Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

This post is as much for me as it is for you. It’s a long one!

What a whirlwind! One week. We had ONE week of rehearsals (plus one vocal rehearsal last week), a performance, and now it’s done. If I could travel back in time, I would love to do this again.

Let me go back to the beginning. Last year shortly after the Hollywood Bowl, I was contacted to play the role of Mrs. Lovett in a concert edition of Sweeney Todd with the Golden State Pops Orchestra at the close of their season.

Mrs. Lovett. Arguably THE most iconic role in American musical theatre history. I was 26. My mind jumped to Angela Landsbury, Patti LuPone, and, locally, the incredible talent that is Debbie Prutsman. I don’t think I responded for a day because I thought, “That can’t be right. They’re asking me?” But I wasn’t dreaming!

I accepted the role, familiar with the show but never with an eye trained on the character of Mrs. Lovett… and then I went to see it at the Candlelight Pavillion in Claremont with Debbie Prutsman as Mrs. Lovett. When the curtain dropped and lights rose at intermission, my eyes were locked in a blank stare. Someone in my party looked over at me and asked, “Are you okay?” After I was able to gather my thoughts enough to respond, I said, “WHAT have I said YES to?!” I’m pretty sure I got a little sick to my stomach at that point because I realized what a behemoth of a role that this was.

Post-Lamb of God (the oratorio I sang in March, not the rock band), I hit Sweeney Todd hard. Of course, I had to take about a week break to memorize Easter music and a drama for my church, but then back to Sweeney so, in all, I probably got a combined month of Sweeney listening and singing in. I rehearsed a couple times with my friend and brilliant pianist, Eric Belvin, because Sondheim a capella and Sondheim with accompaniment are two very different beasts. I also had the great fortune of a rehearsal with John LaLonde (who has played Sweeney multiple times) before the first vocal rehearsal with the cast.

A day before the rehearsal, I decided to research Norman Large – the GSPO’s chosen Sweeney Todd to my Mrs. Lovett. The name sounded familiar but I had never seen him so I turned to Google images. The picture I recognized first? Him in prosthetic makeup as Proconsul Neral on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m revealing my Trekkie roots here. Next, regular Google search. One paragraph into reading about his professional career and my brain screams, “NOPE!” and I close the browser. I was too intimidated to read further. This guy is legit. I decided it probably wasn’t the best idea, for my own sake, to research him before meeting him.

At the first of our two vocal rehearsals, we started with the larger numbers and whittled our way down to the duets and solos. Number 1? The opening Ballad of Sweeney Todd. Mrs. Lovett isn’t in that one so I got to sit back and listen. By the time everyone had cycled through their solos and the choral part hit, I had to remind myself that a gaping mouth is not a very proper expression for a lady. My thoughts: “There is SO much talent in this room! …What am I doing here? …Thank you Lord, for this opportunity…. Please, help me focus so I don’t suck.”

That first rehearsal went by in a blur. We didn’t quite get through the whole show but we got through most of it. So much talent! Even the understudies present were stellar. Afterward, I got to talk to a couple friends I knew pre-Sweeney and introduce myself to Norman beyond a quick handshake and exchange of names. He’s super nice! A grand majority of my feelings of intimidation melted away.

The second vocal rehearsal (Sunday of performance week) went smoother because we had a live pianist instead of “RehearScore” tracks. Sondheim with tracks is so much harder than Sondheim with live accompaniment. I have experienced this. I music directed Into the Woods that had to perform with tracks.

Our first orchestra rehearsal was Tuesday (of performance week) in the performance venue, the Warner Grand Theater. The soloist chairs faced the orchestra onstage and the choir was in the audience seats behind. It was a glorious, gourmet sandwich of sound. Musically delicious. I felt so blessed to be there, that moment of all moments. I really hope I get another opportunity to work with Steven Allen Fox and the Golden State Pops Orchestra again! We got through all of act 1 that night and half of act 2. I was a little nervous that we didn’t hit the hardest musical bit of the show, at least for my character, but I knew we’d get to it on the second (and last) orchestra rehearsal on Thursday. The hardest part is the final scene where Mrs. Lovett has to sing in a completely different rhythmic meter than the orchestra is playing in for 20 measures.

Wednesday was a blocking rehearsal. The plan for this concert edition was to act out everything in the show, just without a set. That night, we didn’t really run much of anything – just set lights. They put tape on the floor in the middle of the focus of the spots so we’d know where the strongest light was concentrated.

