A new deadly duo has arrived on Fleet Street, with Tony winners Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster stepping into the roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett in the hit revival of Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd. Both in the prime of their decades-long careers, Tveit and Foster aren’t allowing themselves to be boxed in by what they’re known for. They’re expanding into roles that seem like the antithesis of the performances that have, so far, defined them—but Tveit and Foster attest that there are more similarities than you’d think.
For Foster, the comedy and never-ending fuse of excitement is a familiar hallmark of her best-known roles. From Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes to the heroine of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Foster’s high energy onstage is one of the many things that has defined her show-stopping performances. Though Mrs. Lovett contains darkness, she also burns bright. “She’s so excited, it’s super high energy…I think she has a real sense of humor about her lot in life,” says Foster. “She’s always really trying to seek the positive. Even the fact that she wants to decorate the room with flowers and daisies, she wants to brighten up the gloom. I don’t think she seeks darkness, I think she seeks light.”
Foster and Tveit took the time to talk with Playbill in between early rehearsals for Sweeney Todd (and before Foster had to step into rehearsals for Once Upon a Mattress at New York City Center). The duo begins performances February 9, for a 12-week engagement (succeeding Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford). The two demonstrated an understanding of their morally complex characters that was exceptionally forgiving. Though the show may follow the downfall of two meat-pie-making killers in ways that are sometimes comedic and other times chilling, it is, at its core, a Shakespearean tragedy. And, according to Tveit and Foster, it’s also a love story.
“We’ve talked a lot about how this is a love story, and for the people who don’t already know Sweeney Todd, how long can we delay the inevitability of the end? How long can we instill hope for these characters?” posits Tveit.
Both Tveit and Foster acknowledge the “co-dependent, sort of abusive” dynamic (as Foster puts it) between Sweeney and Lovett, but they also acknowledge the humanity in their characters—as fragile and fading as it may be. “These two people need one another in a primal, carnal way,” says Foster.
While Lovett “needs to be needed,” as Foster notes, Sweeney needs to feel that his pain has been seen, Tveit attests. “They’re just two people that are completely alone, broken, and lost, yearning for human connection, and they’re able to be completely themselves in front of one another with no judgment. You can laugh at them and think, ‘They’re going to bake people into pies!’ But Lovett says that and Sweeney says, 'Wow, okay…yeah, we can do this together.’ I think finding a person who accepts you for who you really are…I think that’s what these two people are doing," says Tveit.
Foster concurs: “It’s not your typical love story, but it is a love story.”
Not only are the characters of Sweeney and Lovett markedly darker than many of Tveit and Foster’s past roles, but the role of Sweeney Todd—a brooding, beckoning kind of baritone—is quite a departure vocally from the tenor-rooted pop and rock roles that Tveit has previously played (including his most recent role as Christian, the romantic hero of Moulin Rouge!, which earned him a Tony Award.) But Broadway audiences have yet to see Tveit return to what are actually his roots, with his original college training being in classical voice (except for a few lucky people who have seen him perform some Puccini at one of his 54 Below concerts).
“I started out my musical journey in classical music, before I ever studied acting or switched to musical theatre. It’s a big challenge—the songs are in a part of my voice that I have not really used professionally before," explains Tveit. "But I get to show another side of me, and I’m really psyched for the opportunity to do that.”
The new duo express profound excitement in the infinite possibilities their roles grant them to tell the beloved tale, now in its fourth production on Broadway. “With these masterpieces, it’s like when you do Shakespeare. Everybody takes their shot with it, and you get to try anything,” says Tveit, while also confessing he’s seen four productions of Sweeney Todd himself, as the titular role had always been a dream project for him.
For many musical theatre nerds, the titular character is expected to be foreboding and chilling, from start to end. But now, as Tveit has the opportunity to bring his own interpretation to the role, he's more interested in unraveling the depths of Sweeney's downfall, layer by layer.
"I am interested in the guy who steps off a boat in London after his life falling apart to no fault of his own. From being convicted of a crime he didn't commit and sent halfway around the world to Australia, hoping that maybe one day, he could have a chance to get back," shares Tveit.
And as Sweeney embarks on his tragic mission to take back whatever he can from his former life—whether it be his daughter or simply some form of companionship through his circumstances with Lovett—he loses more of himself the longer he searches. "I think to see the veneer begin to crack, and to see the trauma that he's been through, that he's barely hanging out by thread at the start with this hope to get his wife and child back," says Tveit. "Once that hope is gone, he breaks into all-out mania and hysteria."
Foster, too, is a longtime fan of the musical, and also long dreamed of taking on the role of Mrs. Lovett. “When I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, they did Sweeney Todd. I remember being in the audience and Anthony walked down the aisle during 'Johanna,' and I fell in love. They did five performances, and I saw every single one,” she shares, humbly revealing that at every single performance, she made sure to sit on the aisle so that she could be close as Anthony walked by. “Once I was a freshman in college, dreaming, watching it in awe, and now I’m doing it.” And, despite how long she may have dreamt of it, Foster feels that it was worth the wait. “I don’t think I could have played her any sooner than now. Age-wise, I wouldn’t have understood it,” she acknowledges.
Despite running in the same circles for many years, this marks Tveit and Foster’s first time performing together on the Broadway stage. “I’ve been a fan of hers since I saw Millie 20 years ago,” says Tveit with a smile. “As we’ve dove into this process, she’s just been phenomenal, both as a scene partner and just a human being in the room,” he adds. Their professional bond was quickly evident throughout their conversation with Playbill—both sharing similar perspectives and wisdom regarding their characters—and even further displayed in their photoshoot, with Tveit and Foster closing out with a long hug despite having spent the entire day together rehearsing the show.
With the somber weight of the musical, the pair have made sure to show up for each other offstage to remedy all the intensity that’s experienced onstage. Foster shares high praises for the show’s Intimacy Coordinator, Ann James, and expressed her admiration for the ways that intimacy coordination is being used in more and more shows to establish safe spaces for collaboration.
“It’s beyond just intimacy, it’s really about creating chemistry and support both onstage and backstage. We had this wonderful session about how the Sweeney and Lovett relationship is so intense and it ends so intensely at the end of the show. And how we can greet each other at the beginning of the day and say goodbye to each other and thank each other for sharing this space, and being able to let it go. I’ve never had that conscious discussion before, and I found it to be very powerful,” Foster shares.
As excited fans trickle in to see two of Broadway’s brightest stars play two of the darkest roles in musical theatre, Foster and Tveit are equally exuberant to start performances. “It’s my favorite show of all time. I think it’s his masterpiece,” Foster says.
Adds Tveit: “I think this is Sondheim at the height of his power. You can just feel the confidence in the writing, and there’s so little judgment in it."
It is clear that in this Sweeney Todd, it will be Tveit and Foster like you've never seen them before.