'Sweeney Todd' is back Broadway: We talk with 4 actors about the difficult role Josh Groban, Michael Cerveris, Norm Lewis and Len Cariou all agree: It's exhausting playing a murderous sociopath, while dealing with stage blood, a mechanical barber chair and singing complex music.

As 'Sweeney Todd' returns to Broadway, 4 Sweeneys dish about the difficult role

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1166249500/1166719647" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" is back on Broadway. The musical is about a murderous barber who teams up with a pie shop owner in 19th-century London. It's kind of gruesome and also moving and funny. Reporter Jeff Lunden got the show's star, Josh Groban, together with three other actors who've played Sweeney Todd on stage, including the original, Len Cariou.

JOSH GROBAN: The second act - it's like a freight train. I don't know how you guys felt about it.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: There is a kind of fraternity among baritones who play the monumental role of Sweeney Todd.

GROBAN: My name is Josh Groban, and I have the great privilege of playing Sweeney Todd in the current 2023 revival.


GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Well, I've come home to find you waiting.

LUNDEN: Groban is the latest in a long line of Sweeney Todds. The challenge is that the character becomes a monster over the course of the musical.

MICHAEL CERVERIS: I'm Michael Cerveris. I was in the 2005 Broadway revival with Patti LuPone.


CERVERIS: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) No, we all deserve to die, even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I.

NORM LEWIS: My name is Norm Lewis, and I've been lucky enough to do three versions of this recently at the Barrow Street Theater off-Broadway.


LEWIS: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) I'll come again when you have judge on the menu.

LEN CARIOU: Len Cariou - I had the great privilege of originating the role 44 years ago, believe it or not.





CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) There was a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful.

LUNDEN: Cariou was working in Canada when director Hal Prince sent him the script.

CARIOU: And got home and then read it and said, they're out of their minds. This is crazy.

LUNDEN: Crazy because the show is about a barber who slits the throats of his customers, and his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, disposes of the bodies by baking them into meat pies. But Cariou had worked with Stephen Sondheim before.

CARIOU: And thought, well, you know, if he writes a really romantic score, this might be interesting. Guy's very smart, you know?

LUNDEN: And Sondheim wrote a really romantic score, like this pivotal moment from the show, the song "My Friends," a tender ballad that Sweeney sings to his razors. Here's the setup. The corrupt Judge Turpin had lusted after Sweeney's wife, so he had him falsely convicted and sent to Australia. But Sweeney's escaped. Now, back in London, thinking his wife dead and his daughter captive in the judge's house, Sweeney is determined to get his revenge. Then Mrs. Lovett gives him the perfect instrument.

CARIOU: And says, oh, by the way, I have your razors. I saved them for you.


CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) These are my friends. See how they glisten. See this one shine. How he smiles in the light - my friend, my faithful friend.

LUNDEN: Josh Groban.

GROBAN: All of these stories are starting to develop. These seeds are being planted that are maniacal, but the music itself is some of the most lush and romantic that I've ever heard. And "My Friends," I think, is the first opportunity as Sweeney to lean into that romanticism.


GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Speak to me, friend. Whisper. I'll listen. I know, I know you've been locked out of sight all these years like me, my friend.

LUNDEN: Michael Cerveris.

CERVERIS: Musically, it's sort of opening a door into a part of Sweeney that you haven't seen yet. You know, there is this loving person in him, and there's a tenderness that you see in that song in relation to these cold pieces of steel.


CERVERIS: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Well, I've come home to find you waiting - home, and we're together. And we'll do wonders, won't we?

I sort of felt if he had come back and found Joanna and his wife and been allowed to, he would have just left town. Like, I didn't feel like he was there to exact revenge. But in "My Friends," I think you see that potential version of him.

LUNDEN: Norm Lewis.

LEWIS: Yeah, I've always said to people, if he had found Joanna and his wife, curtain.

LUNDEN: But Len Cariou's not so sure.

CARIOU: He was going to have his pound of flesh.

LEWIS: Yeah, right. Yeah.

CARIOU: That was his motivation. That's what got him from Australia...

LEWIS: Right.

CARIOU: ...Back to London.


CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) You there, my friends.

ANGELA LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) I'm your friend, too, Mr. Todd.

CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Come, let me hold you.

When we started to rehearse it, almost immediately, everybody kind of sat up. Something was happening. We knew it. We didn't quite know what it was, but we knew that something was going on here and that this may be the most exciting piece of theatre that we'd ever been a part of.


LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Never you fear, Mr. Todd. You can move in here, Mr. Todd.

LUNDEN: As the song goes on, Sweeney focuses on his razors, but Mrs. Lovett focuses on him.


GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) My lucky friend.

ANNALEIGH ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) I'm your friend.

LEWIS: I've always said that Stephen Sondheim was the musical theater Shakespeare. And this role has always, for me, been the Hamlet of musical theater, 'cause all the baritones always want to play this role.

LUNDEN: All four of these actors acknowledge it's exhausting playing a murderous sociopath while dealing with stage blood, a mechanical barber chair and singing complex music. Josh Groban says Michael Cerveris gave him tips.

GROBAN: Michael and I had a drink before we started previews, and he just kind of said, I hope you don't mind me saying, but just wash it off in the sink, man.


GROBAN: Like, when you take the makeup off, take it all off, you know?

LUNDEN: And there was something moving about seeing these three younger Sweeneys hang on Len Cariou's every word. He told them that the original company had never finished technical rehearsals before the first performance. They didn't know what to expect.

CARIOU: When it was over, people really reacted to it. And I came backstage to my dressing room, and Sondheim was standing outside of it, and he said they understood it.


CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd) At last, my arm is complete again.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Lift your razor high, Sweeney. Hear it singing yes.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Sink it in the rosy skin...

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.