Bait-and-Switch

I want to point to this recent Peter David post only to acknowledge it as sparking inspiration. Before that goes anywhere, though: this isn’t a response to David’s point, but I didn’t want to pretend this particular post sprang out of thin air. David is largely discussing slashfic writers who seem to be insisting on the wholesale rewriting of Once Upon a Time characters–in directions that don’t really make much sense for them–under the auspices of diversity. I agree, I find insisting that two heterosexual female characters suddenly fall in love with each other is stretching, to put it mildly.

That said, the mention of diversity in general with regards to Once Upon a Time does bring up an old itch I’ve had with the show. Setting aside fan pairings, this little series about fairy tales come to life does have what strikes me as a fairly problematic relationship with diversity. Insofar as I can spoil events which are several seasons from having happened, consider this a warning.

There’s really not much to tell when it comes to LGBTQ characters in OUaT. There’s exactly one: Mulan (Jamie Chung). In terms of characters, she’s not a bad one to have. The show positions her as a warrior. Much more of one than the prince and then princess with whom she travels. Mulan isn’t anyone’s sidekick; she’s hanging around to Get Things Done.

So, thumbs up for agency. Mulan originally develops a pretty clear crush on Prince Phillip (Julian Morris), with whom she’s been questing following the events of a curse. Mind you, a good 80% of the plots on this show involve characters of both sexes pining after other characters who may or may not reciprocate those feelings, so I’m not making a “defined by the man she loves” complaint here. That Mulan is quickly thrown into the position of having to protect Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger, whom Phillip really loves) after unpleasantness temporarily befalls Phillip twists things well enough to keep them interesting.

Then Phillip wakes back up, and there is still pining and moping, but, we eventually discover, it’s not for Phillip anymore. It’s for Aurora. I might be persuaded to believe that she really loves both members of that fairy tale duo, but given how cagey the writers were in revealing Mulan’s bisexuality,1 I’m not inclined to think they were also positioning her as polyamorous.

Though you can think what you like, since the scene revealing Mulan’s LGBTQ status is also the last scene she’s appeared in since. The series has a bisexual character just long enough for someone to notice, then she’s gone to make room for the heteronormative couple.

Some searching online suggests that part of this may be due to problems with Jamie Chung’s other commitments, but the problem is, Once Upon a Time sort of has a history of this kind of replacement of minority characters. By my count, there’s been a grand total of four other POC on the show who have had a significant impact,2 so let’s just take a look at all of them. It won’t take long:

Cinderella’s fairy godmother: In a flashback to the Enchanted Forest, the story of Cinderella starts out just like you remember it, as a young girl meets her fairy godmother. Said godmother, in a pleasant surprise, is played by an African-American actress (Catherine Lough Haggquist). But before the two women can even have a full conversation, Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) destroys her with a flick of his finger and takes both her wand and her place in the rest of the story.

Lancelot: African American actor Sinqua Walls shows up in the second season to portray the classic, valorous knight in a flashback. The good news: he makes it to the end of the flashback alive. The bad news: in the present, he’s been murdered off-screen by Cora (Barbara Hershey), who’s taken his place using an illusion spell.

Tamara: Sonequa Martin-Green’s character lasts longer than the two above, but given that her spy mission essentially turns her into a prostitute (she’s the fiancee of her mark at the behest of her employer) and said employer–Peter Pan (Robbie Kay)–only keeps her alive long enough to get him the little Caucasian boy he’s actually interested in, I’m not sure it’s an especially impressive run.

The only POC other than Mulan who manages to live through a run on Once Upon a Time, in fact, is Sidney Glass (Giancarlo Esposito). In the context of how disposable most other POC characters have been, however, it’s especially troubling that Glass’s fairy tale counterparts are not one, but two slave selves: first, he’s “Genie,” who is freed not by Aladdin, who then would have been the show’s first Middle Eastern character, but by yet another Caucasian male character. “Genie” is free just long enough to be manipulated into committing murder and subsequently re-enslaved by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), this time as her magic mirror.

Look, I don’t think that every character who falls into some kind of minority must instantly become The Most Important Awesome Flawless Character Ever. That’s not my intent here at all. I want real, human characters as much as anyone else–even in my fairy tale-inspired fiction.

And I don’t think that the writers and producers of Once Upon a Time are secretly a gaggle of racist homophobes. I’m not trying to ascribe malicious intent to the examples above any more than I’m trying to insist on paragon status for minority characters.

