Judy Kaye is no stranger to the role of dotty, diabolical Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. She first played it at Michigan Opera Theater in 1984, and then again in 1992 at Paper Mill Playhouse, opposite George Hearn. In 2000 she appeared with the original Sweeney, Len Cariou, in a benefit concert in London. "I've said for years I would go anywhere to do this piece," she says. "And now I guess I'm going everywhere to do this piece."
Kaye and David Hess head the cast of the national tour of John Doyle's acclaimed production of Sweeney Todd, which played a "special engagement" at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre before hitting the road at Boston's Colonial Theatre on Oct. 23. The director's reconsidered, pared-down approach to the Stephen Sondheim–Hugh Wheeler masterpiece, in which the actors double as the musicians, was first performed in Newbury, England, and later transferred to London's West End. The show arrived on Broadway in 2005, with Michael Cerveris as the vengeful barber and Patti LuPone as his fervent partner in crime. In the New York Times, Ben Brantley called the production "thrilling."
Both Kaye and Hess have connections to this production. Hess served as standby for Cerveris, and Kaye played Mrs. Lovett for a few weeks in 2006. "I can honestly say that the first night I went on in the role, I was as scared as I've ever been on a stage," says the Tony Award–winning actress, who hasn't toured in more than 20 years. "I don't get scared onstage, so I was completely blindsided. But with those instruments, I was praying I wouldn't screw up somebody else's performance, trip over the furniture. When I stood up with my triangle at the beginning of the evening, I thought, 'Is there a way I can run off the stage right now and no one would notice I've left?' But with the loving help of the rest of the company, I made it through. And then I started to have fun with it. I loved being on the stage for the entire evening and listening to everyone else's performance. You're always in the play: If it's not your scene, you are in support of someone else. You become so much more aware, because you're onstage when you would normally be in your dressing room changing your costume. It's all-involving and very joyous to do it this way."
Kaye says that each time she returns to Mrs. Lovett, she builds on her knowledge of the character. And she has found Doyle's insights particularly enriching. "He brings to the piece the cultural aspects of the people who live in the East End of London, which he knows intimately," she notes. "His knowledge gives the piece more depth and texture. And like any good director, he asks questions that cause us to think about who each person is and how they relate to the story." According to Kaye, Doyle used the recent rehearsal process to further refine the production. "After a year away, John came back to Sweeney Todd refreshed, and he's made some changes that have helped us clarify things," she says. "This production is sometimes impressionistic, and we feel a great responsibility to make sure that the story is told clearly. And it's important that all across America, people who know the music and people who may never have heard it before will be given an opportunity to really appreciate these gorgeous melodies. We want the audience to care and become involved."