Josh Groban 'flexes his inner demons' with Annaleigh Ashford in Broadway's 'Sweeney Todd'
Editor’s note: This segment was rebroadcast on June 8, 2023. Click here for that audio.
“Sweeney Todd” tells the story of the demon barber of Fleet Street. Played by singer/songwriter Josh Groban in Broadway’s revival of the Stephen Sondheim show, Todd comes home after being falsely imprisoned and losing his wife and child. On a rampage of murderous revenge, he kills his victims using a straight razor and sends them to Mrs. Lovett, who bakes them into meat pies for unsuspecting customers.
The show has been nominated for eight Tony Awards. Groban is up for Best Leading Actor in a Musical and his co-star Annaleigh Ashford is up for Best Leading actress.
“It’s flexing my inner demons a little bit,” Groban says.
Groban’s been a fan of this musical since junior high school. He approached director Thomas Kail, who also directed “Hamilton,” about staging the show in its original form with a full orchestra and cast.
“As an introverted kid who was always in the back of the class and had a hard time expressing myself,” Groban says, “being able to do that through extraordinary lyrics and incredible stories and melodies like this one opened me up and allowed me to communicate with the people around me in ways that I was not able to communicate just in my day to day life.”
This isn’t Groban’s first stint on Broadway. He landed a Tony Award nomination for his starring role as Pierre in the 2016 production of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” And the reviews of “Sweeney Todd” have been overwhelmingly positive since it opened on March 26 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford in “Sweeney Todd.” (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)
Groban stars alongside Ashford, known for her work in the musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” In “Sweeney Todd,” Ashford enraptures the audience as Mrs. Lovett, a character originally played by Angela Lansbury.
“This piece is like all the greats. It’s like Chekhov. It’s like Shakespeare. It’s like Ibsen,” Ashford says. “When the text is so good, you have to, you must, you are required to give yourself of the piece. So it’s an extension of a divine spark in you.”
Sweeney Todd the character first appeared in a Victorian-era fiction series called penny dreadfuls in 1846. He is a man driven mad by anger and anguish, something Groban considers scarily human.
“When you think about it in terms of just who the human being is that became this, that’s the thing that has been really fascinating for me to lean into,” he says. “The thing that makes it so interesting for us is to find whatever connective tissue there is in everybody. That’s the thing that makes something scary, really scary.”
But those themes of anger and anguish are also juxtaposed with elements of humor, keeping the audience teetering between tears and laughter. Director Kail says he tried to honor Sondheim and writer Hugh Wheeler’s original work.
“My feeling is that you can put both things right next to each other in the theater in the way that they happen in life,” Kail says. “We want to make something thrilling, entertaining, hilarious. And we also want to break your heart.”
Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” directed by Hal Prince, originally opened on Broadway in 1979. Sondheim won a Tony Award for the score and said he drew inspiration from Christopher Bond’s 1970 play of the same name. Kail cites both Sondheim and Prince along with composer Bernard Herrmann as inspirations.
The musical was about three and a half years in the making, and Kail says Sondheim was excited for the musical to hit Broadway again for the first time since its original run. However, Sondheim passed away in November 2021, mere days before the first reading. But the cast says that through the script and music, it feels like Sondheim is still with them.
“We’re honoring him by trying to find his voice through the work… This is 44 years old now, and we find new things every night,” Groban says. “He’s still speaking to us.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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