Vol. 13, No. 1 Fall 2006
Lovers Leap: Two gifted young actors and cello players portray Sweeney's young lovers on Broadway
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There is a moment in Act II of director John Doyle's brilliant re-conception of Sweeney Todd in which young lovers Johanna and Anthony, played by Lauren Molina and Benjamin Magnuson, are positioned next to each other, downstage, both playing the cello during "Johanna." The sound of the strings is warm and sensuous a lover's caress. The smooth, symbiotic ebb and flow of their bowings have an almost innocent sexuality, a reflection of romantic yearnings as yet unfilled. The connection between the pair is palpable as they play.
In a show filled with dark humor, barbarism and blistering rage, it makes for an achingly tender, intimate moment. And the moment was not planned. It was born from the synchronistic bond that developed between Molina and Magnuson, two gifted young actors in their early 20s who have made the big leap to Broadway in coveted roles. Both learned separately of the auditions from friends who saw the casting notice in Back Stage, which required actors to double as musicians. Both Johanna and Anthony were primarily to play the cello; both Molina and Magnuson, who each hail from families of classical musicians, had started playing that instrument in the fifth grade. And although they hadn't played in recent years, both immediately set about polishing their skills to prepare for the biggest audition of their young careers.
"It was better than a dream come true," recalls the petite blonde Molina in her dressing room at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. "The breakdown called for Johanna to play the cello, the bass and the piano. [Ultimately, she only played cello.] I was extremely proficient on the cello, I could brush up on the bass or piano if needed, and I'm a soprano, so I knew this part was perfect! I immediately started playing all the instruments, practicing every day. I was in the audition process at the very start of it, when the Roundabout still had the rights; later it transferred to Richard Frankel Productions because they wanted an unlimited commercial run, not the limited run the nonprofit Roundabout usually produces.
"I had five auditions, ending in performing for Stephen Sondheim himself. It was the epic audition of a lifetime, where it was just for his approval. That was pretty amazing, when I was two feet away from him singing 'Green Finch and Linnet Bird,' and he was sitting there with his hand on his chin looking up at me. And when I was done, he said, 'That's just so charming.' And I said to myself, 'I can't believe that Sondheim just said I was charming!'" Magnuson was playing Joe Josephson in Merrily We Roll Along in his final production at University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music when he heard about the Sweeney auditions. With his tall, lanky physique and easy, wide grin, he was used to handling character parts. He was not the typical Anthony Hope, but that didn't deter him from going after the role.
From his photo-filled dressing room, Magnuson remembers that, "My friends said they were looking for a tenor who could play cello. They knew I played, but I hadn't played but once since high school. So I came to New York with my cello during spring break. It was a Roundabout production then, and they wouldn't see me because I wasn't a member of Actors' Equity, and they were looking for a certain physical type. So I left my cello at a friend's house, went home and graduated, then came back to New York for a school showcase. It was now being produced by Frankel Productions, and they were doing an open call, literally five days after I moved here. I picked up my cello, and my father, who is a composer, made an arrangement of 'Johanna' for me that I could play while I sang and faxed it to me. I dropped my headshot off at the casting office and said, 'I play cello; I'd love to be seen for this.' Three days later they saw me. "So it can happen! I wasn't Equity, I had just come here, I was sleeping on my friend's couch, and three weeks later I was auditioning for Stephen Sondheim. I also signed with an agent the day before I got the job, and I nailed a rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side so all the stars were aligned! Of course, then I had to go back to Ohio to get my stuff, then wait four months for rehearsals to start. That was the hard part, the waiting and having no money, so I temped and did all the typical actor stuff.
"Luckily I knew I didn't have to do it for long, which was nice." Auditions began in February, and numerous callbacks stretched out the process several months. It was April 20, 2005, when the pair learned they had been cast. Rehearsals didn't begin until August, so Molina and Magnuson spent the months in between balancing their day jobs with intensive cello practice. Because they were doubling as the orchestra, there would be no traditional conductor, and all instrumental music had to be memorized. Sarah Travis (the 2006 Tony Award winner for her intimate orchestrations) made the necessary revisions throughout the summer, and the actors received their music only a few weeks before rehearsals began. Then it was five weeks of rehearsal in a studio space, a week of tech at the O'Neill and a month of previews.
