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Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford On Learning From Sondheim In ‘Sweeney Todd’: “We’re Trying To Find What He Left Us In The Work”


Josh Groban has gone on a world tour, performed at the Olympics, co-hosted the Tony Awards and appeared on Broadway before, but playing Sweeney Todd has been his toughest job yet.

“It’s definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Physically, vocally, emotionally. I can safely say that this is the most difficult undertaking, creatively, that I have ever undertaken. But it’s a great way to be tired,” says Groban.

Groban stars opposite Annaleigh Ashford in the current Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical directed by Thomas Kail. This production fills the Lunt-Fontanne Theater with a 26-piece orchestra and atmospheric fog that encompasses the large ensemble and the infamous hinged barber chair that looms over the event. Groban’s operatic baritone elevates the classical score, playing the mortified, murderous barber bent on revenge, as Ashford’s Mrs. Lovett meets him with lovelorn energy and expert physical comedy.

This is Ashford’s second Sondheim role (masters of sex, Accusation: American Crime Story) has played, after portraying Dot in Sunday in the park with George to Jake Gyllenhaal, and she, like Groban, sees the challenges involved. But there was no doubt she would take it on.

“You learn early on as a young actor in musical theater that Sondheim is the target. So when it comes up, you say yes,” Ashford said. “And you get to play the puzzle.”

Ashford and Groban, who are both Tony nominees for their performances, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about their relationship with Sweeney Toddplaying villains and memorable scenes in this production like doing the splits down a flight of stairs.

Josh, was this a bucket list roll for you?

Josh Groban: Oh yeah. I mean, before I was in the music business, theater was my dream. I was very lucky that in my youth I had the opportunity to see theater, to experience shows Sweeney Todd. One of my first memories of doing so Sweeney Todd was at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, and I got to be a part of it when I was 15 years old.

Were you Sweeney Todd?

groban: No, no, I was in the ensemble, but I loved every minute of it.

Annaleigh, I heard you were a big fan of Angela Lansbury, who came up with the role of Mrs. Lovett.

Annaleigh Ashford: I always wanted to be Angela Lansbury growing up because she was the ultimate character actress. She was someone who found humor and life and humanity in every character she played. And then she was also a woman in this industry navigating all things feminine. She was a mother, she was a wife, and she was an actor at a time when patriarchy was strong, and she navigated it with grace and love. And so she’s not only a role model and an idol to me as an actor, but also as a person. Every time I met her – I met her three times – I cried in a way so uncomfortable I had to walk away.

Did you think of Angela Lansbury when you took on this role?

Asford: Every time you approach an iconic piece of text, material or scroll I think it’s your duty to acknowledge those who have come before you and given you a road map and then you do what you do with all the great text, you listens to what’s on the page. So like any person who has ever played Hamlet, or Lear, or Lady M, you have to look at the page and figure out how to interpret it through your instrument, which is your soul and your body, and just see what comes out. So I was absolutely, absolutely inspired by her interpretation, and I feel it all over the page and throughout the piece. I thank her every night and I thank Stephen Sondheim every night, and Hugh Wheeler, all the greats who made this piece, Hal Prince. Their spirit lives in the spirit of the play.

Josh, this role is different from what we’ve seen you do in the past. Were you interested in playing a villain?

groban: I think what was interesting to me about Sweeney Todd was the part itself and the way it was written, not so much the idea of ​​just playing a bad guy in general. I mean, it’s always fun to play against type, I guess. It’s a fun challenge and allows you to spread your wings and dive into different facets of your stories, but for me the interesting thing about Sweeney Todd was all the juxtapositions: the beautiful score combined with the dark humour, the dark storyline . There is so much beauty and ugliness together in the role, along with some of the most extraordinary music and lyrics ever written. It really is just a masterpiece to be able to perform regardless of type.

Were you able to speak to Sondheim about taking on the role or production?

groban: We unfortunately never got to dive into the production itself before he died. It’s something that of course we all wish we had the chance to do, wish we had more time with him. However, we had his blessing, something we were thankful for. I am eternally grateful that I had his enthusiasm and his blessing to play the part before he died. We just never talked about the details of it. And so every day that we do the show, we try to find what he left us in the work and we try to find the answers that we wish we had asked him in the work. And we’re constantly discovering that it’s all there.

Amidst all the dark material, one of the scenes where you seem to be having the most fun is during “A Little Priest,” when Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett exchange rhyming phrases about what kind of people should make pies. What’s it like doing that scene every night?

groban: Well, we just try to keep it really fresh. We love our time together on stage so much, we have so much fun. (Annaleigh) is obviously such a riot and so she brings so much light into the dark and brings humor into this, something that we also know Sondheim really wanted, to really lean into that dark humor. And so our goal every time we do that song is basically to prank each other, the way Lovett and Sweeney prank each other, to really find the maniacal, twisted humor in what they’re planning. And so we go there. We’re definitely having as much fun as the audience thinks we are.

Asford: It’s like playing a game. It is a word puzzle game. So you play the whole number one puzzle and then you also solve this problem, which is kind of the ultimate gift that the actor always dreams of, what’s your obstacle? What problem are you going to solve? And so we get to solve this problem together for six minutes.

At one point in the show, Mrs. Lovett encounters Judge Turpin, Sweeney Todd’s nemesis. And in this staging, Annaleigh, you bow to him at the top of the stairs and slide down the stairs into the crevices to get out. How did you come to this decision?

Asford: It’s in the text. Everything is always in the text. I really wanted to show a difference of class. She is at the very bottom of the social totem pole. She has never met anyone as high as the judge on the social totem pole. And so when she bows to him, she bows as low as she thinks is appropriate. And then when she tries to get up, she’s on the stairs and realizes she has nowhere else to go but at the bottom of the stairs. So she just goes down the stairs. I was like, “What would she do if she met the Queen of England and she bowed on the stairs?” She would just take them down any way she could. So she slides down the stairs. She’s trying to look cool, and in trying to look cool, she doesn’t look cool, which is what we all do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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