Tod Browning and Freaks

If you’re sitting at a computer (which I can only assume you are), it is best that you start off watching this:

What you’ve just seen is a clip from Tod Browning’s film Freaks. It shows the wedding dinner of Hans – a midget – and Cleopatra, the gorgeous trapeze artist he has just married. Hans’ fellow “freaks” are chanting what has become a cult mantra: “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooble gobble, gooble gobble.”

What Hans doesn’t know is that Cleopatra and her equally ill-intentioned lover are about to attempt to poison him, thus claiming his significant inheritance. Cleopatra, then, by harming Hans, violates the “Code of the Freaks.”

This doesn’t end well for her. And, thus, we have the climax of Freaks.

Tod Browning, the film’s director, came to Freaks after a rousing success with Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi. He’d been hoping to bring Tod Robbins’ short story “Spurs” to the silver screen as early as 1927; this story, as per the plot of Freaks, follows a wealthy midget who marries a malicious trapeze artist.

Browning insisted on casting real-life sideshow performers in the film, including the Hilton sisters. Other performers involved included:

Josephine Joseph, as “Half Woman-Half Man”

Johnny Eck, as “Half Boy”

Prince Randian, as “The Living Torso”

Frances O’Connor, as “Armless Girl”

Olga Roderick, as “Bearded Lady”

Jenny Lee Snow, as “Pinhead Zip”

Elvira Snow, as “Pinhead Pip”

Performers, as this list implies, were credited in conjunction with what would have drawn an audience in a sideshow setting.

Filmed in 1931, Freaks was produced and released by MGM in 1932 and caused a riot of sorts. What appeared before audiences was cut significantly from Browning’s original cut. However, the film was still very negatively received; it recorded a loss of $164,000, an exorbitant sum in 1932.

Critics expressed repulsion and indignance. For instance, Harrison’s Reports wrote with vitriol: "Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital." A newspaper in Kansas City, around the same time, published a review that declared: "There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it.” The film was banned in the United Kingdom for decades, as it was considered to be overly exploitative.

Browning’s career ultimately never recovered – it is, in fact, generally accepted that the shock of Freaks brought his once-illustrious career to an early end. However, Freaks has seen resurgence as a cult film and has seen new appreciation. Rotten Tomatoes, a film review website, has stated: “Time has been kind to this horror legend: Freaks manages to frighten, shock, and even touch viewers in ways that contemporary viewers missed." The film has also been spoofed on South Park and The Simpsons.




The Hilton Sisters

Side Show, as is common knowledge, is based on the lives of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. The twins were born in February of 1908. Their mother, Kate Skinner, was an unwed barmaid in Brighton, England. Twins ran in Kate’s family; however, when Kate saw that her daughters were conjoined, she was horrified. Begrudgingly, Kate named them Daisy and Violet and she refused to feed or interact with them. She sold the girls to Mary Hilton, a pub owner and midwife, shortly after their birth.

A word about their anatomy. The twins were born in an era where few conjoined twins survived to adulthood. Daisy and Violet grew to be 4’9”. They had completely separate organs and were bound together by a “ribbon of flesh” – that is, a small strip of skin that only loosened as they got older. Daisy was on the right, Violet on the left. (This is switched in Side Show.)

Mary Hilton’s pub was called “The Queen’s Arms.” This was where the girls spent their early years, viewed by the public for a price. Mary billed the girls as the “Brighton United Twins” and it is recorded that the twins’ earliest memories involved strangers poking at their “connection.”

As the girls grew up, Mary administered their careers, eventually meeting a balloon salesman named Myer Myers. Myers married Mary’s daughter, Edith, and proceeded to assist Mary in her management of the sisters’ careers.

Mary Hilton died in 1919, leaving Myers in control of the sisters. Myers kept a notoriously tight rein on the twins – they were not allowed to have boyfriends, interact with other sideshow performers, or have access to their own money. With the help of lawyer Martin J. Arnold, they eventually filed a lawsuit against Myers in 1931. They won, earning their freedom. However, as Daisy and Violet had been very sheltered, they didn’t necessarily know how to manage their finances or careers. The pair went through a series of managers, some of whom stole from them or deserted them.

After vaudeville lost popularity – in part due to the rise of motion pictures – the sisters unsuccessfully performed in burlesque. They had men in their lives from time to time, affairs, and short marriages. The most famous of these was that of Violet to dancer James Moore; their wedding ceremony was at the 1936 Texas Centennial, and attended by thousands. Both parties later dismissed the marriage as a publicity stunt

The pair appeared in two films: Freaks in 1932 and Chained for Life in 1951.