What I am saying, or trying to say, is that the smaller the nod to diversity, the more impact the event surrounding that diversity are likely to be. Killing off an African-American character doesn’t in and of itself send a message. Killing off three out of four (two of them in their first appearance) for the sake of developing your Caucasian characters, then making the fourth a double slave…. I should hope it’s clear that this starts to generate a pattern for the place of POC in your narrative which is, at the very least, problematic.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that when the details of the first nod toward LGBTQ inclusion seem to fit that same pattern of bait-and-switch which has plagued the inclusion of POC (and when the disappearance of Mulan not-incidentally marks yet another POC stepping aside for the sake of Caucasian character arcs), folks might be inclined to make some negative assumptions.

Yes, people like to see folks like themselves in their entertainment. But I think, sometimes, being repeatedly teased with that representation can have a far more negative impact than not seeing it at all.

ETA / Related: As fate would have it, Abigail Nussbaum just posted a far more in depth look at racial issues in another ABC/Disney property: Agents of SHIELD. Take a look.

1.Mulan never quite comes out and says she loves anyone, though I think the intention’s clear

2. There’s an African-American vet in Storybrooke who serves as an expository device in one episode. And one of the dwarves is played by a Phillipino actor, but given that the writers largely use the dwarves as “Grumpy and sometimes six other guys,” I’m not inclined to call him a full-fledged character at this point.

Selling Women Online

It’s probably incredibly understated to say that I’m really not an American Football guy. I’m not much of a traditional sports fan in general. So I definitely don’t follow much of the media surrounding sports, either. It was only via Rebecca Eisenberg on Upworthy that I ran across Katie Nolan’s recent discussion of the place of women in sports and sports media:

It’s worth a watch, and a lot of thinking and talking and thumbs ups. Then I Googled Nolan to see what responses might be out there to her piece, and I found myself fairly disheartened by the headlines:

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I mean, you have to get to the third article in the list before the headline is about the primary content of the video, and not “Don’t boycott the NFL!” which, you know, seems to spectacularly miss the point.

I was wholly prepared to start taking people to task for headlines which so clearly buried the lead in something that looked like nothing so much as corporate shilling. Except that clicking through, I saw that both of those articles pretty evenly move from the “no boycott” into the larger commentary on women in sports / sports media.

And then I realized my Google search is ordered by “relevance,” which in Google terms largely relates to how many people link to / click links to the articles in question. A realization which was, honestly, even more depressing.

Because that means those first two articles got more attention than any of the others with headlines that directly address the feminist concerns of the video. While I’m not especially keen on manipulative headlines that feed web hits, it’s an even more sobering realization that, apparently, the very mention of feminism and/or sexism in relation to sports media is a whole lot less interesting than “This lady says it’s okay to keep watching our sports!”

Which pretty much makes Nolan’s point for her, I think. When you have to sideline the very topic of sidelining women, the double-secret probation becomes rather painfully clear.

And yes, that’s exactly why I titled this blog post the way that I did.

Just Love Me (but Not On the Lips)

I’m still ambivalent about a The Last 5 Years1 film, largely because its concept has always seemed so tied to live theatre. Mind you, I don’t mind adaptation. It happens all the time. Filmmakers adjust stories to better fit the new medium and I totally think they should.

That said, the central conceit of The Last 5 Years–that Cathy is moving backwards through the relationship as Jamie moves forward–feels both essential to the material and all wrong for film. In all honestly, while there are a lot of songs I love in the show, I think the reason you sit through those songs all at once is the time juggling. It’s a device that engages your mind in a different way than a linear narrative, and by around the midway point, starts encouraging you to try fitting songs back together internally. The intellectual exercise of figuring out who is when keeps your brain working to put together what is, on its face, a fairly standard relationship narrative.

And, in a theatrical setting, no one really balks at just having two people performing a series of musical monologues. We’re used to folks getting up on a stage and doing just that. It’s the buy in. We don’t need anything cinematic. And, again, that intimacy seems kind of crucial to what this particular story is trying to accomplish. As, effectively, an elaborate he said / she said story, forcing the audience to lock in on whomever is currently doing the saying is important. It’s not a tug of war if you aren’t being yanked from deep within one person’s perspective to deep within another’s. Film tends to want to be far more immersive with its environments, and rightly so.

So, yeah. Given that the two things that I think make The Last 5 Years, you know, The Last 5 Years are both elements which I think don’t work especially well in cinema, I’ve been apprehensively curious about how things are going to work in this new film.

The first clip from the film feels a bit like my concerns are at least reasonably valid2:

So, in an effort to help things move, to give the world of the film that immersive environmental element I was talking about above, we have our lead characters in a car. We get wind, we get scenery, we get all that wild, fun energy of being out on the road with the person who gets you going, which of course leads to pulling off said road in order to get going with said person.

