Before Eugene Lee Died, He Was Revisiting His Tony-Winning Sweeney Todd Set Design in Rhode Island | Playbill

Special Features Before Eugene Lee Died, He Was Revisiting His Tony-Winning Sweeney Todd Set Design in Rhode Island

We talk with designer Patrick Lynch, who collaborated with Lee on one of his final projects: a Sweeney at Lee's hometown theatre of Trinity Rep.

The cast of Trinity Rep's Sweeney Todd Mark Turek

The late Eugene Lee’s scenic design for the 1979 original production of Sweeney Todd is the stuff of legend. Matching the operatic scale of Stephen Sondheim’s epic score (not to mention Jonathan Tunick’s 26-piece orchestration, currently back on Broadway for the first time since the original), Lee found and dismantled an entire factory to use for the set, placing windowed ceiling panels high above the stage and using the metal fixtures to create a cold, industrial vision of Victorian London.

The concept was inspired by director Hal Prince’s vision for the production, to frame the plot of the show—a barber who, in avenging his stolen family and unjust imprisonment, begins murdering his customers and sending their bodies to his neighbor and accomplice to become the main ingredient in her meat pies—as a story of classism. To Prince, Sweeney was a victim of the undue amounts of power the rich hold over the poor, and his thirst for murder came from a desire to turn that system upside down. Lee’s scenic design made the people of London factory workers, their entire lives infected by the dirty, grimy system—thanks to those windowed ceiling fixtures that filtered all of the light into a dingy glow. When Sweeney subverted the class order, a factory whistle would blow—the end of the “work day,” and of the boss’s power over his workers.

The design won Lee a 1979 Tony Award, one of three he would win over his nearly five-decades-long career. Lee designed many beloved Broadway shows, including the original productions of Ragtime and Wicked—to say nothing of his many years designing on the fly for SNL—but Sweeney might stand out as his most iconic.

Full stage of actors in the 1979 Broadway production of Sweeney Todd. Martha Swope/New York Public Library

Which is why it’s somewhat surprising that among Lee’s final projects (he passed away in February at the age of 83) was re-designing Sweeney Todd, for a new production at Rhode Island’s nonprofit theatre Trinity Rep. His willingness to revisit the musical were pretty personal. Primarily living in Providence, Rhode Island, Trinity was his “home” theatre, and he served a long tenure as its resident designer beginning in 1967. Designing this 2023 production, which began May 25 and runs through July 2, also meant collaborating with Patrick Lynch, his longtime assistant and mentee. We recently caught up with Lynch over Zoom to talk about his long relationship with the famed scenic designer, and how they re-conceived one of his most famous designs.

Lynch began working with Lee in 2001. Except for his time earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, his collaboration with Lee essentially never stopped. After completing his undergraduate degree, Lynch pursued graduate work at Carnegie Mellon University on Lee’s advice, but as Lynch puts it, “I also went to the Eugene Lee School of Set Design at the same time.”

And what do they teach at that much-esteemed (if sadly unaccredited) institution? “Don’t be afraid to come in with an idea fully formed, but don’t show the final, sexiest form of what the set can be,” remembers Lynch. Lee apparently preferred to work in un-colored, white models to leave his collaborators room to imagine their own way in. “There’s always room for other people to find their way into it, invest in it, improve it, and make a far better final version of something than any single person could ever come up with themselves. That was a huge Eugene lesson that I think goes slightly in contrast to what a lot of people teach about design, which is to solve everything and every detail down to the last molding finial.”

According to Lynch, that Lee said “yes” to doing another Sweeney was anything but surprising. In fact, he liked to revisit his older design concepts, always tweaking and improving them. Lee’s work on the Main Stem often defied what a Broadway theatre even was. Long before Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, Lee designed the short-lived 1972 musical Dude, which completely re-configured The Broadway Theatre into a circus-like arena with the stage placed on what normally is the orchestra seating. The stage was surrounded by ramps, catwalks, bleachers, and dirt. Two years later and in the same theatre, he did a similar design for Hal Prince’s 1974 revival of Candide, which proved to be the first time the Bernstein operetta was a success. “He was happy to remind people that he did those in the ‘70s when everyone was on a lot of drugs,” remembers Lynch with a laugh.