When they could no longer perform, Violet and Daisy moved to the American South. First, they lived in Florida, working at a fruit stand. Their last years were financially difficult and spent their last years working in a supermarket in Charlotte, North Carolina. The two women died at 61 years old on January 4, 1969, of complications from the Hong Kong Flu.


Meet Sweeney's set designer: Jeff Kmiec!

Porchlight Artistic Associate Jeff Kmiec has designed sets for PMT productions Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, Double Trouble, and Ain't Misbehavin'.  We sat down to chat with Jeff about his vision for a new approach to Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd actors see Jeff's designs for the first time.

-How do you go about designing a set?

 Usually, the process starts with an initial read-thru and concept meeting with the design team, where, often, a director will lay out a vision for the piece. Then comes research, concept drawings, models, re-reading of the script, props sketches, paint elevations, etc- anything that helps me best understand the world I am creating and communicate potential ideas to the director. I firmly believe, as a designer and collaborator, that the bottom line is to ensure that not only are the needs of each production met, but that the world onstage lends itself to further explore the themes of the piece.


-What are you most excited for with the set for Sweeney Todd?

Scenic design for Porchlight's Sweeney ToddMichael truly wants to create an immersive world for this show, and I am really looking forward to seeing the set, costumes, lights, sound, cast, and audience, become a part of his vision. Our goal is to utilize the entire Thrust at 773 and allow the actors to fully inhabit the space.




-What is your dream show to design?

 Boris Aronson's original scenic design for Cabaret, 1966


There are many, and Cabaret is definitely in my top five. It has a lot if similarities to Sweeney Todd-an immersive world that not only serves the story but also has a distinct mood and style that resonate so well with the themes inherent to the production. 


-How did you get into scenic design?  Who did you look up to?  Who inspired you? 

I grew up in the theatre; my mother has been a scenic designer for over 30 years, and she always jokes it happened through osmosis. Throughout my childhood, I remember going into the shop or onto the stage and watching artists build scenery for places I had never heard of or seen- it was irresistible.  I am actually often inspired by illustrators, animators, and stop motion artists for film, television, and video games, which is in great part to my Dad, who really helped me cultivate my love of these art forms. I'm often amazed by the worlds these artists create and how immersive they can be. 


-Where did you go to school? 

I went to Illinois State University for my undergraduate degree in Scenic Design, and received my MFA in Scenic design from the University of Virginia. 


-What  has been your favorite show to design at Porchlight? Why? 

Jeff Kmiec's scenic design for Porchlight's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill 


Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is bar far my favorite to date. Partly because it was my first design after returning to Chicago, but also because helping to establish the mood of that piece and frame the enchanting Alexis J. Rogers was one of the most rewarding projects I have been involved in ever.



Sweeney in the 1970's

While the story of Sweeney Todd dates back to the 19th century, the direct inspiration for Sondheim’s musical thriller comes from specific source material: Christopher Bond’s take on the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’s tragic tale. Up until Bond’s play premiered in 1973, Sweeney was a character similar to cartoon and comic book villains. He was pure evil, killing his victims simply for the thrill of it. Bond allowed audiences to see Sweeney in a new light by giving him a reason to kill. Sweeney initially intends to only murder Judge Turpin, as revenge for the wrongs committed against him and his family. Bond was the first to give Sweeney humanity, contrasting with the monstrous, soulless killing machine the character was in previous adaptations. Bond was the first playwright to make him human.

Playwright Christopher Bond

At the time of the premiere of Bond’s Sweeney Todd, the thriller/horror genre of film was extremely popular. In response to this phenomenon, plays became a humorous escape—they were more about giving the audience a laugh than making them think. Plots were one-dimensional and characters were standard archetypes: heroes, villains, damsels in distress, etcetera. But Bond’s play was different. In his director’s note, Maxwell Shaw writes, “He had written, not only an entirely new play based on the original idea, but one with a real plot, characters, genuine comedy situations and, above all, something to say.” Bond still gave the thrills and laughs the audience at the time was looking for, but he raised questions, commented on society, and made people think—all things a play is supposed to do. Shaw goes on to say, “It struck me as a very positive comment on the fact that we have come to accept such things as violence, wholesale murder--and worse--as a part of our everyday lives.”

