“Can’t you think of nothin’ else? … What happened heaven knows how many years ago!”
So sings the piemaker Mrs Lovett to the object of her twisted desires in Stephen Sondheim’s gothic horror musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Adapted from the original penny dreadful – cheap and nasty Victorian-era comics for the masses that dealt in wickedly wonderful grotesqueries – there’s an operatic scale to its comic horror.
The Harbour city is due for a visit from the Demon Barber this winter, with the Sydney Opera House playing host to the long-awaited Sydney premiere of this co-production between the Victorian Opera and New Zealand Opera following critically acclaimed seasons in Melbourne, Perth, and Adelaide. Time Out got the first word from opera star and spectacular soprano Antoinette Halloran and director Stuart Maunder ahead of the season’s dramatic opening on the Drama Theatre stage this July.
Halloran chuckles with a mischievous glint in her eye when she reveals her backstory in the Sweeney Todd affair (though no one’s going to end up baked in a pie over it, or so we’re told).
Photograph: State Opera South Australia | Antoinette Halloran at Mrs Lovett
“So I was cast in the ensemble for Opera Australia’s first production as third woman from the left, and [director] Gale Edwards haaaaaated me,” Halloran hoots. “She stopped the whole cast and said, ‘You, little miss sweetie gorgeous up the back, you know you’re never going to have a career.’ The chorus rallied around me, and I went back to the dressing room and wept and wept.”
Halloran got the last laugh, however. She was cast as Todd’s daughter Johanna the next time Opera Australia rolled out Sondheim’s macabre masterpiece. In this latest rendition, Halloran is front and centre playing Mrs Lovett to Shrek The Musical star Ben Mingay’s Todd. Halloran says: “It’s a beautiful journey through the show, from ensemble to Joanna to Mrs Lovett.”
Sometimes revenge is a dish (or meat pie of dubious origin) best-served cold.
Lovett adores Benjamin Barker – AKA Sweeney Todd – but he’s trapped in a prison of rage, consumed by murderous intent towards the judge who transported him to Australia to get his lecherous hands on Barker’s wife. Having worked his way back to London, he has assumed this broken new identity as Todd in order to wreak vengeance.
There’s something about the operatic nature of this piece that just aids the gothic...
Victorian Opera’s incoming artistic director Stuart Maunder is excited to bring this bawdy nightmare to the Opera House. He’s been captivated by arguably America’s greatest musical-maker since pianist and performer Philip Scott leant him a copy of musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim in 1978. “I went straight out and bought Company, Pacific Overtures and A Little Night Music, pretty much everything in the Sondheim cannon, I’ll never forget lying down in front of a record player and hearing the overture to Follies. I thought it was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever heard.”
Having fallen head over heels for the Sondheim sound, Sweeney Todd was the first new work to appear, with Maunder grabbing that record too. “I just could not believe the horror, the thrills, the delight in that piece,” he recalls. “In 1981 I went over and saw the opening night of the Los Angeles production, the one with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. I was going on to The Ring Cycle in Seattle and, don’t tell any opera person this, but I cancelled so that I could come back through to Los Angeles to see Sweeney again.”
Having worked with Halloran during his time at Opera Australia, casting her as Lovett was a no-brainer for Maunder. “There was one particular show where Antoinette came in quite late to André Previn’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire playing Stella,” he says. “Her on-stage chemistry with Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Stanley was palpable, just unbelievable steaminess. And I remember saying to my then-wife that these two would be glorious in Sweeney Todd.”
Maunder says Mingay, a construction worker from Newcastle who was dared to follow his opera-singing dreams by his mates, is pitch-perfect stepping in for Rhodes at the Opera House, his deep baritone rocking the floorboards. “I’d seen him in The Production Company’s Oklahoma! as Jud Fry, and when he screamed in this sepulchral tone, I knew that this was the ideal Todd. His chemistry with Antoinette has to be experienced to be believed.”
Photograph: State Opera South Australia | Antoinette Halloran and Ben Mingay in ‘Sweeney Todd’
Working with Mingay is a treat, Halloran says. “He’s wonderful because he can do dark and scary, but he’s also extremely playful, so it’s a gorgeous thing.”
Back when she was playing Sweeney’s daughter, Halloran couldn’t wrap her head around why Mrs Lovett would fall for such an angry man. She had to find that truth to play Lovett. “It was really important for me to establish that she does love him, even if he only lusts for her. And that also helps in the sort of Lady Macbeth idea of her planting these ideas in his head. There’s a sexual sort of murkiness to it all that draws him in as well.”
Halloran gets stuck into her research for every role, including watching Lansbury as Lovett, Emma Thompson with the English National Opera, and Helena Bonham Carter in the Tim Burton movie adaptation. “I immersed myself in the whole history of women who played her, and it was fantastic,” she says. “It’s more of a Broadway sing, too, so I wanted to be very truthful to the range. I’m a soprano, but the role’s written in a lower key, and I wanted to embrace that.”
It’s a pet peeve of Halloran’s that some folks assume opera singers can’t act. “I can name at least five opera singers who I think are the greatest actors that I have ever worked with,” she says. “And I’m very happy if most people who come to this show just see me as a musical theatre singer. In Perth, I was referred to as a great Broadway belter, and that makes me very happy. It’s an absolute joy to run away to the circus with this show.”
Maunder hopes Opera House audiences will think it’s as much of a scream as they do. “There’s something about the operatic nature of this piece that just aids the gothic from the first words, ‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd’. We know we’re in for a penny dreadful night like [Giuseppe Verdi’s] Il Trovatore. One of the great works of the 20th century, it’s eat or be eaten, but there’s still this human tragedy to it.”
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is coming to the Sydney Opera House from July 22 to August 27, 2023. Tickets start at $59+bf. Insiders pre-sale opens 8am, Tue May 9; What’s On pre-sale opens 9am, Wed May 10; and General public is on sale from 9am, Fri May 12. Find out more and slice up some tickets over here.