Pay No Attention to the Man Peeping Behind the Curtain

A little preamble: I’m a big fan of the Linoleum Knife podcast. I’ve been stalking following Dave White and Alonso Duralde off and on since they were djmrswhite and moroccomole over on Livejournal, for goodness’ sake. They’re insightful and funny and an adorable couple and you should just listen to them because I’m surely doing a poor job of pimping them.

Listening was exactly what I was doing today, to this week’s episode, when Duralde and this week’s guest, Sean Abley, came to a bit of an impasse on the question of Edward Snowden and NSA domestic espionage during a review of Citizenfour.

It started as a discussion of whether Snowden is a traitor. I have opinions on that score, but I recognize I’ve not done a lot of deep reading on the subject, so I’m willing to lay that one aside and let folks present arguments in either direction.

Then the discussion turned to questions of NSA spying, specifically, at which point … Abley’s exact words were “I have nothing to lose.” If I’m skewing Abley’s position too much, I’ll apologize right here. I mention it at all because his statement acted as the catalyst for my responding to something that’s rankled me for a while, as–to my mind–it fell right in the space of the “it doesn’t affect me / I have nothing to hide” mentality on these issues. About that, I have some much more deeply held beliefs:

It is not now, nor has it ever been (all the way back to before we even had a Fourth Amendment), about whether someone has something to hide. First, of course, is the implication that the only reason someone would want to keep something private is because it’s incriminating or evil in some way. Which is so much bullshit I can’t even see straight.

By this logic, it should be perfectly all right for the police to knock on my front door whenever they like, toss my apartment until it looks like a tornado came through, then be on their way. They should be able to stop me on the way to work and rifle through my car on a whim. Hell, my nosy neighbor who’s been dying to get a look at my apartment should be able to walk on in at 2 a.m. and have a look so long as he doesn’t steal anything. I mean, I don’t have anything to hide, right?

That the side effects of the virtual rifling of one’s life aren’t as physically apparent doesn’t mean they don’t exist. How many times have we been told not to share our passwords, because then we’ve lost our ability to control our accounts? Every time my information is collated and shunted around to somewhere I didn’t ask for it to go, the net effect is the same: it’s out of my control, and since I didn’t set the controls on the new access, I have no idea what may or may not happen.

But you have nothing to hide, right? So there’s no harm!

Think about that bit of gossip back in high school, where someone got hold of some half-truth left lying in the open (or nowhere near the open) and turned it into the scandal for the day. Write it larger by using the same model for any number of gossip mongering “news” sites.

No harm? Somebody tell that to Jennifer Lawrence. Or Felicia Day. Or Anita Sarkeesian.

Information is power. Power can be abused.

But this is the government, not some reprobate!

The government is full of people. People are flawed. They do things you don’t expect. Like, you know, Snowden. That I may be sympathetic to Snowden’s actions doesn’t change the fact that he’s a perfect example of the fact that the government’s desire to keep something secret and confidential is no guarantee that it stays that way.

Even if I somehow suffer head trauma that leads me to agree that there are no negative consequences to someone taking information that isn’t incriminating, at the end of the day, I still don’t agree this should grant the government carte blanche access.

I don’t keep my address book in a drawer instead of posting it on my front windows just because who I know is proof of a criminal conspiracy. If I knew any criminals, I’d be as shocked as anybody.

I don’t oppose random drug testing because I’m a junkie. I’ve never used any illicit substances in my entire life. I’ve never even had enough alcohol to get a buzz going.

I don’t even close my blinds when I’m dressing because there’s something criminal or shameful about my naked body. I could stand to lose a few pounds, but we aren’t anywhere yet where that gets me thrown in jail.

There are plenty of reasons why a person might choose not to broadcast one or more pieces of information, and a wide swath of those reasons have absolutely nothing to do with crime or any other “bad” motive. But I don’t even have to catalog those, because the only reason I need is this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In other words, the relevant question isn’t “what do you have to hide?” It’s “what the hell business is it of theirs?”

How Long Until Blue Cross Becomes Blue Crucifix?

It looks like Arizona House Bill 2625 is getting some Tumblr attention, and while the sourcing that indicates this law just passed seems to be wrong (it was in fact enacted 2 years ago), the content of it remains disconcerting, perhaps not least of all because it was adopted two years ago without being caught up nationally by news agencies.

