Thursday, September 17, 2015

Musicals / Industry News / Tips & Tricks


Manipulative villainess or plucky survivor? Wickedly wanton woman or innocent baker of pies? Mrs Lovett, of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s malevolently masterful musical SWEENEY TODD, is a fiendishly multifaceted character. The role has attracted the very cream of the world’s leading music theatre actresses. Read on for a look into what makes this devilish character tick.

Angela Lansbury created the role of Mrs Lovett in the original 1979 Broadway production of SWEENEY TODD. She shared her recollections of that special time interviews to promote the re-release of the original cast recording.

In London with Sondheim, Director Hal Prince wired Lansbury in Ireland to invite her to join the cast of the new musical, writing “Stephen Sondheim and I are planning a production of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Would you be interested in coming on board with us?” Lansbury knew of the mythical title character but nothing about her role. She wrote back, “Doing what? This is a story a demon barber of Fleet Street. Who is Mrs Lovett?” Back in New York, Sondheim played Lansbury Mrs Lovett’s opening song, “Worst Pies in London,” and, seeing the cockney humour that they had built in to the project, she was on board.

Lansbury reflected on the rehearsal process: “It was a thrilling for me, for all of us, at the time. It was difficult, but exciting. Every day something would happen, something would come out of the rehearsal. Something would be discovered and found and used.

Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, Sweeney Todd

“We had to learn the score completely before we started. I learned Mrs Lovett in my apartment in Lincoln Centre. It took me three weeks to learn the score backwards. Because the words were so intricate, and convoluted, and in some instances funny. And it was incorporated with a lot of physical movement so that was the thing that challenged me but again because I felt so challenged I darn well went ahead and did it and learned it and got it and built it in so it came so easily to me once we came to rehearsal.”

Lansbury shared her feelings about the character of Mrs Lovett: “I always thought she was a very resourceful woman, she didn’t let anything go to waste. After all, the meat pies were her idea, it wasn’t his, she was just being awfully clever and using available material. She was a marvellous character. The more I got into it the more I realised this was an opportunity to go back to my roots and to do a character that I would really relish getting my teeth into.”


Patti Lupone, Sweeney Todd
Photo by Sara Krulwich

In an interview about the 2005 John Doyle revival of SWEENEY TODD, Michael Riedel of Theater Talk asked LuPone if there was any trepidation to playing a role that audiences knew so well from Lansbury’s stage performance and cast recording. Having played established roles before, LuPone was prepared for her response: “I try to start at A every time I approach a role. As an actor, you’re only responsible for the material and you’re responsible to your director’s vision of that material We aren’t doing a carbon copy of the original so there’s no onus on us. It’s a totally different production. I love Angela Lansbury. Everything she does, I adore. If they had asked me to do Angie’s performance in this revival, I still wouldn’t do Angie’s performance; I’m me.”


Having also played Fantine in LES MISÉRABLES and Cinderella in INTO THE WOODS while at school, young Australian music theatre actress Anna O’Byrne had the unique opportunity of playing Mrs Lovett in her final year of secondary school. In Australia recently to play Maria in WEST SIDE STORY, O’Byrne shared her thoughts on the role of Mrs Lovett and its impact on her.

Anna O'Byrne and Deone Zanotto
West Side Story, The Production Company
Photo by Jeff Busby

“I was acutely aware of the reputation of the show, and the role. I delved straight into research, watching and listening to everything I could get my hands on, as well as studying Victorian working-class London, the history of the penny dreadful, Grand Guignol, the Christopher Bond play… you name it, I read it! I knew that the role would be an enormous challenge and I wanted to prepare myself as best I could.

“I have fond and vivid memories of my experience on the show, and it was a catalyst in my decision to pursue a career in the performing arts. I remember in particular the camaraderie of the company (the whole cast was present onstage for almost the whole show), the thrill of performing with the orchestra alongside us, and the feeling of creative fulfilment when a song or scene finally clicked into place. To date, it's been one of my absolute favourite roles to play. The writing is just sheer perfection.”

