He’s the new “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” … and Josh Groban just learned how to give a close shave. He actually took barber lessons: “I did! I wanted the shaving community, should they come to this show, to be really impressed,” he said.
He demonstrated for willing subject Anthony Mason: “We would start with the neck maybe. And then we would turn and we would do your cheek this way.”
“Is there an art to these decisive strokes?” Mason asked.
“I’ve been winging it! This is where the improvisation of theater comes in!” Groban said. “I’ve never given anybody an actual, like, sharp razor shave. We’ve enjoyed you on television for a long, long time. Thank you so much for spending your final day with us here.”
“This is where I say my last words?”
“That’s right. Captured in high def!”
In “Sweeney Todd,” the new Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s iconic musical, most of his customers don’t survive.
“You’re not known for playing Evil,” said Mason.
“No, I’m not,” Groban said. “Which is part of the fun.”
As Sweeney, Groban has a co-conspirator: Annaleigh Ashford plays Mrs. Lovett, who sweetly disposes of Sweeney’s victims in her meat pies. “On top, she’s just a bubbling, bubbling, bubbling little pot of magic,” Ashford said. “And underneath, it’s this stew that’s extremely complicated.
“You know when you’re playing Iago, you don’t know you’re the bad guy. And so that’s always sort of the way that I’ve viewed Mrs. Lovett: She doesn’t think she’s bad, she’s surviving. Mrs. Lovett at her core is a survivor. And she needs Sweeney Todd, because she’s a woman in a man’s world.”
The original 1979 production, which starred Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, and Len Cariou as Sweeney, won eight Tonys. The unlikely inspiration for the musical was a dark Victorian melodrama, but Sondheim “thought it could sing.”
Groban said, “The elevator pitch to something like this in 1977, you know, would have been something like, ‘Well, have fun with that, Steve! Enjoy!’ I’ll never forget when Tommy Kail told me at an ice hockey game, ‘You know, you should really come to this workshop I’m doing. It’s about Alexander Hamilton and it’s a hip hop musical.’ I go, ‘Is it comedy? What’s …?’ And I’m kinda saying, ‘Good luck with that, you know? Can’t wait to see it. Sure it’ll be great!'”
Thomas Kail, the Tony-winning director of “Hamilton,” is now directing “Sweeney Todd,” just across the street from “Hamilton.” Mason asked him, “You directed what’s still the best-known show on Broadway, right over there. How does this compare to that?”
“This was a huge source of inspiration,” said Kail. “This is a show about a misunderstood person, and the world is trying to figure out why he did what he did. The show on the other side of 46th Street doesn’t happen unless there’s ‘Sweeney Todd.'”
The comic relief in “Sweeney” comes with a cockney accent: Mrs. Lovett. “It’s like speaking another language,” said Ashford.
She got tips from the show’s British choreographer: “Every once in a while he’ll be like, ‘It’s badge. It’s badge, not budge. Badge.’ You know, I’m like standing backstage going, ‘Badge budge, badge budge, budge.’ My little boy hates it. He’s like, ‘Will you please stop doing your British accident?’ And I’m just not correcting him because I think it’s too delightful.
“I have a six-and-a-half-year-old boy; the last time I was on stage doing eight shows a week, he was not even six months old.”
“Which also must have been really hard,” said Mason.
“Oh, it was really challenging,” Ashford said. “I was nursing. I’d run off after Act One, at intermission, pump. It’s just all about milk. Eight shows a week, and milk.”
The last time Groban was doing eight shows a week, the singer was making his Broadway debut, nearly seven years ago, in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” He called that experience “the happiest I’ve ever been in my career.
“I was a theater kid that hit a fork in the road when I found my way into the music biz. That was not something that I had dreamed of in my bedroom when I was 10 years old; it was this.”
Watch this 2016 “Sunday Morning” report on Josh Groban’s Broadway debut in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”:
It was Groban’s manager who suggested he play Sweeney. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh, I’m not old enough to do [that].’ And he’s like, ‘Dude, you’re 41!’ My God, that IS old enough!” [He turned 42 the day “Sunday Morning” spoke with him.]
The production had its first run-through a year-and-a-half ago, Groban recalled: “And Sondheim was going to be there. He was excited. And two days before we were to do that run-through, he passed away.”
“Did you think at first, in that moment, that this wasn’t gonna happen now?” asked Mason.
“Well, there was a lot of conflicting emotions, because the first one, of course, was just grief,” he replied.
Sondheim had been a fan of “The Great Comet,” and he and Groban had become friends: “He said to me when we hung out once, ‘I’m not gonna tell you when I come to the show. I’m gonna do you that solid. I’m not gonna tell you.’ ‘Thank you, Steve!’ And then of course at intermission, the group text is, Red alert! Red alert! The maestro is in the building!”
In the end, Groban and company went ahead with “Sweeney Todd,” to honor Sondheim – and also because the star clearly enjoys giving a close shave.
To watch a preview of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” click on the video player below:
For more info:
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Steve Taylor.
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