There’s Always (More Th)a(n One) Woman

I’m perpetually behind in my reading, so it’s only just now that I got around to listening to Aimee Ogden‘s “The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey,” which went up on Cast of Wonders several months ago. Spoilers for anyone who’s similarly behind, but there’s no way to talk about the positive buttons this pushed for me without them. You’ve been warned.

The story premise is intimate and simple: small gardens have a tendency to find Calliope, sprouting suddenly in teapots and baking dishes, thriving in all manner of tiny spaces throughout her cozy apartment. Then one day, a garden goes missing. But even after Calliope retrieves it, the garden seems to want to leave her for the teenage girl downstairs. Cue angst.

As with most things, the wonderful bits happen here in the execution. Not least of all in the way Ogden deconstructs the notion of the Kick Ass Woman.

No, nobody enters into fisticuffs. I’m talking, instead, about the idea that there is only ever one Kick Ass Woman, where kick ass is a stand in for “really good at something.” We see it all the time: an ensemble of male characters of varying abilities and specialties, and the The Woman, who is better at her one thing than any other man (for which: hooray), but who also seems to be the only woman around who is competent at anything, much less her kick ass thing.

And should another woman show up, she will either be completely artless so as to show us our woman’s kick ass-ness, or she will be kick ass on exactly the same vector as our woman. In which case, what must inevitably ensue is a showdown to prove who’s really the kick ass one and who’s the pretender who will give it all up.

Because, of course, there can be only one. It’s yet another riff on the stale maiden-mother-crone paradigm no one who’s made it through high school English can avoid learning, and for which there is no real male parallel. This isn’t just a fictional trope, though. It’s a trope built on a persistent societal thread, that women are replaced by “the younger model.” That unlike men, women aren’t competing against their entire field, only against their fellow women for those limited spaces available to them.

And for a moment, as Calliope worries that the loss of one of her gardens will inevitably lead to the loss of more, to the loss of all, that if she shares the thing that makes her feel the most wonderful with another woman, she will lose it to her, I’ll sheepishly confess I worried the same thing. Like Calliope, I wasn’t sure where this was all headed. Like Calliope, I fell right back on that tired societal trope that told me if a new, younger woman was showing up with a similar skill, things could only end if one of them soundly trounced the other.

Ogden has other ideas. And she’s had those ideas from the beginning. The story’s resolution isn’t a twist so much as an object lesson in paying attention, in the reminder that worldbuilding isn’t just atmosphere, it’s integral to story. We know that gardens have been finding Calliope for years, that the number of gardens has been growing. There is literally nothing to suggest that one garden departing changes this fact. But because we’re ensnared in a binary, in societal notions that one woman can’t succeed unless another woman fails, we ignore logic and reason and facts.

The author doesn’t, though, and the result is an incredibly kind surprise as the story takes its final turns, and a reminder that, like surprise gardens, life isn’t nearly so restricted as we’re wont to believe.


That Word. I Think It Both Does and Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

Doing or saying or thinking a racist thing does not make you a cross-burning, hood-wearing, swastika-sporting Racist. I think that’s important to articulate because, much the same way people seem to get confused by marriage the secular set of rights vs marriage the religious institution, the resonance of the same word applied to different circumstances makes it difficult to parse on an emotional level. It’s vital that people are able to identify racism in themselves without feeling that any such identification makes them some villainous terror.

However, and just as important to articulate, is that doing or saying or thinking a racist thing is also not entirely divorced from cross burning and hood wearing and swastika sporting. It’s not a straight line, certainly, but on one level that’s how systemic abuse works. It makes “tiny things” easy to hand wave off. It requires people to “have a sense of humor” about said tiny things. And, in isolation, perhaps that off-color joke or that tension in our shoulders or the way we whisper certain colors or tell someone they don’t act like one or more stereotype are small.

Except they aren’t in isolation, and it doesn’t matter how small something is if there’s enough of it. It doesn’t even matter how little of it comes at a time if it never stops coming. A handful of sand each day is meaningless, if we sweep it up and throw it away.

But if we leave it, if we groan at the people who ask us to clean up after ourselves, if we argue it’s not our fault the dust bin is already overflowing, if we say ‘it’s just a little sand what’s the big deal?’ Then it’s not just a handful of sand each day. It’s a handful of sand every day, and soon enough, there’s a great big beautiful sandbox for the people who like playing in the dirt to take advantage of, and guess who’s buried underneath?