While there is now a SWEENEY TODD SCHOOL EDITION, O’Byrne’s production was the full version, the content and difficulty of which raised some concerns about the suitability of the show for a school at the time. “There were definitely a few who doubted the suitability of the show for teenage performers at the outset, however I think that the cast jumped on board with the vision of our director and MD, committed to the storytelling (and learning and perfecting the very difficult music!), and ultimately achieved a great piece of theatre. The writing for the ensemble is so strong, and they are integral in the development and drive of the narrative, so in that way it's a brilliant musical for younger performers in a school environment. Every cast member is important.

“I had been a fan of Sondheim prior to my first Sweeney experience, but it really cemented my love for his work (and reverence of his genius!). I've been fortunate to work on three Sondheim shows this year - whenever the opportunity comes up, I jump at the chance. For a singing actor, his shows are the pinnacle.”

Earlier this year, O’Byrne returned to SWEENEY TODD, in the ENO production at London’s Coliseum starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson. “It was brilliant to see (director) Lonny Price and Emma squeeze extra every ounce of comedy from the role. The writing of the role is inherently extremely funny, and the book and music suggest a lot of physical "beats" of comedy - they almost punctuate her songs. Emma is a self-professed clown, and she played the comedy in very subtle ways as well as big broad strokes. I was lucky to be sitting (onstage) right behind Emma and Jack North (playing Toby) during ‘Not While I'm Around,’ and I was always so affected by the moral struggle and sense of pathos in the scene. She's completely masterful, and the most inventive and generous actress.”

Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel
Sweeney Todd, New York Philharmonic
Photo by Mike Coppola

In a press conference for ENO, Thompson herself commented on what drew her to the role: “It’s a fantastic combination of rage and wit/humour. That’s a killer combination. And you don’t get that very often: real deep rage against the injustice of people’s lives.

“It’s a very difficult score. It’s fantastically complex. And there are some bits, like in ‘God That’s Good’... He’s a beast, Stephen, because he writes these runs of notes and you think you’re going to be allowed to repeat them in the next verse, but, oh no, he changes them. If you look at that score, the complexity of it is a bugger, to put it mildly.”


An actress in continued demand around the globe, Caroline O’Connor joined the cast of Théâtre du Châtelet’s 20012 production of SWEENEY TODD two weeks into rehearsal after being contacted by esteemed musical director David Charles Abell.

Enjoying a brief break between the Brisbane and Sydney seasons of hit musical ANYTHING GOES, O’Connor was happy to share her reflections on Mrs Lovett. “I just adore SWEENEY TODD full stop. I adore the characters; they’re so multifaceted.

Caroline O'Connor, Sweeney Todd
Photo by Roy Tan

“As far as Mrs Lovett is concerned, I always thought the comedy was incredibly important, but it’s not “tish-boom!”, if you know what I mean, it’s subtle and it’s real. The word I use to describe her is that she‘s a survivor. In very harsh times, she’s been able to survive and run a business (badly at first!). Also, I think she has incredible vulnerability: there’s a heart in there so wants to be loved, and to love. She has this womanly quality about her and I think she’s as cute as a fox. She’s very savvy, being able to make the best out of a situation.”

Having held on to Mr Todd’s precious razors, Mrs Lovett finally has the chance to return them to him, leading to a favourite moment for O’Connor. “‘My Friends,’ which isn’t necessarily her number, is an incredibly poignant moment as far as their relationship is concerned. She is taking advantage of the moment where he’s vulnerable She’s singing a love ballad to him: ‘I’m your friend too Mr Todd,’ and he’s singing a love ballad to his blades. He’s totally in his moment and she’s totally gone off on this tangent of ‘Oh were going to live happily ever after.’”

O’Connor raved about the entire process: “I loved every moment. I’m dying to do this show again. It was the most amazing experience. When the writing’s that good, it’s hard not to enjoy every ‘morsel.’ When you have to learn something like that, you realise how complex it is but also how gratifying it is.

“The surprise for me was the response to ‘By The Sea.’ I adored it because the audience was totally on board with her flitting and flirting around him like a lovesick puppy and him just sitting there stoically with absolutely no response so ever. Seeing her joy and him just tolerating her - there’s something very funny about that. The audience loved that because they saw her as a human. They could say ‘well, she’s just like us. She wants a happy home life and a lovely little house.’ They can think, ‘she’s not that bad after all.’”



