It’s a classic story. A man sets himself up as a barber, starts killing his customers, robs them of their riches, then disposes of the bodies by chopping them up into bits and selling them out of the pie shop next door. The story first appeared in the penny dreadful serial, The String of Pearls in 1845, and has gone on to be retold in plays, movies, and most famously, a musical.
It is a story that Aaron Mark has always been a fan of.
“I’ve loved Sweeney Todd for as long as I can remember, I always say it’s one of the great cannibalism stories that our species has ever produced,” he tells Den of Geek.
Over the years Mark has consumed many different versions of the tale.
“I’m partial to the first surviving film version of Sweeney Todd – the black and white film starring Tod Slaughter, which was indeed his name,” Mark says. “His last name really was Slaughter, and he changed his first name to Tod, with one D, and performed the original melodrama version of Sweeney Todd all over the UK. He toured for many, many years and did thousands of performances, many with his wife as Mrs. Lovett. Then they made this film. It’s pretty fantastic.”
In the eight-part series, The Horror of Dolores Roach, which comes to Prime Video on July 7, Aaron Mark tells his own version of the Sweeney Todd myth, transposed to modern-day Washington Heights, New York. In this version of the story, Dolores Roach works as a masseuse in the basement of an empanada shop after a 16-year prison sentence. Then circumstances force her to take grizzly measures to stay out of jail.
But for Mark, the story was inspired by a different kind of cannibalism.
“I was living in Washington Heights ten years ago and watching this amazingly rich neighborhood gentrify, and I was struck by the idea that the neighborhood was feeding on itself. I felt like I was watching a neighborhood cannibalize itself and I thought ‘Oh! Cannibalism!’ This is a subject for one of the great cannibalism stories our species has ever produced!”
But Dolores Roach did not go straight to TV. Much like Sweeney Todd, her story would go through a number of formats before it appeared on screen.
“I had started working on a series of one-person horror plays off-Broadway that began as contemporary reinventions of old horror legends. I wanted to find characters we think we know and think we’ve seen enough of and find something new to say about them,” Mark says. “So it felt very natural to me to have a contemporary Sweeney Todd set in Washington Heights facing this gentrification.”
The defining elements of the story fell into place quickly. Mark knew he wanted to cast Daphne Rubin-Vega, who would go on to play Dolores in the podcast version of the story, and that the story would be gender-flipped. To build out from that, he turned to the many, many other versions of the Sweeney Todd myth.
“I knew it would be a contemporary Latina living in Washington Heights, so part of the journey for me was how to build a story around this version of the character,” Mark says. “I went back through countless versions of Sweeney Todd. Most people know the musical, which is of course a masterpiece, but I’m always surprised how many people don’t realize how many versions there were before that.”
Mark went back through as many different versions of Sweeney Todd as he could get his hands on, pulling together bits and pieces of plot and theme, piecing them together with the characters and plot elements he had created for his own purposes.
But as well as adapting the story of Sweeney Tod, Mark has also adapted his own adaptation several times, from stage play to podcast to TV series.
“After we did the play off-Broadway in 2015 there was a clear sense from those involved that there was more to tell about this character,” Mark says. “[Dolores] is unkillable, I like to say. We knew she was going to go on.”
Mark worked to build out the story of the play into a serialized form and pitched it for TV in 2016, based on the play.
“People thought I was out of my mind but I’d created all this material, and then Mimi O’Donnell, who produced the play, moved to Gimlet Media and was looking for a scripted horror podcast. She knew I had done all this work for a serialized version of Dolores’s story and brought the project in.”
The off-Broadway play was primarily a monologue, making adapting it to audio relatively straightforward. It was four hours long, rather than 80 minutes, and the cast of characters grew, but Daphne Rubin-Vega was still in the title role, and Mark describes the podcast as essentially the same piece with a few key changes. The move to TV was a much bigger step.
“Adapting it to television required more rethinking because it’s a totally different media,” Mark says. “Audio and stage are different media but the play is a monologue play so with only a couple of exceptions it doesn’t depict the violence in front of you. The audio version operated under the same principle of engaging the imagination, with the listener or the audience creating the imagery in their own minds. For television it required a more radical reapproach, knowing that when you take something in via the eyes rather than the ears it’s a wildly different experience.”
Perhaps the biggest change for the TV series, however, was that Dolores Roach would no longer be portrayed by Daphne Rubin-Vega, with that role going to Justina Machado, who horror fans will recognize from The Purge: Anarchy.
“Any opportunity I have I want to sing Justina’s praises,” Mark says. “Daphne is such a part of this and I always talk about Daphne’s role in our development, and she is a brilliant storyteller and a writer and producer on the show, thrillingly. So I always have that opportunity to talk about Daphne. But Justina is extraordinary and gives a performance unlike anything we’ve seen on television before. She walks that line, she invites the viewer in. We like Justina. We trust Justina, and I think she allows us to be right there with her as she’s grappling with what she’s doing.”
The Horror of Dolores Roach drops soon, and Mark already has plans for where he would like to take a second series, but much like Sweeney Todd before it, there are still other venues for the story to be retold.
“I am very much hoping to do the play again on stage, and it is done all over the world. People license it. I’ve seen other people play Dolores,” Mark tells us.
But there is one more medium Mark hopes Dolores will conquer.
“The joke for years, that I think now is not really a joke, I almost feel like it’s inevitable, is that there should be a full stage musical of this, because why not?” he says. “We’ve come this far!”