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The Demon Barber of Halloween

Who is Sweeney Todd? Brian Stokes Mitchell...or George Hearn? You be the judge. logo

George Hearn and Patti LuPone in the
San Francisco Symphony?s Sweeney Todd
(Photo: Terrence McCarthy)
If you're as leery as I am of the casting of Brian Stokes Mitchell in the title role of the production of Sweeney Todd that will be presented as part of the Stephen Sondheim celebration at the Kennedy Center next year, you may be consoled by the knowledge that the performance of the world's reigning Sweeney has been preserved for posterity--for the second time. A tape of the San Francisco Symphony's July 2001 concert presentation of Sondheim's masterpiece starring the great George Hearn will be telecast by PBS this Wednesday, October 31 at 9pm in most markets (check your local listings).

Hearn first played the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in the original Broadway production of Sweeney as a replacement for the role's creator, Len Cariou. Though he had to contend with the miscast Mrs. Lovett of Dorothy Loudon, Hearn gave a magnetic, beautifully sung account of the role. A subsequent tour of Sweeney yielded a video production that preserved his magisterial performance along with the original, definitive Mrs. Lovett of Angela Lansbury. It's worth a trip to the Museum of Television and Radio to see this program, which is no longer commercially available. (I knew I should have snapped up that laserdisc copy when I saw it!)

After playing Sweeney on Broadway and on tour, Hearn reprised the part in a staging in Michigan and, opposite Judy Kaye, in another fine production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Most recently and most notably, he returned to the role on very short notice in the New York Philharmonic's May 2000 concert performances of Sweeney Todd when opera star Bryn Terfel, the originally announced Sweeney, bowed out. Superbly partnered by Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, Davis Gaines as Anthony, Heidi Grant Murphy as Johanna, Neil Patrick Harris as Tobias, Paul Plishka as Judge Turpin, John Aler as the Beadle, Stanford Olsen as Pirelli, and Audra McDonald as the Beggar Woman, Hearn had a personal triumph in these unforgettable performances, which were thrillingly conducted by Andrew Litton. In July, the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus recreated the N.Y. Phil concerts with a few cast changes: Lisa Vroman as Johanna, Victoria Clark as the Beggar Woman, and Timothy Nolen--himself a former Sweeney of note--as Judge Turpin. Rob Fisher conducted.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Hearn just after he opened in Sweeney on Broadway. Such stars as John Cullum and Richard Kiley had been considered to succeed Cariou, but Sondheim and director Harold Prince had gambled on the then relatively unknown Hearn. In fact, they had been so impressed with his previous work that they went ahead and offered him the enormously challenging role of Sweeney before he sang for them. "I guess they would have been stuck with me even if I had given a lousy audition," Hearn joked at the time, but his delivery of Sweeney's harrowing "Epiphany" demonstrated that Sondheim and Prince had done well to follow their instincts. Hearn told me that the role was quite a departure for him in that he couldn't stand to watch horror films because "they terrify me and I can't seem to get the images out of my mind." When asked how he thought his psyche would be affected by playing a mad barber who slashes throats at the drop of a hat, he smiled and replied, "I'm hoping it will be therapeutic."

I got to interview Hearn again for a feature that was included in the souvenir program of the New York Philharmonic performances, and I asked him then for his latter-day perspective on the show and the role. "When I saw the show with Len and Angela, I felt like somebody had thrown a spear through my chest," he said. "Len was truly awesome and the show was overwhelming. Then I actually got to do the part, which took my breath away. You knew you were in a work of genius; it was terrifying and wonderful at the same time. Sweeney is hard to perform in some ways--but on another level, a few chords into the show, it's as if a great hand picks you up and carries you through the evening. There's a tremendous humanity in the love story and in the revenge tragedy."

Now, those who've never seen Hearn as Todd have their chance to do so on Halloween night. I got hold of a preview tape of the telecast and it's terrific, with well-chosen camera angles and some superb editing. (The "Pretty Women" number is truly hair raising--no pun intended--despite director Lonny Price's foolish decision not to use actual shaving cream for the sequence.) Whatever treats you may get on Halloween, this is likely to be the most delicious of all. Don't miss it!

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