O’Connor shared an amusing anecdote from one of the performances: “There was a moment of being in the oven and I couldn’t get out. There were the special effects of the smoke and the flames up against the oven window and I was stuck in there thinking there was going to be a Caroline O’Connor pie! I felt very claustrophobic. And of course I had to come on for the scene we’re they’re all back as corpses and I thought, ‘if someone doesn’t get me out of here soon there’s going to be a very quiet moment during the last lines of the show!’”

Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball, Sweeney Todd
Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Having played to great acclaim at the Chichester Theatre, a new production of SWEENEY TODD starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton moved to London’s West End for a seven-month run in 2012.

Promoting the production, Staunton commented on what drew her to the role. “What attracted me to Mrs Lovett is that she is the villain of the piece. The Demon Barber? He’s got nothing on this one. She’s relentless, she has no scruples, no morals, she’s funny, very keen fashion sense, great cook: protein-only pies!”


In July this year, opera star Antoinette Halloran played Mrs Lovett for the third instalment of Victorian Opera’s Sondheim Trilogy.

Fresh from the acclaimed season, Halloran shared her insights into Mrs Lovett: “I have to say that I never judged her. I just played her as honestly as I could. Her journey made absolute sense to me, as scary as that makes me sound. I know her actions were immoral, but judging her and her choices would have got in the way of playing her.

Antoinette O'Halloran and Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Sweeney Todd, Victorian Opera
Photo by Jeff Busby

“I suppose I did see her sympathetically in a lot of ways actually. She had an obsessive love for Sweeney that had stretched on for 20 years or so. There is an odd kind of honor in the way she loves him. She was below him in class and he would never have looked twice at her when he was a successful young barber with a loving wife and child. Yet circumstances lead him back to her when his world has crumbled and she now has the power. She has the razors, the shelter and the street smarts to help a somewhat broken man. She rebuilds him, and if keeping him means aiding and abetting his warped ideas of revenge, then so be it.

“When people are repressed and broken down by the hardness of the times it is easier to blur the lines between morality and immoral behavior. Especially when survival is at stake. The discovery of a body in a basket would mean a death penalty.... why not look for a way out by popping the body in a pie? If you strip away the moral code, it actually makes sense. And all her actions bring her one step closer to her cottage by the sea, with her beloved Sweeney.

“Stuart Maunder, our director, gave me a motivation before my opening night performance. ‘Let her be driven by lust...and greed.’ What better motivating factors to propel me through the night!”

Halloran shared her choice of a key moment: “The key to Lovett lies in her initial dialogue with Sweeney. When she presents the razors to Sweeney on his return. ‘I thought - who knows - maybe the poor silly blighter'll be back some day and need ‘em.’ The careful's all there. This is a woman who has dreamed of the return of a man sentenced to life in the colonies. She still hoped he would return and the razors are her collateral. He does return, and her plan evolves from there. There is no doubt she has a brilliant mind, damaged, yes, but brilliant.

“Every line in the piece is sacred. On the few occasions I dropped a line I was furious with myself for cheating the audience of the line. Every word is a pearl and an insight into this amazingly fascinating woman. There is no need for any edit. There is nothing to trim away.

Halloran’s favourite moment came towards the end of act one: “I must admit I love the sting in the orchestra when Mrs Lovett gets her ‘bright idea’ about how to dispose of Pirelli. That moment when she is stopped in her tracks by the thought. It shocks her, horrifies her, and yet arouses her. I loved that in this moment the audience was with me. The laughter showed that they were on my side in a bizarre kind of way; they weren't going to be too horrified by what was to come.”

While the oven was a danger for O’Connor, the kitchen itself brought an incident for Halloran: “The first day I was doing ‘Worst Pies’ and I was experimenting in the kitchen with my pastry and rolling pin and I got so carried away with my use of copious clouds of flour that my vocal cords got so coated in flour I couldn't make a sound! It took quite a few glasses of water to relubricate my vocal cords. And quite a lot of mirth in the room at my lack of foresight! I had to learn to moderate my flour usage for the performances. (Although it happened again in the first preview.... as I was clearly over excited again!)”


SWEENEY TODD and SWEENEY TODD SCHOOL EDITION are available for license from Hal Leonard.

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