He’s a brutal chap, Sweeney Todd, the “demon barber” of London’s Fleet Street who slits his customers’ throats with a razor and has their flesh baked into pies by his partner-in-crime Mrs Lovett.
Born in a Victorian “penny dreadful” magazine serial in 1846, the fictional character has since been brought to life in myriad screen and stage adaptations of the gruesome tale, from plays and silent films to a 2007 Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp as Sweeney, and Stephen Sondheim’s Tony and Olivier Award-winning 1979 musical.
For the latter, which is being brought to Her Majesty’s Theatre this month by State Opera South Australia, Sondheim took inspiration from British playwright Christopher Bond’s retelling of the tale. This Sweeney is as melodramatic and gory as ever, but the barber has a back-story; he’s bent on revenge for the cruelties the ruthless Judge Turpin has perpetrated on his family.
“He’s a very dark, tortured man,” says performer Ben Mingay, who is stepping into his shoes for the State Opera production.
“He had everything and then of course lost it all through no fault of his own – just through the greed and will of another man. I think that’s what makes it interesting.
“I find the character very complex to play because there is a side to him that is a gentle sort of barber who is a family man and got it all torn away from him. It’s years of breaking rocks in Australia and knowing that his daughter is out there under the rule of this horrible man… it’s made him into a very dark character.”
NSW-based Mingay, often dubbed the “former tradie turned musical theatre performer”, was last in Adelaide for State Opera’s Carousel in March and has a string of stage and screen credits to his name, including in musicals such as Jersey Boys and Dirty Dancing, television series Packed to the Rafters, Home and Away and Frayed, and the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge.
He originally played Sweeney Todd in the West Australian Opera production two years ago and is thrilled to be reprising his role for the State Opera season, with both shows helmed by theatrical director Stuart Maunder.
After being rescheduled due to last year’s COVID-19 shutdown, the opera will have six performances at Her Majesty’s Theatre this month, with the recent easing of restrictions meaning it can play to a full house.
Maunder describes Sweeney Todd as “without doubt one of the most powerful, dramatic and theatrical horror tales ever set to music”, adding that it tells “a very universal human story: revenge, obsession and lust, yes, but also pain, yearning, even love”.
His sentiments are echoed by Mingay, who says Sweeney is his favourite role to date.
“And not just the role itself but the music and everything about it is fantastic. Sondheim is so clever in everything he does but particularly in this piece – he’s managed to really make the emotions shine through with the songs and the score.
“It’s one of those ones where we do get to have a great bit of fun… you can find that fun in there and then equally find the drama and the sadness and the heartbreak of it all.”
Soprano Antoinette Halloran reprises her role as pie shop owner Mrs Lovett after performing in previous seasons in Australia and New Zealand, with a video clip on State Opera South Australia’s Facebook page showing her as kind of demonic Nigella Lawson spruiking “the sauciest pies in Adelaide”. The cast also includes Desiree Frahn, Douglas McNicol, Nicholas Cannon and Joanna McWaters.
The multi-level set, Mingay says, will transport audiences to 19th-century London, with large wooden truss towers on either side of the stage: “They just really set that tone and then there’s a big barber shop and Mrs Lovett’s pie shop that gets rolled in and out… that doubles as the barber shop up on top, with good old Sweeney slitting a throat and sliding people down through the chute.”
For Mingay, having three and a half weeks to rehearse Sweeney Todd has been a nice contrast after his role as Billy Bigelow in Carousel, which had a short lead time and came straight after he finished filming season two of the ABC comedy series Frayed. He is also part of the cast of the Channel Nine drama Amazing Grace.
Aside from last year’s pandemic interruptions – when saw him move from Sydney back to his hometown of Newcastle – the busy performance schedule seems typical for the singer and actor, who left school at 17 and worked in construction for a couple of years before a scholarship to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music dramatically changed the direction of his life.
It was only after a dare by some of his workmates that Mingay decided to audition for the music scholarship, and he continued to work as a tradie while training in opera voice. What’s even more surprising is that he still occasionally moonlights in the construction industry helping out his mates – including a former Jersey Boys co-star who now has a demolition and asbestos-removal business in Sydney.
“Quite often if I’ve got any downtime I’ll go and help him out and that’s always a bit of a go-to. It’s not so much because I’m on the bones of my bum trying to make ends meet, it’s me just going I’d rather not sit idle… and also I like a bit of that stuff for contrast, getting back into that world.”
At one point a couple of years ago, Mingay was assisting his mate with odds jobs in Sydney at the same time he was appearing in TV shows.
“People would recognise me. Everybody was just baffled because here’s this bloke coming in to fix the toilet or fix a tap or move some furniture and they’re like, ‘Aren’t you on TV?’. It was very funny.”
State Opera South Australia’s Sweeney Todd opens at Her Majesty’s Theatre this Saturday, with performances continuing until May 15.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.