“Get them to think you’re adorable and funny,” Rachel Rockwell instructs actor Jonah Rawitz. “That’s how you’re going to sell more product.”
It doesn’t seem like a tough direction, given Rawitz’s winning smile and halo of dark curls. As he stands center stage, the other cast members slide into their places while the rehearsal piano plunks the first notes of “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” one of the lighthearted numbers amid the Sturm und Drang of the darkly comic musical thriller Sweeney Todd
(which just opened at Drury Lane Oakbrook). On cue, Rawitz sings, bangs a drum and holds court as Tobias Ragg, the young apprentice peddling a sham elixir on the streets of mid-1800s London. And when we say young, we mean it: Rawitz is just 13.
In the bloody world of this cautionary tale, the actor portraying Toby must embody a precious innocence amid vengeful tragedy. (If you’ve never seen the musical, we won’t spoil it—but the show’s subtitle is The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
.) Typically played by a short tenor in his twenties, the Toby of the original Broadway cast was a simpleton with a limp—a facile choice for engaging audience sympathy. Rockwell had a different vision: What if Toby were actually a boy?
Although rarely if ever done onstage, film director Tim Burton cast a 14-year-old in his 2007 adaptation. “It worked [in the movie] to a degree,” Rockwell opines. “So I said, ‘Listen, if this is crazy and if this can’t happen, then we’ll rethink it, but let’s just see if we can pull it off.’”
In addition to the acting requirements, the sizable supporting role demands a good amount of singing—never a simple feat in a show composed by Stephen Sondheim—including one gorgeous solo, “Not While I’m Around.” Plenty of adults auditioned clearly hoping for the role, Rockwell reports, but she wasn’t tempted to change course: “It never had any emotional impact on me when he’s a limping, diminutive tenor. But if you care about the relationship [between Toby and Mrs. Lovett], it makes the evil of the play that much more tangible.”
Rockwell actually called Rawitz in to audition, since she’d worked with him twice in shows she directed at Marriott Lincolnshire. (He played the street urchin Gavroche in Les Miz
at age nine.) “I knew he had the acting chops,” she says. “He actually gets better as the run goes along, which is not usually the case with kids. He’s a real listener, and if something changes, he adapts and responds in the moment.”
When he’s not acting or studying, the Buffalo Grove native also enjoys reading, basketball and soccer—and he’s quite an accomplished pianist. He’s even composed a song of his own, “Never Answered,” and uploaded an impressive video of himself playing and singing it on YouTube. All this creativity runs in the family: “My mom’s a big theater lover,” he says. “She loves the play and she loves Sondheim.” (Coincidentally, Lauren Rawitz will be directing a high-school Sweeney
later this year.)
Drury Lane’s performance calendar includes two weekday matinees, which will require schedule-juggling once Rawitz begins eighth grade later this month. “I’ve had this situation before,” he says. “My teachers at school are really great about it, which is awesome.” In the past, when performing at Marriott or Goodman, he’s worked out a system to accommodate time away from class. “I come in early and do one-on-ones with the teacher,” he explains—then adds with a laugh, “I usually get better grades when I’m in shows.”
Sweeney Todd slashes audience expectations at Drury Lane Oakbrook through October 9.