The show officially opened on Nov. 3, 2005, to ecstatic reviews for the production, Doyle's integrated actor-musician concept and the performers. The New Yorker hailed Molina's "all-consuming honesty and range," and The Wall Street Journal proclaimed her "perfect as Johanna." Variety announced that "Magnuson's haunting version of 'Johanna' seems to demand the sole applause break of the first act," adding that as a newcomer he "registers as a distinctive presence." It's all very heady stuff for a pair of Broadway novices. But the abundantly talented Molina and Magnuson are nothing less than deeply grateful for what they recognize as an extraordinary opportunity they never take lightly.
"I was so nervous for the first day of rehearsals," laughs Molina. "I didn't think I was going to be good enough, I didn't know what they expected of me, it was my Broadway debut, etc. I just didn't want to let anyone down. My voice isn't exactly like Sarah Rice's [who played Johanna in the original Broadway production], so I was nervous that I was going to be compared to her. But everyone was very supportive.
"Then, on the first day of rehearsals, we started with 'Green Finch and Linnet Bird.' And I'm like, 'All right , I'm really getting thrown into the mix!' We sat around in a circle with the instruments and sang through it a few times, and then John blocked it. So it was impossible to separate the music from the acting because they were married so soon in the process."
"John always called it a jigsaw puzzle," Magnuson explains of the rehearsal process, "and that's exactly what it is. We'd work on one song in the morning with Sarah; we'd learn the music for maybe an hour. We'd have a tea break, and then John would start staging it with our music stands. He'd just say, 'You're here, and you're here, and can you play while you're moving from here to here?' So you try it and it doesn't work. So you try it another way and now you can do it. And by the end of the day, he's taken the music stands away and you've already done an entire three-minute song that is fully staged and memorized. Then you stop and you add what you did the day before. By the time we finished Act I, it was all in our heads, all in our bodies and memorized before we knew it. It's brilliant how he works and the confidence he gave us. I don't think any of us knew we could memorize this amount of music."
"It's amazing how fresh the show still is every night," added Molina, "and how we're able to bring new things to our playing, singing and acting based on our emotions of the day, or some new insight that John has had. In fact, when he came last March to give us notes, he said he wanted an entirely new [interpretation of] Johanna for Act I. He just wanted to see what it would be like if she liked the Judge instead of feared him in the first act. So that was an entirely new dynamic. He also wanted me to have a much less operatic sound. He felt that it made her sound too old with this legit soprano sound which is very hard when you're singing 'Green Finch and Linnet Bird' and you want it to sound good! But by taking away a lot of the vibrato and darker sound to the song, it created a vulnerability in Johanna's voice, a youthfulness, which I completely agree with John about."
Both actors also credit Doyle's simple, subtle direction and encouragement with furthering their connection and more fully realizing the characters of Anthony and Johanna and their intense relationship. Molina recalls, "With Ben, John just said that he is hope. In all of this chaos and craziness and hate and jealousy and revenge, Anthony is the one who has a positive outlook on everything.
"In a sense, that's what makes him crazy. And he incites in Johanna, for the first time ever, a feeling of power and, perhaps, love. "Still, she is a product of her father [Sweeney, of course], so she does have a crazy streak in her. But I think the process between Ben and myself was very symbiotic. John didn't really say specifically to do things to create our relationship. It kind of just grew out of our playing and out of our freedom. Early in the rehearsal process we'd get together outside of rehearsals and practice our cello parts and help each other with fingerings. We had an early comfort level together, so it made it easy to explore."
"We still sometimes grab each other at an awards ceremony or some special event and have a moment where we're like, 'What are we doing here?'" Magnuson chuckles. "We remind each other how special this is.
"And we have this thing we do: Before we start the show, we pound our fists together. And at the end, we give each other a high five. We make it our show together from beginning to end, and that's really special."
TERRI ROBERTS, TSR's West Coast correspondent, headed east recently to see the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd.
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