With the Twist Baked In (Zero Sum Game)

Sometimes there’s a bit of a “knowing how the sausage is made” problem when I read stuff. I’ve ruined I can’t tell you how many movies by calling an ending based on meta-narrative information, e.g., “the only reason to have a character give us X piece of information is if it results in Y.” But sometimes, my love of how it all gets put together means I hit a thing and get to have my own little “oh, crap, that is beautiful” moment witnessing Craft Happen.

Why yes, I did just have one of those (see? You ruin surprises, too, so nyah!).

Spoilers for SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game because, look, I’m drooling over a well constructed plot here, which I can’t do without, you know, talking about the plot. You’ve been warned.

Speaking of meta-information, I knew that telepaths were involved in Huang’s Russell’s Attic series based on solicits for later books (I’m a late starter, all right? I’m only just hitting season 2 of Steven Universe, too, so bask in all your awesome early-adopter-ness and then we’ll move on). Given that the main character of the series is a young woman with a preternaturally fast mathematical ability, an ability we find out about pretty much in the first paragraph of the book, more super-humans wasn’t something that I would have been surprised by, anyway. If I buy in to one super-hero, it’s easy to buy into more, so I wasn’t really worried about spoiling myself on that particular score.

Except (aha! Plot twist!).

See, Huang’s take on telepaths is a lot more involved than the usual psychic handwavium. And, it turns out, is intimately tied to the ways in which she sells the reader on the mathematical powers of her main character, Cas Russell. Realizing that gave me a whole new appreciation for everything that lead up to it.

The book spends its early sections not only slowly building its central mystery and character arcs, but showing the reader just how seemingly physics-defying super math can be. This is important on its own, since the notion of hyperspeed mathematical calculation is fairly abstract. Huang makes the applications concrete, and in doing so helps the reader understand how broad the implications are.

Things start small-ish, with calculating angles and velocity to know how to roll just right with a punch, for example, or calculating exact dimensions and speed to zip in and out of traffic in movie-stunt-driver fashion. But as we’re eased into the idea, the effects ramp up, as well. Having witnessed the aforementioned feats of fighting and driving, we buy the relatively more sedate concatenation of environmental adjustments (tipping a garbage can, say) to create the perfect acoustical hotspot for eavesdropping on people half a block away. Having bought that convoluted stacking of pieces, we’re likewise set up to buy into an sequence of acrobatics and property destruction that might be over the top even for Captain America.

All of that’s impressive on its own, of course, and a great use of immersive escalation in worldbuilding. But that base, that build, isn’t just in service of selling Cas’s abilities, but in service to eventually selling our antagonist, as well.

When Cas and her partner finally track down someone who reveals the existence of telepaths, it turns out they’re actually hyper-empathic people. Where Cas recognizes and calculates physical variables at a speed that would make your average computer jealous, telepaths do the same thing with emotional cues. If Cas has a stratospheric math IQ, telepaths have the same thing with emotional intelligence.

If we’d been hit with this out of the gate, I think it would have smacked all kinds of false. If hyper-math is hard to wrap a head around, hyper-body-language is even harder. In context, in sequence, however, it slots into place easy as you please. Huang has been walking us from easy math to mind-blowing math to the point where we believe a young woman can tear bars out of a wall in mid-air in the space of a few seconds.

Having used observable proof to sell the reader on just how many impossible things are possible with the right kind of advanced intellect, she flips the switch and presents advanced emotional intelligence, the kind of thing that’s much harder to prove or see or wrap our heads around, using this huge mountain of Awesome Physical Feats to sell the concept for her. This isn’t Cas is super smart, and Now There Are Psychics. It’s that Cas is super smart, and “psychics” are ALSO super smart in ways which make them seem magical.

The story has made it clear, believable, and above all concrete the ways in which an unerring ability to calculate multiple physical forces allows a single person to perform what seem like miracles. Having done that, it’s only a mild upsell to convince us that a different set of miracles would be possible with a sufficiently advanced ability to calculate the psychological / emotional / social factors in a given interaction.

So this isn’t the turn in the worldbuilding I was expecting. It’s not an escalation of super-powers from super-thinker to brain-beams. It’s a logical, almost inevitable, extension of exactly the notions we’ve been buying into since the get go.

And that, my friends, is how solid worldbuilding turns math proofs into psychic powers.

I Think She’d Be Marvelous

So apparently casting for the upcoming Captain Marvel movie is ramping up. I see the usual suspects suggesting the usual suspects for the title role. And I don’t know that anyone I’m hearing named is a bad choice, mind you, but when I sat down to think about what might make a good Captain Marvel, I came up with someone else.

I’m all in on Kerry Washington for the cinematic Captain Marvel.