People are rightfully upset about the weird language which seems to indicate women of “religious objection” companies would have to submit proof from their doctors if they want to be covered for prescribed contraceptives being used for non-contraceptive reasons (acne and hormone control appear to be the common examples):


A health care services organization, employer or other entity offering the plan may state religious beliefs in its affidavit and may require the enrollee to first pay for the prescription and then submit a claim to the health care services organization along with evidence that the prescription is not for a purpose covered by the objection.

Things get jumbled up here, in that there’s a lot of weird language where “corporation” is being used. So far as I can tell, though, “corporation” is meant to be the insurance provider, not the company employing the women. The very next section makes it clear that an employer still doesn’t get to ask for your medical information.

Quick, knee jerk block: I still think this entire exemption on contraceptives is the stinkiest of cow dung. But before I get into the real nasty bits, I’m trying to get in a fact check on the “your employer can fire you for using contraceptives if he finds out you’re using them for birth control” stuff. So far as I can tell, this is between the employee, her doctor, and the insurance company (because the government shouldn’t interfere with a doctor and patient’s private health decisions; that’s the insurance industry’s racket). An employer insisting on medical records is still off the table, and violates all the same privacy laws it did before.

All that said, the thing I’m far more concerned about is this bit of the law:


Notwithstanding subsection Y of this section, a contract does not fail to meet the requirements of subsection Y of this section if the contract’s failure to provide coverage of specific items or services required under subsection Y of this section is because providing or paying for coverage of the specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs of the employer, hospital service corporation, medical service corporation, hospital, medical, dental and optometric service corporation or other entity offering the plan or is because the coverage is contrary to the religious beliefs of the purchaser of the coverage.

Emphasis mine, because folks, remember how I pointed out above that “corporation” was being used to mean the insurance companies? Given that, if I’m reading this right, two years ago, Arizona effectively declared that insurance providers themselves can claim a religious objection to providing contraceptive coverage.

Since the only requirement that needs to be met to get that exemption under this law is that “a written affidavit shall be filed with the corporation stating the objection,” all they have to do to get that objection is write a note.

To themselves.

And just in case we forgot, this law passed two years before the Hobby Lobby case. Who needs doors opened, when state legislators are willing to burn down the whole damn building for you?

Slut-Shamer Pride

So, in an op-ed for The Advocate, Levi Chambers — the editor in chief of Gay.com — has a few things to say about what he sees as inappropriate attire for Disney Gay Days. Me? I have a few things to say about what seems a fairly slipshod argument he’s making:

Halloween is the perfect time to be sexy. Adults can dress like sexy superheroes and go to their favorite bar or club. No problem. That said, dressing like a hustler for the Gay Days Anaheim events at Disneyland is wrong.

The majority of the LGBT people celebrating kept their behavior PG, but a few thirsty fellas must have thought they were at a Pride after-dark event. In line for the Matterhorn Bobsleds, I noticed beaus wearing T-shirts with identifiers like “Top” or “Bottom” scrolled across their backs in the Disney font. I even spotted a few stickers on chests that blatantly read “slut” or “DTF.”

The time when it’s traditionally appropriate to tramp it up, if our example is to be believed, is Halloween. You know, that time of year when the streets are traditionally filled with children of all ages running around asking for treats and being adorable. Which is totally different than visiting Disneyland.

So, yeah. The counter-example actually makes it explicitly clear that one group of people may feel that a given event (whether that’s Halloween or Gay Days) is for something different than another group, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Not the best way to shore up the argument. You want one thing; other people want another. Totally okay for some holidays, but not for others because reasons.

Never mind that, though, since this isn’t just a holiday: it’s Disney. And Disney is no place for the barest of innuendo. Because Disney would never, ever turn up sexy in their children’s properties. Disney treasures childhood and wants it to last as long as possible, which must be why their animation arm made its contemporary comeback by marrying off a 16 year old girl.

The six year olds may just think Tinkerbell is super cute and spritish, but I’m fairly certain there’s a contingent of parents who are getting something entirely different from the view at Pixie Hollow, folks. Which, honestly, brings me directly to the next point.

I’m having an incredibly difficult time drawing the correlation between a tarty word on a t-shirt or sticker and “dressing like a hustler.” Honestly, it smacks incredibly of the same kind of logic that suggests the mere presence of homosexual individuals sexualizes an event, a movie, or a book. It’s the kind of base over-reaction that claims King and King exposes little Timmy to the raunch of anal sex.