But because Cathy has to keep singing the whole time, the scene plays really awkwardly for me. There’s no real musical break to let Anna Kendrick fully connect with Jeremy Jordan. She manages to sneak in one, very quick kiss, but the rest of the scene, which is attempting to build to some spontaneous roadside nookie, keeps fighting with the need for Kendrick to keep singing. I count three or four different spots where it’s clear that the actors’ instincts (which I think are spot on) are to be kissing, but: Must. Keep. Singing.

So instead we have Jordan going to town while Kendrick sings about how into it all she is without being able to actually be into it. It’s kind of a perfect example of the tension between the needs of the filmmakers and the needs of the show they’re adapting.

Maybe this is just a particularly off example of the rest of the film released because “look, we made it full of sexy stuff!” or something. Still, it’s not doing much to reduce my ambivalence.

1. I thought for half a second about going back and forth between 5 and Five in the titles to distinguish film from stage show, but it just became confusing, not least of all because, while MTI lists the title with Five-the-word, the poster just about everyone associates with the show uses 5-the-number, and I’m done with the headache, so this is what you get.

2. The original clip is actually from Entertainment Weekly, but after much screaming and gnashing of teeth, I cannot get that into WordPress. Thus the YouTube.

Internal Conflict

Venice Theatre, whom I last mentioned when their open secret of paying some but not all performers went public, has decided to modify the script some more. They announced a move hinted at in the previous Jay Handelman article on the subject of payment–acting internships:

The chosen actors will get housing and a small weekly stipend. They also will be expected to audition for several mainstage, Stage II or cabaret shows, where they will compete against other local performers. [Producing Director Allan] Kollar said there are no expectations that the interns get leading roles. Auditions will remain open to all interested actors.

The interns will also take part in a variety of outreach programs, presenting brief shows at community and retirement centers and schools in the area.

The first few times (that I know for sure) I was in a Venice show with a paid performer, those performers were Equity actors. It was a pretty solid line: union received paychecks, and had their names marked specially in the program, making their status clear. It wasn’t until later that I discovered non-union volunteers were receiving paychecks in some cases, as well, which is where things start getting incredibly muddy.

On one level, I think this new program is perhaps meant as an attempt to re-establish that “professional” line. Over here are the people who will be paid. They went through special criteria to get on the books. They are, effectively, staff. Or, at least, they’re meant to be regarded as such.

I’m especially interested in the comment about the roles interns will play in shows. In what I’m assuming is a bid to assuage volunteer fears and head off attrition, the theatre wants to make sure folks know that interns aren’t guaranteed any kind of lead roles. They’re auditioning just like everyone else. And I’m sure most directors will try to be fair about that kind of thing.

Of course, it seems like it would speak especially ill of either the applicant pool or Venice’s choices if their interns aren’t the kind of performers who are going to be in contention for significant roles throughout the year. Especially when they’re picking the interns knowing full well their performing needs for the season.

Even tossing that aside, it’s hard not to expect that interns won’t be used regularly, lead or no. Not using them would seem to be a rather horrible ROI, after all. If they aren’t the leads, then it only stands to reason they’d be filling out the ensemble of Venice’s larger shows. Which brings us to the same, chafing situation as has happened before if you’re paying ensemble members and asking your leads to do it all for free.

Let me stop right now: ensemble is hard. It’s exhausting and frantic and often filled with the kind of nightmare quick changes and whiplash shifts in character that no featured role outside A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder will experience. This isn’t about belittling any of that.

However, if we’re talking about teaching folks about professional theatre: barring hazard or specialty pay, in professional theatre, isn’t ensemble remuneration lower than that of featured performers? Not only, then, might that situation wind up rubbing featured performers badly; it seems to be actively working against the stated intent of the internship, which is to prepare the interns for the reality of a professional career.

I’ll give a thumbs up to this inasmuch as this program, on the books and publicized, provides the kind of transparency that I think a community organization should have. It’s out there and everyone knows about it. Or, at the very least, folks would have a hard time pretending anyone was hiding it.

Of course, this kind of publicity is also one of the continuing frustrations. You know, hooray for bringing it out in the light, but I’m not sure this does much of anything to change the message to volunteers or the frustrations I outlined last time.

It’s also hard not to notice this announcement rather neatly sidesteps questions about how much other hiring might still happen. In any event, I’ll be especially interested to see how this inaugural class shakes out, both in the way Venice implements and uses the interns, and the way volunteer performers respond to them.