I’m relatively new to the whole “professional” thing… and I was flat out GREEN compared to the theatre veterans in this bunch – the grand majority of whose theatrical careers have been going on longer than I’ve been alive.

MAJOR differences between community theatre and professional theatre, assuming whether correctly or incorrectly that this experience is comparable to the norm: Number 1. MUCH shorter rehearsal time. We had a week. A WEEK! For a staged production, I’m pretty sure the norm is four weeks… in which case I would have been memorized but thank GOD we were contracted to use our scripts. Concert edition, for the win. Number two. No stage direction whatsoever other than, “The light will be here. Stay in the light.” Blocking decisions were left entirely up to the performers as long as they stayed in the light. We had total freedom in that spotlight. I am not accustomed to so much freedom but I loved it! It was a little uncomfortable at first, because it’s a bit foreign to me, but I started to grow accustomed to it. I wish we’d had more rehearsal time simply for the selfish reason of gaining confidence. There are some things that were re-blocked and repositioned by voice command only that we had to readjust for the performance without a run-through and everyone hit their marks, including me (thank God). Even though I didn’t get much “official” direction, Norman was very gracious when I asked for suggestions. He gave me little nuggets of information about the character of Mrs. Lovett that I wouldn’t have discovered on my own in the time span of the five rehearsals we had and what he gave me really helped form the character that everyone saw Saturday night.

A little bit about my fellow cast members: – – Anthony Hope was played by Jason Livesay. I’m friends with his identical twin, Nolan, and despite being “identical” I can clearly tell them apart because I know Nolan so well. Because I love Nolan, I instantly had a fondness for Jason. He’s a fun person to work with and was so fun to watch in his role. We had a laugh on performance day when he found out I, as Mrs. Lovett, was younger than him in real life. – – Johanna was played by Maegan McConnell. I love the control she has over her high notes. Decrescendos in the stratosphere are not the easiest things to do. She’s also a cutie pie with a sweet spirit. – – Adolpho Pirelli (Pirelli has a first name?) was played by Drew Tablak. Major kudos for those high notes, my friend, and the diction in spitting out all those words. Oh, Sondheim. Small world moment: He’s friends with a guy I went to school with at Belmont University in Nashville. – – Beadle Bamford was played by Steve Grabe. Powerful voice! And a wonderful Beadle. His character was so well defined. Everything about his performance – the cadence of his voice, the way he walked and sang, just felt so right for the Beadle. – – Judge Turpin was played by Phil Meyer. When he opened his mouth the first time to sing “Johanna,” Norman and I made eye contact with wide eyes and an approving nod. Wow, he’s good! His rich, deep, bass voice is so delicious! That makes him even creepier in his role. *shudder* – – Tobias Ragg (Toby has a last name?!) was played by Kyle Patterson. I could listen to him sing all day. He has the perfect voice and kind, round face for Toby. He’s the kind of person you meet and you just instantly want to hug – at least I did – but due to politically correct social rules, I restrained myself at our first meeting. Also, I found out he’s a year younger than me. I wasn’t the youngest cast member! It’s funny that I played a mother figure to his character. Gotta love theatre. – – The Beggar Woman was played by Araceli Applegate. Another small world moment! We share a common voice teacher. I took voice lessons from Janice Lee (out of San Dimas) when I was in high school and Araceli took from her in college when she went to Citrus. I actually went back to Janice to help me polish up this role and that’s when I found out. I like Araceli. She’s got spunk. – – Jonas Fogg was played by David Stamford. I didn’t really get to know him but I thoroughly enjoyed his interpretation of that character in his scene. In one scene, he made an impression. Bravo.

Now we come to my new favorite person that I’ve already mentioned a few times: Norman Large. Remember that thing I mentioned about the actors having total freedom in the light? He took it. Oh, yes, he did. This was his fifth time doing Sweeney Todd and he has got this character down! When he snaps into character, Norman has left the building and you are seeing Sweeney himself. The raw energy that man exudes commands your undivided attention. A couple times before he stepped out in character, I swear I saw his arms instantly cover in goosebumps as if possessed by the spirit of Sweeney Todd. In the run-and-a-half that we got of the show with orchestra and blocking, I don’t think Norman ever did exactly the same thing twice – even when it came to our duets. Watching that man shine in his element was like watching a master class.