If the argument’s going to have legs, I think it needs far better examples than what we’re getting here. If little Timmy assumes sexual positions when he sees the words top and bottom, if he’s decoding acronyms like DTF, the cat’s out of the bag. If knowing about Dirty Gay Sex ruins childhood, Timmy’s was clearly destroyed a long time ago.

I’m not close to convinced that the kids at Gay Days are any more likely to catch the innuendo of most of the phrases Chambers mentions than they are to realize Dad might like face character Jasmine’s top for more than the fact that it’s shiny and brightly colored.

You might get me to agree “slut” is questionable, but even if I grant that all of the above are a step too far, are you honestly telling me that, on a full day at Disney, the only people you saw who were wearing shirts with messages you thought might be in poor taste, or who were wearing something a bit too revealing, or behaving in a way you felt might be more sexual than appropriate, were red-shirted LGBT attendees?

Even at Gay Days, I find that amazingly difficult to believe. That many people don’t get together without someone’s taste level going in a direction someone doesn’t like. If there wasn’t some straight guy running around with a tattoo or a t-shirt involving a pinup girl, you could knock me over with a feather.

But, you see, apparently signing on to attend an event which is meant to create a safe space for LGBT folks, which Chambers himself says “is meant to be a celebration of all things gay,” actually just obligates one to represent All LGBT Forever in a way that makes everyone else feel safe and un-threatened.

Remember: you’re LGBT first, and a person second. We need to hold you to an entirely different standard than everyone else. In the name of equality. Or something.

How to Get Away with Murder (and Gay Sex)

Now that Comcast has gotten their recent nonsense resolved and on demand shows are updating in my area again, I had a chance to try out How to Get Away with Murder, the new Viola Davis vehicle.

I could probably say a lot about different aspects of the show, but four episodes in, the thing that’s really struck a chord with me is the way the show has handled homosexuality, on a couple of different levels. Apparently, I’m far from the only person to take notice, though not all of those others have responded positively.

Here’s the thing: I feel like I’ve seen a fair amount of similarly-racy stuff in shows featuring heterosexual couplings, so if all that seemed to be happening was that How to Get Away with Murder added just as much of a gay variant, I’m not sure it would be nearly as worth commenting on.

That’s not what’s happened, however. Four episodes in, three of the four explicit (for network TV) sex scenes have featured series regular Connor Walsh’s (Jack Falahee) homosexual encounters (I’ll get to the fourth later). This is not to say that The Gay Guy is the only one having naughty time. It’s both obvious and explicit that the majority of the regular characters for this show have active libidos that they aren’t shy about satisfying. We just haven’t seen much of that onscreen.

You can see the contrast just from the pilot. Connor hooks up with a guy from a bar, and the show jumps straight to a mostly-naked, pumping-music-underscored, fully-lit sequence where there is no way not to see what’s going on. Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is similarly in the middle of sexy time later in the episode, but this time we enter the scene in the dark, with barely lit silhouettes and low voices. It takes a second to realize that, yup, that sure is cunnilingus. And just when that’s totally clear, it’s also over.

I don’t think the Annalise scene is any less titillating insofar as these things go, mind you. It is, however, slightly less explicit. Watching the Connor scene goes something like Woah! Okay, that is sex. The Annalise scene is on the order of Wait, is she? Are they? Woah! Okay, that is sex. It gets to the same place; the latter just asks you to connect a few more dots.

Like I said, this level of in-your-face with gay sex isn’t entirely new, but it is one of the first times I can think of where the majority of steamy sex stuff originates in a gay cast member who isn’t (1) the central focus of the show or (2) part of a large ensemble primarily populated by other gay characters.

The show is a solid ensemble piece. But, like I said before, it’s built as a Viola Davis vehicle. The lead character by just about any measure is Davis’s Annalise Keating. Even among the law students she’s chosen to help her at her firm, Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch) has been positioned far more solidly as both the audience proxy and the person around whom the multi-episode murder subplot seems to pivot.

The sexually aggressive member of an ensemble drama isn’t really new. It’s a fairly stock element in this kind of story, really. That the writers chose to make that character someone with a sexuality different from the rest of the cast’s, though, is incredibly intriguing to me. Most of the time, when there’s a sole homosexual player in your main lineup, that’s the character whose sexuality happens to the side. Boyfriends and dates get mentioned, and maybe you catch a shaded view of something here or there, but when it comes time for the steamy show to go steamy, one of your straight characters takes up that challenge.