I’ll stop right here and clarify that no, I’m not talking about making this film about Monica Rambeau. I’d be thrilled to see that character on screen, too, but that would involve a wholesale concept shift. I suspect the MCU gurus chose their Captain Marvel for her kree / alien / cosmic ties as they expand into outer space for their Infinity War mega-event. Trying to change the course of that monster seems so entirely outside the realm of possibility that I’m not sure it would be worth the effort.

So, yeah, I’m doing my back flips and megaphone cheers for Kerry Washington as Carol Danvers.

Since I can already hear the um actuallys starting with their But Carol Danvers is.., I’ll just stop right there and finish that sentence for you.

Carol Danvers is a woman filled with inner strength and determination.

Carol Danvers is a woman willing to fight against overwhelming odds to do what she thinks is right.

Carol Danvers is a woman whose military background suggests she’s used the previous qualities to push her way up the ranks in one of the ultimate Boys’ Clubs around.

Carol Danvers is a woman with a past of mistakes and tragedy, who’s been beaten by fate and circumstance time and again, gaining power, losing power, but who, at the end of the day, has come out triumphant and ready to keep fighting.

Um, yeah, so what I’m seeing here is someone who feels like she has a lot in common with Washington’s Oliva Pope on Scandal. Sure, her fights there aren’t nearly as physically violent as the kind Captain Marvel is likely to entail, but that’s what stunt doubles and special effects are for.

And while Washington herself hasn’t always been the punching character, her recent turn in Django Unchained, and previous roles in the first two Fantastic Four films, certainly suggest she’s not opposed to being part of a film built around things going ‘splody.

Said role in the FF films also happens to mean Washington’s already dealt with anti-diversity nerdrage and came out on top. I’ve no idea if she wants to wade into the morass again, mind you, but if she did, she at least wouldn’t be coming into the whole thing unawares.

So, yeah, if we’re fancasting that MCU flick? I’m on the Kerry Washington for Carol Danvers train. THAT would be some Marvelous casting, if you ask me.

Pulling Back the Curtain

This past Saturday, I was finally able to marry the man I’ve been with through eight years and (some not insignificant legal) change. It’s been a long time coming, and it was a lot of wonderful things. My husband (!) designed a crazy-spectacular steampunk wedding with what shouldn’t have been nearly a large enough budget, and melted my heart in all the right ways. He knows that, and if he doesn’t, then I’ve got work to do, but that’s marriage, right?

Wonderful, too, were all the people who worked their effing butts off driving U-hauls or carting set pieces or tying strings for lanterns or, honestly, showing up and being there. Every little bit helped and mattered and there aren’t enough letters on the keyboard to express my thanks.

I’m not going to spend more time gushing about the awesome, though, because let’s be honest: that just winds up sounding like bragging, anyway. I’m not here to make everyone who wasn’t there jealous that they couldn’t be. Quite the opposite.

For several personal reasons that I’m not going into (this post may be a lot more open about my personal life than others, but I’m still a private person), when the legal window opened in Florida, we wound up with a short timetable for planning and pulling off a wedding. If we had any hope of getting anyone at all there, we had to invite quite quickly. But because of the same restrictions that meant we were rushing out invites, our guest list had to be painfully short.

There are a lot of people in the world we love, and whom we know love us. Extended family members and friends whom we knew would be ecstatic for us, the sight of whom would make us ecstatic. And we couldn’t have them all.

Back when I taught, we used to talk about how a heavily-edited paper was “bleeding” from the red pen. Our invitation list felt a lot less metaphorical in its bleeding. You can’t see it, but every name we crossed off to make it possible to have our wedding at all was like slicing off our fingertips. Some people understood and some people didn’t. I think more of the former than the latter, but I’m not a telepath, so I suppose I’m just guessing.

Whether it’s people you couldn’t invite or people who couldn’t attend for schedule or financial reasons or — because we’re human — people who couldn’t be there because they’ve passed, no matter how long you can make your guest list, there will always be someone missing.

We had oh so many of all those folks. That they weren’t lined up in chairs back further than the horizon ached just below our chests and stung the corner of our eyes.

But we saw and felt at least a bit of them in loaned props and set pieces, in original creations crafted with amazing talent and skill, in vendors we only found from recommended phone numbers and names they let us drop. They were there from the remnants of their strong hugs when we ran into each other out in the world. They lingered in every verbal or virtual “congratulations.”

That wedding wasn’t just three months in the offing. Or even eight years.

You helped make it happen if we ever met you. From every small or large interaction, good or bad, that eventually steered the two of us together, kept the two of us together. If you think this is about you, it is. You’re why and how this happened.

And we can’t thank you enough.

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.


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.