After an intense season that included a key role in Juno and the Paycock, Mark Benninghofen was ready for a break. Things didn’t go exactly according to plan.
“I was sitting on my deck one morning and saw that Theatre Latte Da had announced Sweeney Todd as part of their new season. Then I saw that Sally Wingert was in the cast. I thought maybe I could throw my hat into the ring,” Benninghofen says.
The actor has been a fan of the Stephen Sondheim musical since he saw the final preview of it on Broadway in 1979. He’s had numerous copies of the album, and even had the song “Nothing Is Going to Harm You” featured at his wedding.
Then again, Benninghofen had never sung onstage. Still, he went through the audition, and was pleased that he got through the experience. He was called back to work with director Peter Rothstein, music director Denise Prosek, and Wingert. “We fiddled around with it until it sounded good. I thought it was possible that something would happen,” he says.
This is the 54-year-old actor's first role in a musical. That has led to plenty of challenges and additional work. “I came in early to pick up the libretto and the score. They gave me 400 pages of music.”
Both Benninghofen and Wingert worked with Prosek to learn the parts of Sweeney Todd and his partner-in-crime, Mrs. Lovett. "[Prosek] recorded all of our songs so we could listen to them and learn them. Sally and I for the most part got caught up before the other eight actors, who are all singing actors, showed up,” he says. “I had some things to unlearn. Over the years, I had learned some of the notes incorrectly, but I am just thrilled to be singing this character.”
The songs are only part of Sweeney Todd. The blood-soaked tale is about a barber driven mad by betrayal and thoughts of revenge. He cuts a literal swath through mid-19th-century London, murdering his clients as he works to get at the judge who wronged him. All the while, Mrs. Lovett is there to hide the evidence by baking the remains into her suddenly popular meat pies.
In addition to driving viewers to contemplate vegetarianism, Sweeney Todd also closely examines the severely broken and flawed lead character. At the point Sweeney Todd decides to go on his murderous rampage, “there is such a freedom and a celebration in his craziness. The harder part is the earlier levels of brooding,” Benninghofen says.
While the character has seeped into Benninghofen’s psyche (“I had a dream last night that woke me up cold. It was definitely a result of living in this world”) he tries to keep it away from home. “When I get home, my boys are just normal kids. You just want to go home and throw a ball with them,” he says.
Sweeney Todd is a theater staple. What drives audiences to embrace this madman?
“So many of us are frustrated by the things that we are promised will be changed and they aren’t because of corruption or just bald-faced lying. There is something very alluring watching a guy go for broke and swing for the moon. He is the Richard III of Fleet Street. He is so devastated by what was taken away from him that he is willing to go down on this one. There is something freeing about watching someone do that. We know that at some level it would be carnally satisfying,” Benninghofen says.
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Through October 25
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