By and large, How to Get Away with Murder has gone the opposite direction. Annalise’s scene is one example. Laurel Castillo’s (Karla Souza) indiscretions have been alluded to but not yet shown. And thus far, the relationship building for Wes Gibbins is relatively chaste (if still slightly troubling).

Of the primary characters, in fact, the only other who has something approaching the kind of out-of-the-shadows sex Connor shows off for the camera is Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King). It takes until the third episode for that scene to happen. And even then, I suspect this has less to do with making Michaela competition for the Sexy Character as it does with yet another intriguing angle the show takes on sexuality.

While I’m talking around things with a lot of the stuff above, this next bit pretty definitely constitutes spoilers, so look away if you’ve not seen episode three. It was two weeks ago, but I hate to be That Guy.

All right, so the third episode of the show opens with Michaela having sexy time with her fiancée, Aiden Walker (Elliot Knight). While at first this seems like the show finally having some equal time, I suspect this scene, and others where it’s made clear Aiden and Michaela have an active sexual relationship, are there to help resolve the questions and tensions that arise when Connor reveals that he and Aiden fooled around back in boarding school.

I’m intrigued with what I hope the storyline with Michaela’s fiancée implies, since, like the inversion of sexual depiction I talked about before, I don’t remember seeing much of this: male sexual experimentation. The dominant narrative is that, while women may have lesbian dalliances as part of a sexually adventurous phase, they can still be essentially straight. Men, on the other hand, are told through just about every narrative channel that same-sex of any sort effectively makes them a closet case if they wind up deciding it’s just not for them afterwards.

While there’s a lot of yelling and crying, by the end of the episode, Aiden assures Michaela that he is not, in fact, gay. And unlike most stories of this stripe, I think the show is actually pushing viewers pretty heavily to believe him. In addition to the above-mentioned sex / groping scenes (which seem built to make it clear that Aiden is very much into Michaela), Connor himself tells Michaela that he “basically hooked up with all the hot guys at school.” He doesn’t say “all the hot gay guys,” or “all the hot guys were gay.” The implication is that Connor doesn’t even think Aiden’s gay, but that Connor himself is just especially skilled at convincing people to Give Gay a Try.

That Annalise seems to think an essential lawyer skill is the ability to convince people of what you want them to believe (even if it’s patently false) in order to forward your own agenda, this whole subplot seems like more of an extension of that particular theme than any kind of implication that Aiden is gay, or even a condemnation of Connor as predatory gay.

There’s a lot of stuff at play in the series four episodes in. Some of it certainly works better than others. I definitely have to say, though, that for a show with a straight lead character and a large heterosexual ensemble, I’ve been thus far really enthralled with how it’s positioned Connor1 and his sexual proclivities.

1. 1200 words on explicit sexual depictions. Surely you can forgive me one double entendre?

Nature vs Nurture vs Numbers

You may or may not have heard about the recent dust up involving Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher, where Affleck was less than pleased with the line of argument Maher and guest Sam Harris started engaging in with regard to Islam. The video below should be the bulk of the exchange, and you’re free to watch all of it, but I’ve cued it up to play the bit I’m most interested in, since it’s about the only bit with any actual data attached. It’s roughly 45 seconds, and mostly skips the uncomfortable argument:

“78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted.” It’s a big number, admittedly, but there are two issues I’m going to take with it.

First, the argument Harris is making is about the danger of jihadist dogma among less-than-militant Muslims. Most people remember the Jyllands-Posten scandal because of calls to put cartoonists and publishers to death over the cartoons’ publication. It seems clear to me Harris is using his statistic to try drawing a direct line between “prosecution” and “execution.” The attempt, though, smacks of people using the phrase “card-carrying member” in an attempt to evoke some non-existent connection between Red Scare Communists and the ACLU.

Still, in land-of-the-free world, 78% of folks just wanting fines or jail time for free expression is, understandably, still troubling. So I went looking for the poll. Harris doesn’t cite it on the show, but ye Google would suggest this article is referencing the same poll. It also provides what I think is some enlightening context:

Asked about attitudes towards free speech, there was little support for freedom of speech if it would offend religious sensibilities. 78% of Muslims thought that the publishers of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed should be prosecuted, 68% thought those who insulted Islam should be prosecuted and 62% of people disagree that freedom of speech should be allowed even if it insults and offends religious groups

So, from the poll sample, there’s only a 16% gap between British Muslims who want to prosecute for the Danish cartoons and those who think speech should be prosecuted when it’s insulting to any religious group, not just in the case of offenses to Islam. And here’s where I think something other than religious factors has to come into consideration. The fact of the matter is, UK laws on hate / offensive speech are not nearly as lenient as they are in the US.

