If you believe in fate, it’d be difficult to deny that Anthony Warlow was destined to play the title role in Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd. Not only is the Australian musical star a singer comfortable in operatic territory and an actor able to dig into dark places, the role allows him to complete the triumvirate of musical theatre’s gothic men.
Locally, Warlow is best known as Australia’s original Phantom (of the opera), but internationally he’s known for playing the lead role in the concept recording of Jekyll and Hyde (although it’s a role he never played on stage). Now he’s completing the trifecta with a new production of Sweeney Todd playing short seasons in Sydney and Melbourne this June.
The three characters all become vicious murderers – which makes them unlikely subjects for musicals – but it’s not the bloodthirsty, gothic extremes that attract Warlow.
“When people play Phantom, he’s not a two-dimensional gargoyle, and Sweeney isn’t that either,” Warlow says. “He’s not just a razor-wielding demon. He becomes that, because of circumstances, and so I want to find the elegant side of him, which I think will make the darker sides more potent.”
The murderous barber known as Sweeney Todd first appeared in a Victorian serial called The String of Pearls in 1846, and his story has been told and retold countless times since. In Sondheim’s version, the barber is transported to a colony in Australia on a trumped-up charge by a judge who lusts after Sweeney’s wife. Fifteen years later, Sweeney finds his way back to London, desperate to take his revenge on the judge. But the enormous stress begins to break him, and he uses his razor blade to murder his customers.
You mightn’t think that Warlow, who comes across as gentle and humble, could relate much to Sweeney’s story, but it’s an actor’s job to find a way to empathise with their character – no matter how abhorrent. In preparation, Warlow has been reading a lot of books about alcoholism to try to understand the sort of compulsion that might drive somebody to act destructively.
“All of a sudden, something goes wrong with Sweeney’s mechanism, and it’s no longer just the judge, it becomes about everybody,” Warlow says.
While those murders mightn’t be great for Sweeney’s business, they’re a godsend for the pie shop below, operated by the wily Mrs Lovett, who finds a less-than-savoury use for all the fresh meat coming her way.
In the new Australian production, Mrs Lovett is played by comedy expert Gina Riley of Kath and Kim fame.
“She’s just the perfect fit for this,” Warlow says. “Sondheim said you need the yin and the yang – you need his morbidness, but you also need the vaudevillian turn, and that’s what she can bring. But she’s also clever enough to know that it requires more complexity in the character – it’s not just all bubble and squeak.”
Audiences might not know that Riley has a long history in musical theatre and is a gifted singer – in fact, it’s her belting out ‘The Joker’ in the opening credits of Kath and Kim. Their casting seems like a moment of stars aligning: Warlow has got a knack for comedy and Riley a knack for tragedy, so they should be able to play against type in fascinating ways.
Warlow has had Sweeney Todd in mind for much of his career, but it’s a show that until now had been “the one that got away”.
Not that there haven’t been chances: he’s had previous offers to play the role, but they’ve all been at relatively short notice. He says it’s not the sort of score you can get up to performance standard in just a few weeks, although he recently stepped into Kelsey Grammer’s role in Finding Neverland on Broadway with just ten days to prepare. What’s more, he was living in Australia when the call came through.
For the last six years, Warlow has been living and working between Australia and the US. When he first gained stardom thanks to Phantom, a successful Broadway career was considered a sure thing, but work in Australia and family commitments always stopped Warlow from trying his hand in New York. He finally made it to Broadway in 2012 to play Daddy Warbucks in a revival of Annie.
“The first night I arrived there, I got out of my hotel, jet-lagged, and walked into Times Square and was stopped by two people who just said, ‘oh my God, you’re here’,” Warlow says.
Although he’d never performed in New York, Warlow’s recordings are well known among musical theatre aficionados – in fact, an Annie cast member had written a thesis on one of his performances as part of her musical theatre degree.
While he’s certainly had success in American theatre – and won a prestigious Helen Hayes Award for his leading performance in a Washington production of Man of La Mancha – Warlow hasn’t been fending off Broadway offer after Broadway offer. That’s meant he’s had time to keep his Australian fans happy, with concert performances and roles in The Fiddler on the Roof and The Wizard of Oz in recent years.
“American directors have come out to Australia and said, ‘We need to get you to New York, there’s no one like you’,” he says. “And that’s not true. I know when I’m over there, there are 300 of me. You have to take everything they say with a grain of salt.”
Sweeney Todd is at the International Convention Centre's Darling Harbour Theatre June 13 to 16.
Want a show with less bloodshed? Check out the best musicals coming to Sydney.