I’m a very type A person so my comfort zone is knowing where I’m going to be and where other people are going to be onstage. Not so here! And, contrary to my nature, I loved it – probably because I trusted Norman completely as an actor. In our scenes together – whether spoken or sung – I never knew what was going to happen. Whenever he would cross, I would counter cross to keep the visual balance. Whenever he led in a movement, I would follow. Some of my friends commented that everything seemed so organic. It was! It was just a natural flow of movement and us responding to one another.

We only got a chance and a half to go over things with any sort of stage movement but in that time, I grew comfortable enough in my own skin to be able to bring life to that character – and comfortable enough to invade Norman’s space. There’s an arc of one-sided physical affection in the show between Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd that I was hesitant at first to commit to because, let’s face it, at first I was hesitant in a lot of things I deemed unfamiliar… which was a lot of things – but I quickly got over it. By the song “By the Sea” in act 2, Mrs. Lovett rhythmically kisses Todd’s cheek during brief musical pauses at the beginning of the song and then plants one on his lips at the end. In his character/blocking suggestions, he basically gave permission for that last kiss to last longer, more “passionate” so the apathetic look on his face afterward along with Lovett’s sarcastic line of “Oh, that was lovely” could get a laugh. He was right! And that permission, I think, helped me loosen up a little more for some reason. It was perfect.

Norman was such an encouragement to me. When I confessed my nervousness at making mistakes, instead of the usual consolation of “don’t worry about it,” he said that mistakes are what make acting fun and memorable. It’s not the greatest, most flawless performance that you laugh at or look back to with fond memories; it’s the mistakes – so don’t be afraid of failing big. As soon as he said that, I flashed back to a Chenoweth moment. When I saw Wicked back in 2004, with the original Broadway cast, there was a “failing big” moment. Fiyero dropped his spear in the scene were he’s holding Glinda hostage. The guards’ heads all followed the spear until it hit the ground, then looked up at him like, “Now what?” He lunged for the spear and did a prancy little sword fighting move. It was hilarious. Kristin was trying to contain her laughter, bounced offstage in character, snorted and let out a full laugh, then bounced back on into her place. That is a moment that I don’t think they nor the audience will ever forget and it’s a moment that will be looked back upon with fondness. What a lesson.

“Ten minutes to curtain” echoed down the hall of dressing rooms below the stage and I had to take a deep breath. Never before have I felt so underprepared yet so ready at the same time. It’s a hard feeling to explain. Because Mrs. Lovett is such a massive role, I know I’ve only scratched the surface. The five rehearsals we had were so intense. I trusted myself, my fellow actors, the conductor, and the orchestra that I knew we could all make it through successfully and with integrity.

My top three favorite scenes were Little Priest with Norman (Sweeney), Nothing’s Gonna Harm You with Kyle (Tobias), and the final scene where Mrs. Lovett dies. I never get to die in shows! And not only did I get to die, I got to scream! Twice! My next theatre goal is to play a character that dies onstage. That would be so fun! – – – The banter of Little Priest is so fun and it’s a point where the audience loosens up a bit and starts to laugh at the morbid comedy of it all. The laughter between Sweeney and Lovett in the middle of that number was 100% real. Norman chose to collapse face down on the floor with laughter and I was in a ball of laughter next to his barber chair. – – – The scene with Kyle was, really, the only tender moment in the show. I saw an opportunity with the scarf in the scene to wrap my hands around the scarf as I draped it around his neck as if I were about to strangle him after he guesses the truth about Pirelli’s disappearance. Kyle cupped one of my hands to his face and created a beautiful, painful, tender moment out of that tension. Ugh. So good! – – – The final scene was fun because a) with the two run-throughs we had of the dialogue, I was easily off book and b) I get to die! This is the only part of the show where Mrs. Lovett gets super emotional and I tried to milk it as best I could. After that moment where Lovett frantically sings a bit of “By the Sea,” Norman jerked me into himself to stop the frantic singing – perfect choice for both our characters. He pulled me into himself with such force that I actually squeaked on that last note when he was cutting me off. Ha! The moment was so organic and real and had the audience invested that the tension in the air was tangible. My mother’s first thought in seeing me being manhandled at that moment was “Get your hands off my daughter.” Lol! My mother has seen me doing theatre for years but rarely ever gets lost in the action. In a few steps, I was flung offstage into the oven with a glorious death scream. So fun!

