The second day of tech rehearsal for Sweeney Todd has just begun, and already production has hit a snag. Where do they store a giant trunk that needs to be on stage immediately after a climactic rape scene but is too large to easily carry on and off? With a "boy, oh boy," director Chris Coleman runs from his place in the audience onto stage and up the wrought iron stairs to the platform that hangs between the dirty brick tenement buildings of the marvelously designed set. "Can you walk thorugh the blocking," he says to the actors in their top hats and petticoats, before proceeding to very matter-of-factly re-choreograph them through what is a horribly dark moment in an already dark play. If they tip the trunk on its side and rotate how the couple lay, perhaps they can fit everything in the small, elevated platform without any of the ensemble cast tumbling off the side.
“I knew it was going to be complicated,” Coleman tells me in the Armory’s café before rehearsal. “But I never fully realize what an incredible puzzle it is."
“You have to figure out: if you kill people, they have to go down a shoot,” concurs scenic designer William Bloodgood, sitting next to Coleman, "but we have no trap on the stage, so the parlor has to be elevated," leading to Coleman's cautious choreography. As the resident scenic designer at Oregon Shakespeare Festival for 32 years—although he now works at the University of Texas in Austin—Bloodgood designed PCS’s first show and has done nine shows with Coleman. The camaraderie is clear: they build naturally off each other’s thoughts and, when deep in thought, both tend to stare off in the same direction with chins in hands, like a theatrical Doublemint Twins. "We have had more conversations trying to solve this set than anything we’ve ever worked on,” Bloodgood adds.
Thanks to the Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the murderous story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is now known far beyond theater circles: a barber returns from prison to take vengeance on the judge who unjustly sent him there, but ends up taking revenge on all of London, while forming a perverse partnership with a pie shop proprietor downstairs to dispose of the bodies.
Written by Stephen Sondheim in 1979 and originally starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou as Todd, the musical is widely considered one of the greatest of all time. Sondheim had figured out a way to bridge the gap between opera and theater, creating something new, while also sinking into macabre themes not often explored on stage. “You never saw people murdered so casually on Broadway,” said Bloodgood, who saw the original production. “The leading characters in this are anti-hereos, but we thrill to their success. Until it all turns on them in the end.”
Sweeney is Coleman’s favorite musical; he listened to it over and over on cassettes beginning his freshman year of college, despite the ensuing goosepumps. He looked at doing it during his early years at PCS but decided, like many regional theaters, that it was too difficult. Not only are there the scenic design challenges, worsened by the Armory’s relatively modest stage and backstage, but the music itself is exceptionally difficult, requiring almost operatic ability in the singers. Then those singers must be able to act with enough proficiency to find the emotional depth and dark comedy of the story. Consequently, the majority of the cast comes from New York—although Mrs. Lovett is played by the local actress Gretchen Rumbaugh—and even then they struggled to cast several of the characters.
“The music surprises me,” says Bloodgood. “I saw the original production, I know the music by heart, but listening now as we rehearse and really hearing what the singers have to grapple with—it’s brutal.”
But perhaps the biggest challenge, given Burton's searing version, was how to do it in a way that was fresh and original. Coleman and Bloodgood are mum on their approach to making it new, beyond saying that they think the musical resonates afresh given the current political melodramas.
"When I started studying the script," says Coleman, "what I heard were themes that felt very hot in the current political conversation: 'The history of the world is those below serving those up above' [a quote from Todd]. I was beginning to study it as the Occupy Movement exploded, and I thought this has something to say about what we discuss now. I'm very curious to see if our approach to allowing it to connect to today works with audiences."
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through October 21 at Portland Center Stage.
For a preview of the set, the costumes, and perhaps a hint to Coleman's approach, check out the slideshow below with photos from the dress rehearsal: