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BWW Interviews: Bass-Baritone Jake Gardner Talks the Demons of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET

Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, his enduring masterpiece about the coarse enterprise of popping people into pies, is often described as "black operetta." It's no wonder, the master composer described it as such himself. However, few writers provide the entire quotation: "For me, SWEENEY TODD is not an opera; it's a black operetta ... It deals with extremely melodramatic material. Operettas tended to deal with lighthearted subjects. But if you look at the form SWEENEY TODD is ... almost all songs and arioso singing. That is true of operetta."

Perhaps it is heresy to go against the words of any master musician, let alone Stephen Sondheim. But perhaps, just perhaps, Mr. Sondheim underestimated his own work. It seems Houston Grand Opera has not. The opera company brings lauded director Lee Blakeley's interpretation to their stage. And why not? Not only has Blakeley's staging been widely celebrated, but this will be the second staging of SWEENEY TODD at the HGO. Presumably, the second will be as successful (perhaps more so) than the first.

Jake Gardner talks with bass-baritone Jake Gardner who will reprise the role of Judge Turpin. Gardner has worked with and learned from Peter Brook (LA TRAGEDIE DE CARMEN) and Harry Kupfer (Komische Oper Berlin) and has received accolades for not only his portrayal of Judge Turpin, but for his portrayals. Period. With, Gardner discusses the continued resonance of SWEENEY TODD, his approach to acting and performance, and being scared sh-tless by the infamously cut self-flagellation scene.

Jake, SWEENEY TODD is about the downfall of the obsessive pursuit of revenge. But I think it's also a story about poverty, and I find myself sympathizing with [Mrs.] Lovett and Sweeney Todd. What do you think?

I certainly understand the point of view, but there were other choices to be made.

I've always thought of your character as the sole villain in SWEENEY TODD. Do you think otherwise?

Pretty much everyone is duplicitous in this.You could say that the judge started it with his trumped up charge, deporting an innocent man in order to get his wife, which he did and is horrible. [But] Lovett is probably as close to the judge as anybody in terms of their culpability. Think of [Mrs.] Lovett. She manipulates Sweeney [Todd]. She really sort of, as they say, "fancied" him from the beginning. She talks about what a beautiful man he was. She doesn't tell him that his wife lives. She comes up with the idea to actually put [human flesh into pies] which is an evil thing to do. [Laughs] Then there's the beadle. He's a very dicey character. He's an extortionist and a killer. He trades in children. He's not a very nice fellow. And Sweeney has really just flipped out completely. [He's] just killing random people.

They didn't have to kill strangers [Laughs] and -

- feed them to the public! But, what you said, I think that [the director] Lee Blakeley is really bringing it out in this production - the poverty, the absolute destitute way that these people were living. That society is actually the story for him, I think. In the scene where the judge sentences a man to be hung, it's actually a nine-year-old boy. That for me was extremely shocking, but [Blakeley] said that at this time they were still executing children.

So you're saying I'm going to be in for a rough night at the opera?

[Laughs] An extremely entertaining evening. It's going to be a very exciting night for me for sure.

I know SWEENEY TODD is still emotionally relevant, but do you think the social messages are still relevant?

I think so. It's such a human story. This is a story of power, money, and privilege. In that sense, it's completely relevant. People are trying to make ends meet and going to desperate measures. That's what Sweeney says, "These are desperate times ... and desperate measures are called for." That's why [Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd] decide they are going to dispose of the bodies by cooking them up into pies.

[Today] people are desperate, and they're going to get more desperate. The division between the haves and have-nots is going to get greater and greater. Absolutely, it's relevant.

Jake Gardner as Judge Turpin in SWEENEY TODD
Virginia Opera, September-October 2014
Photo: Lucid Frame Productions

You've gotten a lot of accolades from critics for your ability to become a character. How do you do that?

By taking in the material, I think. It's the nuts and bolts. It starts with the lyrics. Then taking in the situation of the character. I believe that every character is in me. Even evil.

Also, early in my career, I had the opportunity to do LA TRAGEDIE DE CARMEN in the company of Peter Brook for about three years. For an opera singer, that's sort of a rare opportunity. And I think the level of acting I am able to approach is because of those three years of experience with him.

Your approach seems almost Stanislavskian. Is that because of Brook?

His approach was that you get your material to where it's kind of second nature, and that releases you to be absolutely in the moment. When you're completely in the moment as yourself in the character then all kinds of things occur between you and your partners on stage and you and the audience. That makes things live. If you can bring your truth - not the truth but your truth - the audience will recognize it. And they will have an experience that can only happen in a live performance: living with the people who are doing the piece. That's my soapbox. [I Laugh]

Are there other directors who have been instrumental to your artistic development?

Harry Kupfer. He would would be one. He was a very great and famous director in Europe. (I worked in Germany for a number of years.) You mentioned Stanislavsky. He was a protege of that whole method from the Komische Oper Berlin. Of course, everyday my colleagues are Verdi, Puccini, Sondheim, so you're spending all of your time dealing with these, I would say, the great channellers of Western civilization and humanity. In the end, those are the real teachers.

I know that the self-flagellation aria is usually cut, but you've performed it before and will be performing it in this production. How do you manage such an emotionally exhausting scene and, at the risk of making you seem arrogant, how do you do it successfully?

It scares the sh-t out of me everytime I do it. [I Laugh] That's how. We've done it in a rehearsal and it's about me getting comfortable with my movement, where I am on the stage, and then it's allowing what I'm saying to flow. It's never the same. And I think I just walk into it. I'm never comfortable doing it. I haven't arrived at it. I have to live through it each time. I don't have a method for doing it.

If only there were some method!

[Laughs] Also, one of the great things that Peter Brook said, "For every character you play, the most important attribute that any actor can have and use is their vulnerability. Even though this guy [Judge Turpin] is a pretty horrible human being, in this moment he is extremely vulnerable, and you have to put yourself in a vulnerable place for it to function.

Photos courtesy of

Houston Grand Opera's SWEENEY TODD: DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET will run April 24 - May 9, 2015. Performance time for April 24, April 29, May 2, May 8, and May 9 is 7:30p.m. Performance time for Sunday, April 26 is 2:00 p.m.

For more information about the production, please visit

For more information about Jake Gardner, please visit


From This Author - Katricia Lang

Katricia Lang started reporting in 2005 at her college's student-run newspaper. Today, she covers arts and culture instead of the Student Association’s bylaws. Her features and opinion pi... (read more about this author)