This whole experience – a one week rehearsal process, letting go of my type A-ness – was a wonderful growing experience for me. I know I still could have done more, reached further outside of my comfort zone than I already had… but overall, I am proud of what transpired and I hope, one day, I’ll be able to work with these lovely people again.

Even though this would be an excellent place to end the tale of my adventure in Sweeney Todd, there’s more I want to document and remember. I had so many friends come and support me! The first person I saw was Janice Lee, the mutual voice teacher of Araceli and I. After the bulk of the crowd had left, I came back onstage to retrieve my water bottle and saw her out in the audience. I jumped off the stage, gown and all, and jogged her way for a hug. She said she was so proud of me and that she understood every word I sang. Yes! Teacher approves. Next, I saw my friend Carra who, I know in a sacrifice of time and gas money, drove all the way out with a friend to see me.

When I got to the lobby, all my theatre friends were waiting. First, I saw Dustin. I love how easy he is to find in a crowd. He’s 6’8” and one of THE only people that can make me feel short, even in heels. There is nothing quite like a Dustin hug at the end of a long show. He jokingly commented that he almost didn’t recognize me when I walked out on stage in flats. Ha! Well, despite my height, heels are kind of my trademark. All of the Harris women were there. They were the friends who drove all the way to Salt Lake City, UT from Redlands, CA to see me in Lamb of God. Two of my Bible study buddies made it out too! – Amy and Kristin.

After a whirlwind of pictures and hugs, I went backstage to pack up all my stuff and change into what I had been wearing earlier in the day – a plain white t-shirt, an athletic skort, and flip flops – a far cry from the gown I had just performed in. It was some time after 11 at this point and I was heading out to the reception at a restaurant near the port. I was thinking “cast party” not “formal reception.” Oops.

I walked upstairs, turned the corner and was greeted with a room full of women in gowns and men in tuxes. There was a one second pause followed by the exhausted thought, “You’re kidding me.” Someone handed me a ticket and said it was for the bar. By this point, I had gotten my bearings enough to form a single thought, “NOPE!” I turned around to go back to my car when someone said my name. Crap. Somebody asked for a picture. I apologized for my lack of appropriate attire, smiled for the picture, and hightailed it back to my car where I proceeded to change into my gown in the front seat. It was dark, I was not under a light and there was no one in the parking lot. I have no regrets. I looked at the accessories and decided against it. Keep it simple. On my return trip to the party, I ran into David who played Mr. Fogg. We talked for a short bit and I asked him to finish zipping me into my dress since I couldn’t reach to finish. We had a laugh over what happened and we went our separate merry ways. Once I got back up to the party, I no longer felt out of place. I mingled for a bit, enjoyed some cucumber water, and the Johanna cover, Emma, came up and talked for a bit, gave me a hug, and I – being the klutz that I am – managed to knock the wine glass out of her hand and on to the wooden dance floor. Thank the good Lord it did not break! The room went silent, I sighed, held my head down in shame, and raised my hand saying, “That was me. Sorry.” I figured the sooner people knew what happened, the sooner they would look away. Steven Fox made a joke that it was perfect for Sweeney Todd because the red wine looked like a blood spatter. If I hadn’t been wearing a rented gown, I would have been tempted to lie down next to it for a photo op. After the mess was cleaned up, I found the woman again, apologized again, and surrendered my liquor ticket so she could help herself to the glass of wine my clumsiness had so carelessly stolen from her. After that smooth move, alcohol would not have been the best decision for me.

The rest of the evening went pleasantly. No more clumsy moments. I had some lovely chats with the cast and GSPO members until it was obvious the restaurant crew wanted us to leave. They took away the food, packed up the bar, and started setting up tables for Mother’s Day the next morning. Norman got an email from Stephen Sondheim that he didn’t get until after the show that he shared with Steven and I wishing him luck on his 5th production of Sweeney Todd. How special! At the end of the night, hugs all around and we said our goodbyes. When Norman and I walked with each other out to the parking lot, I could feel that pit of post-show depression rising in my gut. With a hug and a kiss on the cheek, my Sweeney was my last Sweeney Todd goodbye. As with all the goodbyes that evening, I hope they’re a less permanent “see you later.” I hope I’ll be able to work with these wonderful people again someday.

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