Playwright Aaron Mark, who made his home in Washington Heights for 10 of his 14 years in New York City, found himself increasingly unsettled by the gentrification happening in the upper Manhattan neighborhood. “I thought, ‘Well, this is cannibalistic behavior. This is humans feeding on a community. That’s what this is,’” he says.
And then the idea hit him.
“Oh, my god! It’s Daphne Rubin-Vega as Sweeney Todd set in Washington Heights!,” recalls Mark, confessing that he is a “Daphne superfan,” but at the time did not know her. He took the idea to Jim Nicola, the then-artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop who encouraged Mark to write the play and he would give it to Rubin-Vega.
Mark wrote the solo show Empanada Loca. And Rubin-Vega starred as Dolores Roach, a convicted drug dealer recently released from prison who starts a massage business in the basement of an empanada shop. (And, of course, if you know Sweeney Todd, you know that those massage clients are going to end up as empanada filling.) The play opened in October 2015 at LAByrinth Theater Company. The play was then adapted in 2018 into a 2-season serial podcast from Gimlet Media. Rubin-Vega reprised her role as Dolores and Bobby Cannavale played Luis, the owner of the empanada shop.
The downtown theatre writer has relocated to Los Angeles and The Horror of Dolores Roach has been adapted once again—this time for television. Season 1 of the Amazon Original series (produced by Blumhouse Television) can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video. This iteration of the macabre tale stars Justina Machado (One Day at a Time) in the title role with Alejandro Hernandez as her piemaker love interest. Rubin-Vega remains involved as a co-producer and a writer on the series. “She’s an extraordinary storyteller in so many ways,” says Mark of his long-time collaborator.
When Mark first started writing the play version, he dug deep into the Sweeney Todd lore—not just the musical, but the penny dreadful serial, the 19th-century melodrama, the 1936 film (starring Tod Slaughter, yes…that’s his name), and the 1970 Christopher Bond play, on which the Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical was primarily based. But his Sweeney, or rather, his Dolores, has a radically different motivation than her predecessors.
“Most people think it’s a story about revenge, because that’s what the musical is. But in the 1800s, it was a story about greed. He very, straight up, killed people to steal their money and their jewelry,” explains Mark. “I wanted to do a piece that was not about greed or revenge, but survival. This is someone who’s backed into a corner. She’s not an other. She’s not a crazy maniac monstrous murderer. She’s human.”
In Empanada Loca, Dolores relays her story directly to the audience from her hiding place in Manhattan’s abandoned subway tunnels. With the expansion to television, Mark has given a fun nod to the series’ previous versions; he begins episode one with the curtain going down on the opening night of a Broadway play based on a true-crime podcast about Dolores. As the actress playing Dolores on Broadway is alone in her dressing room post-show, the real Dolores (Machado) traps the actress, forcing her to listen to her story the way it really happened. As she tells it, it unfolds in flashback for the television viewers.
That Broadway-show framing isn’t the only theatre reference in the series either. Mark has hidden a few Easter eggs throughout. One example: “the fake Broadway theatre, the Britannia, is named for the theatre in the U.K. in the mid-1800s where the Sweeney character first appeared in the first staged melodrama,” Mark tells us.
But it’s not just the writing that pays homage to the theatre world. As with Jim Nicola and Daphne Rubin-Vega, the theatre-people connections to the series abound. Tying all the who-knows-who threads together even looks a little bit like trying to solve a murder on a bulletin board.
Two-time Tony nominee K. Todd Freeman stars as Jeremiah, a truck driver trying to look out for Dolores. Mark grew up in Houston, Texas and as a young man, he idolized the work Freeman did at the local Alley Theatre. When Freeman auditioned, Mark jumped at the chance to work with him.
Machado made her Broadway debut in 2009, replacing Andréa Burns as Daniela in In the Heights. The way Mark tells it, Machado and Rubin-Vega also crossed paths decades ago when Machado replaced Rubin-Vega in a downtown play that Rubin-Vega had to pull out of in order to do the workshop of Rent. Mark says Machado was on the shortlist for Dolores very early on. Coincidentally, prior to the television series and her involvement with it, executive producer Gloria Calderón Kellett, who was the co-showrunner on Machado’s One Day at a Time, had found the podcast and introduced it to Machado, saying, “If this ever comes around, this is a part for you.”
Mark relays the story of the day it did come around: “We had a Zoom with her during the casting process, and she got on the Zoom and said, ‘I am Dolores Roach. This is my part. What do I have to do to get this part?’ And I thought, ‘What do you have to do?!?’” She read a couple of scenes anyway, but it was a done deal.”
So, what’s next in the evolution of Dolores Roach? Mark has some Season 2 stories spinning with hopes that it will come to that (there’s no news yet on if the show will be renewed, though it already has fans hungry for more). And though the mention of a musical adaptation began as a joke, Mark says the idea keeps coming back: “Maybe we have to do that.” And apparently when Cyndi Lauper was on set (oh, yes, another Broadway Easter egg: Cyndi Lauper plays a Broadway usher who moonlights as a private investigator) when she was on set, they joked a lot about a musical episode. That joke morphed into Lauper penning the song "Oh, Dolores" for the finale episode. (Listen here.)
Of course, the original solo show is available for licensing, with productions popping up all over the world from Las Vegas to Taipei. Mark says it’s popular with colleges. It will be fun to see if there’s an uptick of regional productions as more people tune into the series. He would like to bring it back to New York. But with Rubin-Vega, Machado, or a new Dolores? “The answer to that,” he says, “is yes, yes, and yes. We should be so lucky.” Yes. We should.