David Benoit has a dream.
As a highly-regarded character actor, he can be found on Broadway and off, or crisscrossing the country on regional and national tours. “Jekyll and Hyde,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Misérables,” “Avenue Q”—his resume is lengthy. And when Olney Artistic Director Jason Loewith offered him the opportunity to play the eponymous lead in Olney’s production of “Sweeney Todd,” Benoit took a leave of absence from “The Phantom of the Opera” and joined the cast.
“I’m new to Olney Theatre, and to Olney in general,” he admitted. “So, I was told that many may not know ‘Sweeney Todd,’ which to me is completely thrilling because you get the experience of people’s responses as they’re hearing it for the first time.”
And while he doesn’t want to spoil, Benoit can reveal that playing the Demon Barber of Fleet Street takes just about every tool he can pull out of his considerable actor’s repertoire. “‘Sweeney Todd’ is a musical melodrama, a thriller. Our job as actors is to humanize it, and for me, as Sweeney, to make the audience empathize.”
“It’s quite funny,” Benoit added, “yet so epic in scope, it’s almost operatic—and it’s an actor’s dream to play both sides of the coin.”
Comedy, opera and a bleak, bloody journey to the deepest, darkest depths of the human psyche? “For me as a character man, it’s a dream come true. That’s why I’m here doing it.”
E. Faye Butler, on the other hand, sees Mrs. Lovett as a mountain of a role—one she’s ready to ascend. “It’s extremely challenging, but rewarding at the same time,” the Chicago native said. “I’ve done a couple of Steven Sondheim musicals. All of it, by nature, is difficult, and you have to find your way.”
But “Sweeney Todd,” with its operatic sweep and its individual character themes, tests the mettle of its cast in many ways. “When you do what we do for a living,” explained Butler, “sometimes the things you learn can be exciting. But it’s layers: Everyday, you learn something more about the music, about the lyrics, about the movement, about the direction, about the focus.
“We have great, great fun,” she said. “We also work very hard.”
She has been working hard since she discovered theater in eighth grade; a teacher thought doing plays would be a good way to focus the talkative student and cast her in “The Red Shoes.” Butler quieted down, took on the challenge and ended up with an A in the class and a new direction for her life, one her family honored and supported. “I’m proud to say I have never had another job besides the job that I love to do,” she said. “I think I’m in my 40th year of doing theater. I love it more than any other medium.
“I love the response from the audience: Every performance is a once-in-a-lifetime, and you get a special treat every night.”
Of course, when you’re playing the villainous Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” the special treat may not be a particularly palatable one. But the over-the-top purveyor of meat pies—“savory and sweet pies”—is a character Butler has come to understand and even empathize with.
“I think she’s a woman that wants a lot—like all women do!—in life,” said Butler, painting a picture of the “complex” character. “She wants a husband and a family; she wants love. She wants to be a respectable woman of the community.
“Her needs are not so different from any other person’s. It’s just that she goes about them a different way.”
This is “Sweeney Todd” for dummies: An evil judge exiles Sweeney Todd, a barber, from his wife and child—and after 15 years, he’s back for revenge. So, Sweeney sharpens his razors, enlists Mrs. Lovett to dispose of the evidence and unleashes a reign of terror in London that might have inspired ensuing classics from “Soylent Green” to “The Help.”
True story? Probably not. But the fictional character of Sweeney Todd was a hybrid of urban legend and the Victorian penny dreadful, a villain who first appeared around 1847 in a melodrama called “The String of Pearls.” In 1973, playwright Christopher Bond turned the legend into a modern-day play; in 1979, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler adapted Bond’s script into the acclaimed musical thriller now being staged at Olney.
With Loewith directing and the brilliant Chris Youstra, Olney’s associate artistic director of music theatre, as musical director, “Sweeney Todd” offers plenty for musical theater fans to love. And Olney regulars, should (as Mrs. Lovett might say) keep their eyes peeled for familiar cast members like Rachel Zampelli, back after wowing in “Evita” last summer, and the practically perfect “Mary Poppins” star Patricia Hurley, who Benoit said “is gonna shock everybody” with her range and talent.
“And E. Faye Butler—what a coup! She is a force, a powerhouse. She’s funny, a great actress, has those amazing chops vocally.”
Benoit maintained that between the cast, the set, the songs and the silliness, this show is an opportunity for audiences to immerse themselves in an alternative reality. It’s a thrill ride, he said, with blood and gore, laughter and levity.
“Any ‘Sweeney Todd’ is an event,” said Benoit. “It’s an affair; people get excited about it. People love this show because it has everything: You certainly get your money’s worth.”
Which brings the character actor to a story, a lesson he learned long ago. “I did ‘Forever Plaid’ back in the ‘90s and there was an actor who had played Tulsa (in “Gypsy”) on Broadway.
“I was a kid, 25 years old, and I said my dream was to work on Broadway.
“He said, ‘That’s wonderful—and you’ll get there. I think you’ve got talent.
“‘But what you’re doing now is Broadway. Wherever you go, the energy you bring and the work ethic you bring make it Broadway.
“I’ve always remembered that.”
And he has been living the dream ever since.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is on the mainstage at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney through March 5. Performances start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There will be a Wednesday matinee performance at 2 p.m. Feb. 22; an audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15 and a sign-interpreted performance at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23. Tickets start at $38, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.