In fact, it only took me Wikipedia plus a few clicks to find an example of British prosecution for “religiously offensive” cartoons, this one from five years after the Jyllands-Posten incident Sam Harris is talking about:

It took [the jury] just 15 minutes to find Mr Taylor guilt[y] of “religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress” after viewing the “grossly abusive and insulting” images in court. The cartoons — which had been cut from newspapers, magazines and other mainstream publications — included one showing a smiling Christ on the cross next to an advert for a brand of “no nails” glue. In another, the Pope is shown wearing a condom on his finger. Others featured Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise who are told, “Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.”

The conviction was made using a still-in-force piece of legislation called the Crime and Disorder Act, passed in 1998, which includes provisions against “racially or religiously aggravated harassment.” I’m not here arguing that the law is sound, or that it reflects the whole of society in the UK. Even at the time, people were trying to change it.

However, so far as I can tell, it’s still on the books.

Especially relevant here is that the “religiously offensive” cartoons in this case actually included one of the Danish cartoons (“Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise are told: ‘ Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.'”).

That a jury trial in 2010 actively convicted someone for displaying a cartoon set including at least one of the Danish samples points to at least a moderate social context in support of legal sanction against public religious mockery. Given that, it seems entirely possible that some portion of Muslims in the UK support prosecution not due to a specific religious belief, but because the UK in general is more inclined to prosecute for perceived religious insults by authors. Insisting that the sample is a significant indicator of Muslim thinking without once considering or acknowledging what impact thinking in the UK may play into the results seems irresponsible. Given that the same poll questions weren’t conducted outside Muslim citizens, it’s difficult to make any kind of assertions from a solid statistical base.

There was one other statistic which cropped up in the argument. At one point, Maher says he’s seen a Pew poll of Egyptions Muslims, in which “like 90% of them believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.”

While the number I found–that 64% of Egyptian Muslims believe leaving Islam should result in death–is well south of Maher’s 90%, it’s still a unarguably disturbing statistic. That those numbers don’t play out across all Muslims, though, again suggests that the issue may be as much national-cultural and it is religious-cultural, or at least that perhaps that’s worth considering.

Does the view persist out to Ablanian Muslims? It does, though there the number is 1%. If I’m being honest, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover at least that many Christians hold similar views about people who perform abortions. I would never consider using that to characterize the core values of the majority of practitioners, though.

Maher regularly gives a kind of hand-wave to Christian extremism and terrorism as a response to his ideas re: Islam. Usually, he makes a crack about how long it’s been since The Crusades. I sort of think that that folks in Northern Ireland, or Utøya, or even Oklahoma City might have some stories to suggest that we aren’t nearly that far away from Judeo-Christians turning to terrorist acts.

But setting that aside, if we’re going to say that the core problem of religious terrorism is that religion over there with a document full of dicta supporting violence in support of faith, I think we have to admit that, short of Thomas Jefferson, there aren’t a whole lot of people excising the violent portions and decrees in The Bible. The core document of Christianity still calls for stoning, just for an easy example.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, except to say that arguments which seem to take the religion of violent factions as the only influential element in said violence seem to be fairly narrow in their view. I don’t think it’s as simple as positing that religion there. That’s the troublemaker. Geopolitical conflict isn’t simple, and it isn’t getting any simpler. Attempts to boil it down into The One Root Cause unfortunately feel, to me, like their premise is just as fantastical as, say, a virgin birth.

When the Presents Are Packed

You can pretty much blame my evil twin Laura for this one…

“What was he thinking?” Father asked as Mother kept fiddling with the gravity net.

“He’s my brother,” Mother answered, as if that were all the more explanation a body needed. Given that Father rolled his eyes and nodded, it seemed this actually was sufficient explanation for the monstrous construct of yarn, popsicle sticks, and PseudoLife PuttyTM balanced precariously atop the family cruiser.

The control panel sparked again and Mother swallowed down another string of curses as her adjustments strained the net’s capacity.

“I just can’t fit the head in,” she groaned.

“I think that’s the tail,” little Marissa offered.