            Sondheim saw Bond’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd in London in 1973, and immediately saw its potential to be, as he called it, a “musical horror story.” While Bond’s revenge story and characters fit naturally into his concept, Sondheim’s main struggle with his adaptation was in the language. Early draft of "A Little Priest"Bond used dialects and patterns of speech to define his characters, which reflected the British caste system at the time of the play. For example, the aristocratic Judge Turpin spoke in a measured cadence to emphasize his high social standing, while the poverty-stricken Beggar Woman, along with the rest of the ensemble, had Cockney or working-class Argot accents. It was the latter that concerned Sondheim. He says, “Writing anything in contemporary American English, be it artificial, colloquial, or slang, doesn’t give me pause—it’s part of my everyday experience. But period language, even American period language, stops me short… To my ear, period language written by contemporaries is rarely convincing; it usually comes across as quaint or false, and almost always as self-conscious.” However, Sondheim’s lyrics, which both entertain the audience and define the characters’ varying castes, prove that he overcame this obstacle.



Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim, 2010

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Christopher Bond, 1973

The Play’s the Thing: From Melodrama to Musical, PBS, 2001




The Theatrical "Sweeney Todd"

After the hugely successful publications, the first theatrical adaptation of the "Sweeney Todd" story was The String of Pearls (1847), a melodrama by George Dibden Pitt that opened at Hoxton's Britannia Theatre and billed as "founded on fact". It was something of a success, and the story spread by word of mouth and took on the quality of an urban legend. While examining relevant historical contexts (such as the status of the abolition movement in Britain in 1847, stage depictions of race, and the popularity of animal melodrama), there is significance in one particular alteration. In the 1846-47 novel, a faithful dog named "Hector" is important to the plot; in the 1847 play, he is transformed into a heroic major character who foils the play's villains - no longer a dog, but a deaf-mute black boy, a former slave from British Honduras who loyally continues to serve his former owner out of gratitude for his freedom. Without doubt, Hector's portrayal is racist and condescending. Yet by including this character, Dibdin Pitt takes an identifiably abolitionist stance, working through what was still England's strong sense of moral achievement in abolishing slavery and still strong sense of purpose in working to end slavery in the United States. But by 1883, the year in which the play was officially published, Hector disappears from Sweeney Todd. In regards to race and colonialism, the cultural work of Dibdin Pitt's play without Hector operates through an unthinking backdrop of the Empire's power and the status quo of racial hierarchy. Britannia Theatre

Various versions of the tale were staples of the British theatre for the rest of the century, including the first predomenantly "dramatic" version of the tale, Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (1865), an adaption written by Frederick Hazleton which premiered at the Old Bower Saloon, Stangate Street, Lambeth. While most versions encouraged the "boos" and "hisses" of arch melodrama, this approch took the characters and sitiuations a bit more serious, and terrifyingly so.

A Bower Saloon ProgramAfter World War I, actor/manager Tod Slaughter ran the Theatre Royal, Chatham before taking over the Elephant and Castle Theatre in South London for a memorable few years from 1924 onwards that have since passed into British theatrical legend. Slaughter's company revived Victorian "blood-and-thunder" melodramas such as Maria Marten, Jack Shepard, and The Silver King to enthusiastic audiences—not just locals but also sophisticated theatregoers from the West End who might have initially come for a cheap laugh but ended up enthralled by the power of the fare on offer. Like his contemporary Bela Lugosi's fated relationship with the character "Dracula," Tod Slaughter's interpretation of "Sweeney Todd" became a lifelong obsession, performing the role thousands of times and capturing the performance in a film adaptation of his theatrical characterization. Here is a clip of Slaughter presenting a number of his stage villians:

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street appeared again in 1968 (London in 1973) as a play by the British playwright Christopher Bond. This version of the story was the first to give Todd a more sympathetic motive: he is a wrongfully imprisoned barber who returns to London after 15 years in an Australian penal colony under the new name Sweeney Todd, only to find that the judge responsible for his imprisonment has raped his young wife and driven her to suicide, and adopted his daughter. He at first plans to kill the judge, but when his prey escapes, he swears revenge on the whole world and begins to slash his customers' throats. The character's new, tragic backstory was Bond's way of grafting dramatic themes from The Revenger's Tragedy onto Pitt's stage plot.

It was this production that was seen by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and the rest, as they say, was history.