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Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford on Learning From Sondheim in ‘Sweeney Todd’: “We Try to Find What He Left Us in the Work”

Josh Groban has gone on world tours, performed at the Olympics, co-hosted the Tony Awards and appeared on Broadway once before, but playing Sweeney Todd has been his hardest task yet.

“It’s definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Physically, vocally, emotionally. I can say pretty safely that this is the hardest endeavor, creatively I’ve ever taken on. But it’s a wonderful way to be tired,” Groban says.

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Groban stars opposite Annaleigh Ashford in the current Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical, directed by Thomas Kail. This production fills the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with a 26-piece orchestra and atmospheric fog that encompasses its large ensemble and the infamous, hinged barber’s chair that looms over the proceedings. Groban’s operatic baritone elevates the classic score, as he plays the aggrieved, murderous barber out for revenge, while Ashford’s Mrs. Lovett meets him with infatuated energy and expert physical comedy.

This is the second Sondheim role Ashford (Masters of Sex, Impeachment: American Crime Story) has played, after portraying Dot in Sunday in the Park with George opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, and she, like Groban, sees the challenges inherent within it. But there was no question she would take it on.

“You learn early on as a young actor in the musical theater that Sondheim is the goal. So if it comes up, you say yes,” Ashford said. “And you get to play the puzzle.”

Ashford and Groban, who are both Tony-nominated for their portrayals, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about their ties to Sweeney Todd, playing villains and memorable scenes in this production, such as doing the splits down a set of stairs.

Josh, was this a bucket list role for you?

Josh Groban: Oh, yeah. I mean, before I was in the music business, theater was my dream. I was very lucky to have had opportunities when I was younger to see theater, to experience shows like Sweeney Todd. One of my first memories of doing Sweeney Todd was at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, and I got to be a part of that when I was 15 years old.

Were you Sweeney Todd?

Groban: No, no, I was in the ensemble, but I loved every minute of it.

Annaleigh, I’ve heard you were a big fan of Angela Lansbury, who originated the role of Mrs. Lovett. 

Annaleigh Ashford: I always just wanted to be Angela Lansbury when I grew up, because she was the ultimate character actress. She was somebody who found humor and life and humanity in every character that she played. And then she also was a woman in this industry who navigated all of the womanly things. She was a mother, she was a wife, and she was an actor during a time when the patriarchy was ruling strong, and she navigated it with grace and love. And so not only is she a role model and an idol to me as an actor, but as a person. Every time I met her — I met her three times — I cried in a way that was so awkward that I had to walk away.

Were you thinking about Angela Lansbury when you took on this role?

Ashford: Any time that you approach an iconic piece of text, material, role, I think it’s your duty to acknowledge those who have come before you and given you a road map, and then you do what you do with all great text, you listen to what’s on the page. So just like any person who’s ever played Hamlet, or Lear, or Lady M, you’ve got to look at the page and figure out how you can interpret it through your instrument, which is your soul and your body, and just see what comes out. So I was definitely, absolutely inspired by her interpretation, and I feel it all over the page and all over the piece. I say thank you to her every night and I say thank you to Stephen Sondheim every night, and Hugh Wheeler, all of the greats who created this piece, Hal Prince. Their spirits live within the spirit of the piece.

Josh, this role is dissimilar from what we’ve seen you do in the past. Were you interested in playing a villain?

Groban: I think the interesting thing for me about Sweeney Todd was the role itself and the way it was written, not so much about the idea of just playing a villain in general. I mean, it is always fun to play against type, I suppose. It’s a nice challenge and allows you to stretch your wings and dive into different facets of your storytelling, but for me the interesting thing about Sweeney Todd was just all of the juxtapositions: the beautiful score combined with the dark humor, the dark storyline. There is such beauty and ugliness together in the role, along with some of the most extraordinary music and lyrics ever written. It really is just a masterpiece to be able to perform regardless of type.

Were you able to speak with Sondheim about taking on the role or about the production?

Groban: We never got to dive into the production itself before he passed away, unfortunately. It’s something that we all, of course, wish we had a chance to do, wish we had more time with him. We did, however, have his blessing, which is something we were grateful for. I’m eternally grateful that I had his enthusiasm and his blessing to do the role before he passed away. We just never got to talk about the details of it. And so, every day that we do the show, we try to find what he left us in the work and try to find the answers that we would have wanted to ask him in the work. And we’re constantly finding it’s all there.

Amid all of the dark material, one of the scenes where it looks like you’re having the most fun is during “A Little Priest,” when Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are trading rhyming phrases about what kind of people to make into pies. What’s it like doing that scene every night?

Groban: Well, we just try to keep it really fresh. We love our time together on stage so much, we have so much fun. [Annaleigh] is obviously such a riot and so she brings so much light to the dark and brings humor to this, which is something we also know Sondheim really wanted, to really lean into that dark humor. And so our goal every time we do that song is actually to crack each other up, in the way that Lovett and Sweeney are cracking each other up, to really find the maniacal twisted humor in what they’re plotting. And so we go there. We are having absolutely as much fun as the audience thinks we are.

Ashford: It’s like playing a game. It’s a word-puzzle game. So you’re playing a puzzle throughout the song and then you’re also solving this problem, which is sort of the ultimate gift that the actor always dreams of like, what is your obstacle? What problem are you going to solve? And so for six minutes we get to solve this problem with each other.

At one point in the show, Mrs. Lovett meets Judge Turpin, the archenemy of Sweeney Todd. And in this staging, Annaleigh, you bow to him at the top of the stairs and then slide down the stairs in the splits to exit. How did you arrive at this decision?

Ashford: It’s in the text. Everything’s always in the text. I really wanted to show a difference of class. She’s at the very bottom of the social totem pole. She’s never actually encountered anybody as high as the judge on the social totem pole. And so when she bows to him, she bows as deep as she thinks is appropriate. And then when she tries to get up, she’s on the stairs and realizes there’s nowhere to go but down to the bottom of the stairs. So she just gets down the stairs. I was sort of like, “What would she do if she met the Queen of England and she curtsied on the stairs?” She’d just get down them any way she could. So she slides down the stairs. She’s trying to look cool, and then in an attempt to look cool, she looks uncool, which is what we all do.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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