“But, look at that big bulbous bit at the end,” Father countered.

“How can that be a head with no eyes, silly?” Marissa said.

“Then what’s that opening for?” Mother piped in, her antennae quivering in challenge. Marissa blushed plaid.

“That’s for … making stinkies,” she whispered.

Father and Mother both looked back at this year’s Antimas gift from Uncle Mort, turning their heads sideways to give the moaning thing a different look. They both nodded, clicking their secondary tongues.

“You might have something there,” Mother said.

“And the moaning does just seem to echo out from all over, so that might not be a mouth, after all,” Father added.

“I think it might be sitting on its face,” Marissa offered.

“Well, I’m not wrestling with it again even if it is,” Mother said. Her primary tongue stuck out the side of her mouth as she worked the gravity net settings one last time. The head-or-tail shifted slightly closer to the cruiser’s roof with a nondescript grunt and Mother gave a gleeful cheer of success.

Everyone piled in. Marissa sandwiched between Aunt Geranium’s palladium pies and the stack of granite texts from Grandpa Sy. Mother popped them up over Geranium’s lunar camper while Father pulled up the navigation display, then Mother turned the velocity dial to high.

“All right, now there’s no need to fly recklessly, dear,” Father said, glancing back. “Marissa: inertial field on, young lady. Do not roll those eyes at me.”

“It was only three,” Marissa pouted.

Mother sighed.

“I’d say I’ll turn this cruiser around, but there is no way short of a pulsar explosion I’m spending one more minute in that house.”

“You aren’t helping,” Father muttered, though Mother caught the smile he was trying to hide.

Mother’s white dwarf fingers gained them a good lightyear back from the delay loading Uncle Mort’s present. Marissa fell asleep in the back, until an especially sudden jerk sent one of the granite texts into her lap.

She looked out the viewports and frowned.

“Where are we?”

“Well, we hit a radiation storm,” Mother said, “and somebody decided he had a shortcut.”

“I didn’t hear you objecting, dear,” Father countered. “And there isn’t much traffic here, is there?”

“Because this is the most backwater system I have ever seen,” Mother answered. “I mean, look out there! Unfinished rings on the outer orbits, no radiation management on the solar track, their only regular comet still runs on an outdated three-quarters century model, and … I mean, look at this one,” Mother pointed to the third planet from the central star, leaning to get a better view. “They’re evolving mammals down there, for goodness’ sake. Who does that any more?”

“Mother, look out!” Father called out suddenly.

This time Mother didn’t manage to contain the string of curses as she swerved to avoid the moon she hadn’t seen. Marissa shrieked and buried her face in her tail.

“It’s all right, honey,” Father called back, though he had a death grip on the stabilizer controls.

Mother struggled to course correct, but after a tense few moments, the cruiser was back on track.

“Okay. Okay, we’re all fine,” Mother called with a sigh.

“My present!” Marissa cried out in dismay.

Sure enough, when Father called up the rear display, Uncle Mort’s present was toppling down to the green planet. The gravity net had apparently faltered as they bounced through the rough and unpleasant-smelling thermosphere.

“We have to go back!” Marissa said with a quiver in her voice.

Mother and Father glanced to each other, then back to where Uncle Mort’s creation was splashing down on one of the tiny island land masses, and tried not to show their relief.

“Sweetie, I’m afraid it’s gone,” Father said, patting Marissa’s knee.

“She! She was a girl!” Marissa shot back.

“Of course she was,” Mother offered supportively. “But it really is for the best.”

“Is not,” Marissa pouted.

“Now, let’s think, dear. You know that if you don’t water PseudoLife PuttyTM  regularly, it stops moving and shrivels up,” Mother noted.

“And you have that hydrogen sensitivity, dear,” Father added. “but look–” here he pointed to the tracking display. “It’s already waddled its way into a natural body of water. Lots of room and everything it needs to keep, er, moaning and moving for centuries to come.”

“You think?” Marissa said with a sniff.

“Absolutely.”

Marissa looked to the viewfinder again, then wiped a few eyes dry.

“Okay.” She got up on her knees and turned backwards, waving as she called. “Good-bye, Nessie! Take care of yourself!”

“Young lady. Inertial field.”

“Yes, Father.”

Marissa took her seat again as Mother veered back onto Primary Interstellar 3875. Mother and Father gave each other silent glances and smiles knowing they’d not have to cart Uncle Mort’s alien craft all the way home.

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.