Some Scattered Thoughts After Playing Sweeney Todd in “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

Sweeney-Todd-web“Where did you find the self-loathing and the hatred you brought up there?” “Well, I dug down deep, dredged it up, poured it out on the stage and stuffed what was left deep deep down inside until I needed it again.” “Ha ha ha ha!” “Yeah . . . “

I have literally dreamed of playing Sweeney Todd for over twenty years. By “literally” I mean I have had dreams about being Sweeney Todd on stage in front of people. These were never bad dreams or “actor’s nightmares.” I never felt incompetent or unprepared in those dreams because, if I knew anything, I knew Sweeney Todd.

My first exposure to “Sweeney Todd” the show was a hardback copy of the libretto we had in our high school theater library. I was obsessed with musicals and was already familiar with Sondheim through “Into the Woods” and “Company” so I took the script home and read it all the way through. I was astounded at the complexity of the tale. But, I was also confused about the main character. I couldn’t get a grasp on what he was like, what type of a person he was. His lines were so reactionary and al over the place. So, I got the soundtrack. Len Cariou’s portrayal of Todd was a revelation. On page, he read – to my high school mind – as a monster. Cariou brought grounded warmth to the character. Sweeney Todd stopped being a nightmare creature and started seeming like what I eventually came to see him as – a damaged man. A terribly sad, damaged man.

I couldn’t get a grasp on Sweeney Todd until I admitted that what makes him a living character are qualities I have in myself. It’s hard to look in the mirror every day and not like the person looking back at you. It makes for long mornings and seriously impedes your ability to do your hair. I have the ability, the capacity, to hurt people close to me. So does Sweeney! We’re halfway there!

Sweeney is traditionally portrayed by an older actor who is physically imposing. Someone who commands a room simply by entering it. I am not that actor. I had to command the room by sucking all the energy into me. I had to pull inward with so much force that everyone just got pulled along. It made me very tense. Very tense.

There are two basic approaches to playing a character who has spent 15 years in a hellish prison environment – they either come out toughened or come out beaten. Sweeney was beaten. Prison destroyed him. It sapped him of his personality, his self-esteem and his ability to command his life. Sweeney reacts to the world as if he is about to be hit. So, I played every scene in the first act like I was on the verge of getting punished.

I had three different physicalities for Sweeney. When he first appears, he carries himself like a whipped animal – surrounded by threats, ready to lash out, trying to make himself as small as possible. This is a natural reaction to his imprisonment. His second physicality is The Full Man. After he gets his razors back, Sweeney is able to carry himself with confidence. It’s a facade, but he uses it to function in public. Finally, there is The Cunning Animal. Sweeney adopts this pose when he smells danger to himself or his plans. In the second Pirelli scene, Sweeney vacillated between The Full Man and The Cunning Animal on almost every other line.

A lesser physicality was his attack pose: he used it when he charged Mrs. Lovette in their first scene together and it’s how he carried himself in front of the audience during the ballads. Arms back, chest forward. It’s a prison yard stance, when Sweeney was pushed to his limits.

“I didn’t even recognize you up there!” These are the greatest words an actor can hear. Or, the greatest words I can hear as a character actor.

Sweeney Todd is the story of people who are unable to see what is right in front of them.

Sweeney Todd’s central character is not Sweeney. It is Johanna. The three main characters each sing a song titled “Johanna.” The Judge wants Johanna incestuously and contrives to marry her in order to keep her. Anthony wants Johanna in order to “save” her and plots to steal her in order to have her. Sweeney wants Johanna as a perfect memory and plots to destroy everyone in her life in order to possess this perfect memory. None of these men have Johanna’s best interests in mind. The Judge imprisons her to keep her away from others. Anthony brings her to the most dangerous place in London so blind is he to the danger of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney does not even recognize her when she is in his shop and nearly kills her with his own hand. Johanna only escapes on her own recognizance. Her future at the end of the show is uncertain – certainly the police will want to discuss the murder of a certain Dr. Fogg.

I was terrified of losing my voice. I’ve never not lost my voice in the run of a musical. I’ve also never sung such difficult music in a show or had such a large role. The day I got cast I ordered the full score. The next day I contacted McPhail and signed up for weekly voice lessons. I told my teacher, “I need to learn how to sing a role like Sweeney Todd without losing my voice. I need to learn stamina.” He then proceeded to strip down my voice and build it back from the ground up. I sing completely differently now. It feels better and I don’t hurt my voice!

I had to be completely relaxed with my music before I could begin building a character. Because Sweeney is so tense, I had to be able to hold myself in a locked position without locking my throat. The only way to do this was to have zero worries about my singing. Again, I’ve never done this before.

Oh, and I was so tense that – despite not going to the gym for a month – I actually built muscle mass playing the role. Just through tension.

I had to make myself not listen to “The Beggar Woman’s Lullaby” each night or I’d start crying before my entrance.

I fell off the stage TWICE! In the run of the show. Both times it was my fault; both times I got hurt. My right leg still hurts where I scraped it up. BUT, it was secretly exhilarating!

Sweeney was the first role my twelve-year-old daughter has seen me play in a full-length show. I was proud to have her see it.

I was so freaked out by the role that I don’t think I spoke to any of my fellow cast members for the first month of rehearsal.

I think the length of the run was just right. Maybe in ten years I’ll have something new to bring to the role, but at this age, I’ve done about all I can with it.

I loved seeing the audience for the first time in Epiphany. No one expected me to swing down the stairs and address them directly. Watching them pull back and tense up was a joy each and every night.

I think I did a good job. I rarely say that about anything I do. But I think I did.

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Categories: Just a stupid thing, Sweeney Todd, Theater, Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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