Attend the tale of desperate times

SweeneyStage director Julius Wade ’20 gets to the meat of Sweeney Todd's pysche in a production of Sondheim's masterwork, running Dec. 7 and 8 at OBERON.

By Sasha Barish ‘20

Part of what fascinates me about theater is the mimesis. A popular play will be reproduced over and over by different sets of people, who structure the performance around an unchanging set of words (and sometimes music) but who join those words to unique performers, venues, sets, costumes, physical movements and tones of voice. Because of that interplay between what’s original and what’s traditional, between the production’s internal logic and the script as it exists more generally, every production gives audiences a slightly – or radically – varied impression of the same story.

This semester’s production of Sweeney Todd, stage directed by Julius Wade ’20, plays with the subtleties of making an extremely popular Sondheim musical one’s own. Playing in the American Repertory Theater’s immersive space OBERON and advertising itself as “looking through the lens of Sweeney’s psyche,” the show tells the tale with a focus on characterizing the monstrous protagonist from his own point of view. I spoke with Wade about his decisions in directing Sweeney Todd; a condensed version of our discussion follows. The show runs December 7 and 8, and tickets can be bought on the A.R.T. website.

I know that you’re doing what you’ve described as a more psychological spin on Sweeney Todd. The source material is already a very psychological show, so what does it look like onstage to make that psychological aspect explicit?

Julius Wade ’20
Julius Wade ’20
The ensemble has played one of the biggest roles in getting this idea across. The idea is that ensemble [members] exist as extensions of Sweeney’s psyche, and they exist as forces of death in the world of the show, almost like Horsemen of the Apocalypse figures. So a lot of the color and the energy, a lot of how we physicalize Sweeney’s mind and emotions comes across through the ensemble. We start out with four ensemble members, but as people die in the show they become masked and join the ensemble. So there’s this sense of accumulation in the number of people Sweeney kills in the course of the show, how these deaths are weighing on his mind. We’ve also conceived of props and costumes to exist as reflections of how they appear in Sweeney’s mind. Everything that’s “good” is navy blue, and everything that’s “bad” is garnet red. That visual theme unites the look of the show, and it also makes it clear to the audience how people are situated in Sweeney’s opinions.

It seems like there isn’t always be a clear distinction, though, between the “good” and the “bad” characters.
Yes, definitely; one example is Toby. Mrs. Lovett is [also] an interesting character to think about, because she can be spun as a villain or a hero in the show. In our show she exists in both worlds of color, and there are transformations in her costumes and the things she uses.

In what ways is your production immersive? How does that relate to the rest of your vision?
We’ve situated OBERON as the real-world Victorian London, so the audience exists as residents of London. OBERON, the space where it’s happening, is an immersive club theater, and it’s uniquely suited to our conception of the production. There will be big moments where audience members are a part of the pie shop, or are people in the square where Pirelli is singing, and actors in the show will interact with the audience as residents of London and as fellow customers. In this other sense, in the abstract psychological sense, Oberon itself exists as a projection of Sweeney Todd’s mind, an idea which the set and color palette help to get across. In that sense the ensemble will treat audience members as fellow parts of Sweeney Todd’s mind, and Sweeney Todd will engage with them as the hallucinatory figments of his imagination in moments like Epiphany or A Little Priest.

What are you trying to get across by focusing on Sweeney’s inner state?
When a lot of people think of Sweeney Todd, they often think of this crazy, psychopathic serial killer who is very aloof and almost comically crazy. Everett [Sussman ’19, who plays Sweeney] and I have worked a lot to root Sweeney in the emotional reality of the losses he has suffered, thinking of him not as a serial killer or as a psychopath but as a man – a father – who’s driven by circumstance. I think that reveals some deeper textures to the character than some traditional productions have. Really every actor in the show has found some quirk in their character that they can play up to give incredible life to these people.

Where did the idea for this production come from in the first place?
This is my first time directing a production on my own, which is both incredibly exhausting and incredibly exhilarating. Before coming to Harvard, I had not done any theater at all, but [in the three semesters I’ve been here] I’ve been involved with 24 productions on campus. It’s been a wild ride in that sense, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity. Sweeney Todd was one of the first musicals that I had ever known. I always imagined that if I got into directing on campus Sweeney Todd would be my last show or my last big show on campus, but I was encouraged by my friend to go for it now. One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to do a traditional version of the show. I wanted to infuse it with a part of myself, to think about the things that I like about the show and to focus on those things.

What are the things you like about the show?
I like the desperation. Every character in the show is desperate for something, and I think it’s a really human desperation. We live in desperate times, times of an urgent desire for something, and so in a weird way I think the show is a reflection of that. I want audiences to walk away feeling that despite the crazy, fantastical world of a barber killing people and turning them into pies, there’s some strange thing in it that they can connect to.