BWW Interviews: Lonny Price Talks SWEENEY TODD
It's the fulfilment of a dream 14 years in the making: In 2000, Lonny Price was set to direct opera icon Bryn Terfel in a new concert production of Sweeney Todd for the New York Philharmonic. But at the last minute, Terfel had to bow out, and George Hearn stepped in to play Sweeney opposite Patti LuPone's Mrs. Lovett. The successful production was filmed and released on DVD.
This week, Terfel and Price are finally reuniting with the Philharmonic to create a new Sweeney Todd, with Oscar-winner Emma Thompson making her New York theater debut as Mrs. Lovett. BroadwayWorld.com caught up with Price to see how this production would be different from the one 14 years ago...and what it's like to come back to a classic.
"Coming back to it now, you get more and more respectful of it," Price said about the show, praising the work of composer Stephen Sondheim and bookwriter Hugh Wheeler: "The elegance of the writing and the book and the grandness of it, the specific patina of the way people speak, the extraordinary plotting, and the rock-solid, beautiful music."
And while he feels that the quality of the piece makes it timeless, after 14 years, Price sees a new relevance in the story for a new era. With increased awareness of financial inequality and class distinctions, Sweeney Todd and its view of classism in Victorian England is especially timely today, and that timeliness has informed the new production for a more "political take" on the story. Disenfranchising society leads people to violence, Price said, and the musical casts a sharp eye on what happens when people are lacking in basic needs. "It feels more pertinent to me than it did in 2000," he said. "It has a modern sensibility."
Visually, he added, the production will also be decidedly different from its predecessor "A lot more things are going on," he said. "It's more staged than it was. I choreographed the first one, and I'm not a choreographer." With Josh Rhodes on hand to arrange some of the dances, Price feels that the staging will also be distinct. "And, of course, the personalities of Emma and Bryn are so very different from Patti and George," he added.
Oh, yes, those stars. While George Hearn and Patti LuPone had been Broadway icons for decades by the time they played Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett in the last Philharmonic production of the show, Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson are from decidedly different worlds. Still, Price is enthusiastic to be working with both of them. "He's an extraordinary, extraordinary singer, and a powerful presence," he said of Terfel. "The combination of him and Emma is very exciting. And I think that's what I like about these things: [Pairing] someone from the opera world, and then this great movie star, who hasn't been on stage in New York ever."
So how is Price making this masterpiece of musical theater work with two performers who have not done lots of musical theater? "Every actor has a different language," he explained. "Every actor has their strengths and their challenges, and I try to help them and support them and help them through their challenges as best I can." Being a former actor, he added, he can understand what the performers are going through. "Bryn is obviously a very different kind of actor from Emma," he acknowledged. "You have to approach everybody with the language that they speak. So, it's not hard. Honestly, there are not two actors that I communicate in the same way in the room. They all have different backgrounds and different training, some go inside-out, some go outside-in. Some are good with language, some are better with the music. It depends on the package. Every package is specific and different. There's a particular way to work with Bryn and a way that you work differently with Emma--or anybody else."
Similarly, he added, opera performers are accustomed to a different kind of direction. When they branch out into a different art form, Price noted, they are often very responsive to being guided. "They like being directed," he said. "[Opera directors] don't talk to [singers] very much about character and motivation, and I've had a very happy experience with opera singers, in general, the times I've dealt with them. They're eager to collaborate."
Oscar-winner Thompson, most recently seen on screen in Saving Mr. Banks, has performed in musicals before (she starred in the West End production of Me and My Girl), but will be trying something decidedly new with Sweeney Todd. "I just can't wait for New York City to see her performance," Price said. "I think she's just going to be spectacular." Thompson and Terfel have "enormous respect" for each other, he added, and remembered an early rehearsal in which the movie star approached her director about her co-star. "She said, 'Standing there, next to him singing, was one of the most thrilling moments of my life.' And I believe her." Thompson is not, Price noted, "one for hyperbole."
So after 14 years, does Price feel pressure to recreate the success of the last Philharmonic Sweeney Todd? "I don't think it will never be what that was," he mused, "because that was its own thing. I try to do it as well as I can, as truthfully as I can. And, whatever people make of it...I have no control over that. I just try to direct in a way that interests me. And, hopefully, other people will find it compelling."