PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Philip Quast, "Attending the Tale" of New York Philharmonic Sweeney Todd
By Carey Purcell
Olivier Award winner Philip Quast talks with Playbill.com about making his American musical debut in Sweeney Todd.
"I'm sorry I was a little late. I was busy whipping myself," Philip Quast joked when this writer answered the phone.
A greeting like that might raise eyebrows, but when Quast, who is playing the evil and self-abusive Judge Turpin in the Lonny Price-helmed New York Philharmonic presentation of Sweeney Todd, says it, the statement sounds perfectly natural.
A three-time Olivier Award winner, Quast has made a name for himself in musical theatre for taking on dark, extreme roles. He rose to fame when cast as Javert, the obsessed policeman, in the original Australian production of Les Miserables, which he reprised in "Les Misérables: The Dream Cast in Concert," which aired on TV in 1995.
Quast's stage credits also include Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George, the Wolf/Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods and Juan Peron in Evita, as well as numerous roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and, recently, Pozzo in Waiting for Godot. Having performed in his native Australia, as well as frequently in London, Quast is now taking the stage at Avery Fisher Hall, alongside Bryn Terfel, Emma Thompson and Christian Borle, to play the lecherous Judge Turpin, against whom the obsessed barber Sweeney Todd seeks revenge. Quast previously performed the role of Judge Turpin in a concert presentation of Sweeney Todd, alongside Terfel, in 2007 at London's Royal Festival Hall.
Quast spoke with Playbill.com about his work onstage and screen, his admiration for Stephen Sondheim and "Breaking Bad," and his penchant for dark, serious roles.
Congratulations on making your American musical debut — and in Sweeney Todd. It's such a popular show.
And I'm not one of those people who sits and studies it. But I have to sit there and watch how he does it. I'm quite slow and pragmatic on this stuff because I'm not a musician, so I have to come at it from another way. I generally come at it through text. And, it's always difficult for people who aren't American, because Stephen [Sondheim] writes in speech patterns, and American speech patterns are different to English or Australian.
Sweeney Todd is such a thought-provoking show. It inspires so many questions regarding morality.
Do you find yourself taking a different approach playing Judge Turpin than you did in London a few years ago?
The song "Deliver Me" must be very intense to deliver night after night.
You've played some pretty intense roles throughout your career. Do you find yourself drawn more to darker, serious characters?
So you're not a Method actor.
You have done comedy over the years as well.
I've done kid's television; I've done a lot of comedy over the years. It's hard; it's very hard. The comedy roles are often tormented as well. There's something underneath, all that wit that's covering up a multitude of things.
Can you tell me about finding the humanity in the role of Judge Turpin?
We're all capable of doing anything. All of us, under the right circumstances. You don't need to look at war or the breakdown of society to understand that. So I just try to find one little moment where an audience may go, "Oh my God," or a man might go, "Oh God, I remember feeling that moment with my daughter." And it's sort of natural to be regarded as unnatural. But it's just a little thought that pops in and sometimes you go, "Oh, gee." But he acts on it.
You just try and find that little moment there where human beings either make the choice to do something or they can't help it. They make the choice to go one way or the other. And we're filled with those choices all the time. The eternal argument, the existential argument — are we innately good or innately bad? Does religion and the law keep us on the straight and narrow, [and what would happen] if we had no religion?
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)
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