PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Philip Quast, "Attending the Tale" of New York Philharmonic Sweeney Todd

By Carey Purcell
March 5, 2014

Olivier Award winner Philip Quast talks with Playbill.com about making his American musical debut in Sweeney Todd.



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"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.
Philip Quast: To actually sit in the rehearsal, you start looking at it. I sat there watching the first "Kiss Me" yesterday and thought, "How did he write it?" Because it's so intricately witty, and you realize that he's a dramatist in such an incredible way. He's got star-crossed lovers — it's the Romeo and Juliet stuff. But that whole sort of witty argument, the speed of thought — he's so clever.

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.

Bryn Terfel and Philip Quast in Sweeney Todd.
photo by Tristram Kenton

Sweeney Todd is such a thought-provoking show. It inspires so many questions regarding morality.
PQ: It's a bit like "Breaking Bad." You have an argument in Sweeney Todd, where you have a situation where someone has had wrong done to them. Then they go and try to right that wrong as an act of revenge. But what happens to take them into becoming a serial killer when they pass that moment — when it goes beyond that?

Do you find yourself taking a different approach playing Judge Turpin than you did in London a few years ago?
PQ: Yes. Lonny [Price] is very experienced at doing this stuff. He's quite experienced at paring it down to the absolute essentials and narratives of storytelling. And, it's being filmed. I was thinking these concert versions, although they're semi-staged, are staged in a way — because you've got radio mics on, you've got two free hands, so you're bringing yourself up. They have to have all the truth and movement and narrative story telling for the audience because you're not doing it in the same way as if you were standing in front of the mic.

The song "Deliver Me" must be very intense to deliver night after night.
PQ: It's funny; it was cut in that first stage version. I don't know whether they thought it was too controversial — a man whipping himself, flagellating... When you look at the score, it's in the appendix at the end. You can't see now how they could have put on the show without it, because it explains everything. And, it's quite strange. A man who's kept his daughter, ostensibly, of a woman he's raped, locked up. And he suddenly sees, overnight, when young men are hanging around her, he suddenly notices at the same time that she's ripe. And then that goes into this warped, strange flagellation thing.

Quast in La Cage Aux Folles.

You've played some pretty intense roles throughout your career. Do you find yourself drawn more to darker, serious characters?
PQ: Yes, I do, probably because I try to find some humanity in them. I've done a lot of them. I've committed suicide a lot, in so many films, so many television [shows]. I've even played Saddam Hussein in a movie. I'm hitting the stage where it's lovely to do comedy occasionally. Even Godot was pretty tough and tormented. I had a whip in that as well. I don't think they interfere with your life. I never used to think that. But as I'm getting older, they're pretty exhausting really. You've got to bring in a certain amount of dark side, you've got to find that dark side of yourself.

So you're not a Method actor.
PQ: The thing is, you can't sort of do Method stuff in a musical because you're part of a team. It's not like doing stuff on film where you don't have to worry about anyone else. The editor can take care of it. When you're in a musical, you've got to look after other people. Otherwise you're jeapordizing what they do.

You have done comedy over the years as well.
PQ: I love doing comedy. I did the very first production [of La Cage aux Folles] at the Chocolate Factory, with Douglas Hodge. I loved doing it. It was great. We had the big kiss at the end. I used to go out in the audience and fully kiss people on the mouth — all that sort of stuff. That's how it should be.

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?
PQ: There's usually one moment you've got as a character where the audience slightly understands. You can't play it too much. I'm not saying you soften it. I find one or two little moments where the audience understands that if they were in the same position, they may do the same thing.

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.)