Apparently, Myths About Them Breed Quickly, Too

A couple of stories I’ve been working on pull heavily from stuff you’d classify as Tall Tales: Paul Bunyon, Pacos Bill, that sort of thing. Because I don’t just want the people to be over the top, but also the wildlife, I’ve been doing some research into animals that I think would be appropriate in the same kind of story. It didn’t take long at all before I figured jackalopes would fit right in. When you have giant blue oxes wandering around, a rabbit with antlers doesn’t seem too silly. Or, maybe it is silly, but it’s a silly that’s in keeping with the other silliness, right?

Anyway, so I start bouncing around (ha!), trying to figure out what there is in the way of “lore” for the jackalope. I was pleasantly surprised to find all sorts of crazy details I could use, but also more than a little bemused to find that the jackalope is just one of what seems like an oddly widespread range of rabbit hybrid critters.

I’ll stop right here and make it clear: I’m no folklore expert (or medical expert in the case of Shope papilloma). What follows is just what I’ve gathered from link clicking and googling. There will be no Grand Unified Theory of Lepus here, just some amateur compiling.

First, because sometimes reality is a whole lot more messed up than anyone’s taxidermic fantasy, there’s the likeliest source for all these horned rabbit myths (aside from, of course, “bored taxidermists with spare parts lying around”): The Shope papilloma virus. Shope papilloma causes large, horn-like tumors to grow on rabbits’ skin. Usually around the head. The pictures I found were both terrifying and heartbreaking at the same time: what looks like big, nasty horns and fangs can eventually become so large that the victim is no longer able to eat, so the rabbit starves to death. Don’t google that one if you’re at all sensitive, folks.

One upside of the disease is that apparently research on affected rabbits and the virus itself was part of the model used to help develop the HPV vaccine. So, there’s that. But you’re not here for medical realities. You’re here to read about crazy hybrid rabbits, so let’s get to them.

We’ll start with the skvader. Apparently the Swiss were less impressed by horns, so their taxidermic experiments in folklore grafted wood grouse wings onto a rabbit. Now, not only did you have to worry about rabbits burrowing in under your fence to steal your vegetables; they could just fly over the bloody fence.

Completely unsatisfied with either / or options, Bavarians spliced both antlers and wings onto the wolpertinger. Also, because flying, antler-goring attacks weren’t enough, they added fangs. Which makes sense, really; it’s not a good, Germanic fairy tale creature if it can’t eat you, now is it? See, you thought Monty Python was just pulling that man-eating rabbit out of thin air, but actually, we now see they just did better research.

Hybrid / mutant rabbits don’t appear to be an exclusively European construct, either. While I have a lot harder time finding actual sources on it, there does appear to be a hybrid rabbit creature in some Islamic poetry, too: the Al-mi’raj. This one only has a single horn, which is usually drawn as straight and tapering. So rabbit-narwhal, I suppose. Or rabbit-unicorn, depending on your preferences.

So, you know, maybe Bullwinkle wasn’t pulling the wrong thing out of his hat. He was just grabbing another hybrid variant.

Non-Binary Digital Debates

I have to give a lot of thumbs up to the points John Scalzi raises in his recent essay on the Amazon-Hachette public negotiation troubles. My favorite quote:

This is where many people decide to opine that the cost of eBooks should reflect the cost of production in some way that allows them to say that whatever price point they prefer is the naturally correct one. This is where I say: You know what, if you’ve ever paid more than twenty cents for a soda at a fast food restaurant, or have ever bought bottled water at a store, then I feel perfectly justified in considering your cost of production position vis a vis publishing as entirely hypocritical. Please stop making the cost of production argument for books and apparently nothing else in your daily consumer life. I think less of you when you do.

It’s one of the things at the heart of digital pricing: the specter of production costs, and the impact these sorts of arguments have on the perceived value of content itself. I won’t for one second pretend there’s not a discussion to be had about the value of content. It’s just that sometimes “lower production costs” winds up as a stand in for “this didn’t cost you anything to make,” which is both not true and tends to overshadow any other discussions.

Favorite sound bite notwithstanding, the biggest reason I’m linking Scalzi’s post when I’ve not really pointed at anything else I’ve seen on these sorts of negotiations is because the essay as a whole actually sounds like an opening for discussion. Just about everything else I see seems to declare that either the publisher or Amazon is Evil and Trying to Screw Us, and by comparison the other party is Totally On Our Side.

Scalzi rather directly makes the point that BOTH Amazon and any given publisher (1) are not evil, but (2) are on their own sides. If you want to have a debate about which position is best for authors and/or readers, I think that’s vitally important. The binary ideology here is a trap, and winds up shutting down real discussion in favor of one spin or another. That in turn retards real progress that helps the people at either end of the production chain, instead of just the corporations in the middle.