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Asolo Repertory Theatre's 'Sweeney Todd' boasts killer costume design

A great deal of thought went into Alice Louise Frederickson's 'Sweeney Todd' costumes.

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  • | 1:40 p.m. May 21, 2019
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“Sweeney Todd” isn’t exactly known as a colorful production. Unless you count the red blood stains that, if real, would surely stain every surface even remotely associated with the musical.

Alice Louise Frederickson saw the monochromatic color scheme as a welcome challenge when designing the costumes for Asolo Repertory Theatre’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

“We took a different conceptual direction,” she says. “We wanted to show the grotesque, dirty world they live in and that we live in.”

“Sweeney Todd” takes place in Victorian London, but unlike many depictions of this period, this story is about the dark, gritty almost otherworldly experience of the era’s poor — whom Frederickson calls forgotten people in a forgotten place.

To achieve this aesthetic, she needed a plan that would be aligned with the performance side of the production, so her first step was a meeting with Director Peter Rothstein. The two meshed their visions for the show’s visuals and decided on costumes that are mainly some variation of black, gray, and/or brown.

Those who wear another color, such as the innocent character of Johanna in her pure white lacy gown (which was built by the Asolo Rep costume shop specifically for this show), do so for strong symbolic reasoning.

Frederickson’s second step in the design process was analyzing the score. She wanted to make sure her costumes were inspired by the music and not just the plot, and one of the moments she found most notable was how Sweeney speaks about London when he returns after being unjustly imprisoned for 15 years.

Lyrics like “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it .. and it goes by the name of London” show that the story is from the point of view of someone with vengeance in his heart, Frederickson says. Her task was to find a way to use costuming to portray that perspective.

She decided to stick to the grayscale palette she’d discussed with Rothstein, but wanted to make it layered. So she took a collage-type approach, adding texture and paint to what would otherwise be a plain striped pair of pants or basic gray skirt to give them more life onstage (a depressing life, but life nonetheless). Fabrics were dyed and distressed to give that morbid, almost zombie-like feel of people barely clinging to life.

The resulting style is Victorian with modern touches, Frederickson says, in an effort to ensure the overall look doesn’t distract from characterization or plot developments but is still accessible.

Most productions of “Sweeney Todd” have around 30 actors, but this production has a purposefully intimate cast of 10. This presented another challenge for Frederickson, because nearly every actor plays more than one character and thus needs to morph from one persona to the next quickly and seamlessly.

Alice Louise Frederickson says Sweeney’s somewhat modern jacket is meant to look like a straight jacket to remind people of his psychotic state. Photo by Cliff Roles
Alice Louise Frederickson says Sweeney’s somewhat modern jacket is meant to look like a straight jacket to remind people of his psychotic state. Photo by Cliff Roles

Other than changes in body language and voice, costuming is the best way for audiences to understand that the same actor is now playing a completely different character, so she had to find garments that could be layered and/or easily taken on and off to make the quick changes as painless as possible.

Frederickson says the next step to any design after reviewing the book and score is a detailed sketch based on extensive research she’s done on the period during which the piece takes place. For this show, she filled the pages of a thick white binder with Victorian, steam punk and other edgy yet period-appropriate outfits she found online. These images inspired her as she sketched everything worn by the principal characters and everything else that needed to be built by the shop.

In January, she pulled all the items out of Asolo Rep’s costume storage that she wanted to use — and modify — and explained her vision for the brand-new pieces to the costume shop so they could make the mockups. These are the first iterations of every costume, and they’re usually made with a cheap cotton such as muslin because they’re more of an outline. Once the mockup is made, it’s fitted on the actor who will be wearing it so the final costume can be sewed with the right measurements. 

In between, Frederickson — who calls herself a sort of artistic project manager — gives notes to the drapers and stitchers, who alter the costumes accordingly.

The final step is to see how the creations look onstage during a dress rehearsal. This is Frederickson’s favorite part — seeing her vision come to life. 

“It’s like Christmas,” she says. “And I hope it sweeps (other) people up seeing the actors evolve within this world onstage.”


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