A scenic design of Sweeney's barber shop from Trinity Rep's Sweeney Todd Courtesy of Patrick Lynch

“He loved it,” Lynch shared. “He loved messing up theatres, or rather he loved doing what was right for a show no matter what, especially if it was a big, bold gesture that required big, audacious changes to space in response to the text.” Notably, the upcoming musical Here Lies Love is following in Lee’s footsteps—taking out the orchestra seats in the Broadway Theatre (again) and making that section part of the stage, and converting the stage itself into a two-story dance club. That show’s designs look to be a little slicker than Dude’s or Candide’s, but it’s clear that Lee paved the way for what even now audiences view as an incredibly novel and unique way to present a Broadway musical. “I don’t know what he would think of all the shows now reconfiguring spaces,” Lynch told us. “He’d think that’s what theatre should have been the whole time. It’s nice that the world has caught up.”

Lynch and Lee spent part of their Sweeney design process—much of which ended up being during the pandemic when everything was paused—revisiting Lee’s original design to see what they liked and where they wanted to go in a different direction. “At one point, we were watching a bootleg of the original cast on YouTube,” remembers Lynch. “I wish everyone could have the opportunity to sit there with this great artist watching them basically do a pop-up video of one of their greatest creations. It was surreal and wild.” 

What Lynch most remembers Lee reminiscing about was his desire to have the Sweeney set pieces moved by visible stagehands, and the push-back he got from producers about that. At the time, automation was just starting to come into vogue on Broadway, and the powers that be were reticent to be seen as behind the times. But for Lee, the choice had nothing to do with that, but rather came out of the factory concept. If everyone became the workers of this metaphorical factory, Lee wanted to see people doing the labor during the show.

“They costumed them, and when they were done they would just stay still. They’d disappear,” Lynch remembers Lee telling him. “You put them in a dirty trench coat and they go out there. It’s so much better to see people moving the scenery for the story. At the heart of it, it all came back to the Pie Shop wagon and how simple it was. It didn’t need to be the sexy, automated, magical thing.”

A scenic design of Sweeney's barber chair from Trinity Rep's Sweeney Todd Courtesy of Patrick Lynch

Lee and Lynch ultimately chose a similar, but new, setting for this 2023 Sweeney, inspired by this production’s director, Trinity Rep Artistic Director Curt Columbus. “[Curt] wanted to explore this idea of justice and the notion of the prison system in this country, so our design is really informed a lot by that,” says Lynch. “Where the foundry and the industrial environment was a great visual metaphor and support for the class story originally, I feel like prisons now are also such a tool for keeping class stratification in existence in this country today. There are definitely parallels here in terms of the thinking and the metaphor of the design.” In this new modern-dress version, Sweeney Todd is seen at one point in an orange prison jumpsuit.

But of course, this design isn’t just Lee. Ironically, Lynch says his own ideas for the set kind of butts heads with the aforementioned tenets of scenic design he learned in the hallowed halls of the Eugene Lee School of Scenic Design. “This production has a fairly restrained color palette, and I think I consider color a little earlier and prioritize it slightly higher than Eugene did,” says Lynch. “There’s a lot of metal and real surfaces, but also the color red finds its way into the set in a few important places. That feels like something that I would do that Eugene wouldn’t.”

Ultimately, Lynch says, the most important part of scenic design—and they taught him this both at "real" school and Eugene Lee school—is to connect to the text. “You have to make the words true,” says Lynch. That’s also why Lynch says there’s still a fair amount of Lee’s original, “unable-to-be-bettered” design in this new one. Among the ideas carrying over to the new design is visible stagehands moving the set around, only now dressed as prison guards to match the new directorial concept.

"He solved it. He always thought in the best possible way.”

See Production Shots From Trinity Rep's Sweeney Todd

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