Going on in a role for the first time is terrifying, especially if you’ve really had no rehearsal. Nicholas Christopher had that experience firsthand last spring, shortly after Sweeney Todd began previews at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Christopher’s regular role in the production is Pirelli, but he also serves as standby for Sweeney himself — and when Josh Groban got sick, Christopher had to switch gears with only three hours notice. Jeanna de Waal got a little luckier: As the dedicated standby for Mrs. Lovett, she had plenty of time to prepare, but when she herself got the call to go on in place of Annaleigh Ashford for the first time, it was just as terrifying.
Now, with Groban and Ashford departed, and before Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster join the company on February 9, Christopher and de Waal have the opportunity to sink their teeth in completely, as the regular performers of these roles. (Their schedules, which they share with matinee alternates, can be found here.)
So what does it take to build a pie shop of their very own? Find out below.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about your first times on as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett.
Nicholas Christopher: During previews, Josh got incredibly sick. Three hours before the show, I was told that I was going on as Sweeney, when I had zero rehearsals for Sweeney. The closest thing to a rehearsal that I had was Jeanna and I going over some of the blocking in the lobby of the theater. We did a rehearsal that day that turned into “Let’s try and do as much of the show as possible to get Nick ready. Let’s teach him how to use the barber chair. Let’s have somebody come to the dressing room and run lines with him so that he can try to learn this three-hour mammoth of a show.” And literally, but the miracle of the theater gods, it went off without a hitch. The show didn’t stop and I said most of the words.
Jeanna de Waal: When he says “no rehearsal,” he means it. He’d been focusing on Pirelli. Tommy Kail was sweating. I was standing next to him watching Nick rehearse, and Tommy Kail, his heart rate doesn’t flutter, but it was such a big ask. People were teaching Nick the lines in the break. They were sticking pieces of the script in his face when he’d come off. It was flying by the seat of your pants, and you flew.
Nicholas: Oh, thanks. It was great. The whole creative team was nervous. I think they all left the theater, but when they heard it was going OK, they came back for Act 2. The proudest moment of my theater career is that day. I got a couple more runs at it that week because Josh was so sick, but I will never forget that day as long as I live.
Jeanna: Mine was also adrenaline-filled, because how is it not going to be? I was teaching a virtual singing lesson in the attic above the stage, and I saw the text pop up on my computer screen. My student got to see the full effect of, like, getting hot, sweating, you know. I was a lot more far along than Nick. I think I’d even had a put in, but it definitely didn’t feel like it.
What was expected of you as standbys when you were filling in for Josh and Annaleigh versus now, when you’re playing the roles full time?
Nicholas: The reason why I love working with Tommy Kail is that he sets up a world that’s a safe space to explore. In every musical or theater piece, there’s a structure involved. You have to be a certain place for lighting, there are certain lines you have to say for story purposes. Why I keep working with him is because I’ve always been able to bring myself to whatever part I’m either stepping into or taking over or even originating. There’s never a pressure to try and replicate what anybody else is doing.
Jeanna: Even Annaleigh and Josh, if you go see them on Thursday, they do the same show Friday. There are things you have to hit because that’s what’s been set. And what you borrow from someone, what you get inspired by, the blocking, the intention, everything is the ingredients. Getting to watch Annaleigh close up, I absorbed everything from how she developed it. I love how she used her hands. I saw where her energy was. I took all of that. But you have to, as authentically as possible, bring yourself to the role, so it’s always going to be different. The goal is to not make a mirror image of what was done before, the goal is to make the show truthful.
Nicholas: I actually think that if you try to really do an impression of somebody else’s work, the audience is gonna sense that and they’re gonna be checked out in the first five minutes. And Sweeney is such a wealth of everything that I can just come into the theater every day as myself and ride the wave of the show, whether or not I’m sad, whether or not I’m a little bit tired, or I’m energized. I can bring my full self that day to the part and it fits right in, because there’s so much to it.
Jeanna: The show carries the actors as much as the actors energize it.
Can you talk about the growth experiences that this production has had on your lives as actors?
Jeanna: I think you take a job because you want that creative moment, right? The creative moment of watching Annaleigh so closely….She’s someone that I’ve idolized and been such a fan of for so long, and I knew I wanted the chance to see how she works. That extended to Tommy Kail and Steven Hoggett. The creative period was amazing. Then, the success that the show has had leads to so much stability. I don’t think many people understand how long actors go without stability. To know that this job is going to May 5 has allowed for so much personal growth in everybody’s lives. It’s become a safe space, where we go to the theater and forget our issues. This is the place where we see each other every day. The conversations are mundane water cooler conversations. There’s so much stability, and that’s just not usual for actors.
Nicholas: I’m a firm believer in fate, and I’m a spiritual person. I think everything happens for a reason. This group of people that the creative team assembled, we all went through challenges this year, internal transitions, and the way they set up the show, we start by breathing together. If one person is having a hard time, everybody crowds around them and puts their hands on them and truly supports them through whatever they’re going through. Because we feel that support and trust, we’re able to go onstage and feel supported.
Jeanna: I know it sounds woo-woo, but I really like that we’re such a tight-knit cast. That energy obviously translates. Being in sync with everybody really feels like the most powerful thing beyond the material itself.
Nick, you’re currently planning to do six shows a week as Sweeney Todd and one show with your regular role, Pirelli. How do you feel about that?
Nicholas: To be honest, I’m a little bit worried about it. The way I have to warm up to do these two different vocal parts is a lot. I think there’s something about it that feels impossible, and that makes me want to do it. I’ve done both of them in the same day before and that’s a challenge. It will be interesting to see after six shows a week of screaming and being a bass-baritone if I can get the cords up to tenor land.