In Part 8 of a series of interviews with the director and cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s Sweeney Todd meet Andrew Exner.
Joel: Please introduce yourself and tell our readers where they may have seen you on local stages before and what shows you and roles you have appeared in and played.
Andrew: Hi, my name is Andrew Exner and I am playing Beadle Bamford. By day I work at Capitol Technology University in Laurel, where I write funding proposals and coordinate social media efforts. By night I shriek high notes where and when I can in choirs and musicals. It’s been a while since I’ve done very much locally; the last Laurel Mill production I was in was Rent in 2011, where I sang in the chorus and was the understudy for Roger. Between then and now I’ve done a couple of operas in Pennsylvania and participated in local events called BaltiQWERT, where local singers gather in someone’s home and sing through four or five Gilbert & Sullivan operettas in a day for fun. Recent highlights include Edwin in Trial By Jury, Hilarion in Princess Ida, and Alfred in Die Fledermaus. I am also singing with Six Degree Singers in Silver Spring and Christ Memorial Presbyterian Church’s Trinity Choir in Columbia.
Why did you want to appear in this production of Sweeney Todd? Have you appeared in other productions of Sweeney and if yes-who did u play?
Sweeney has long been on my list of shows to do. I did Into the Woods in high school and fell in love with Sondheim’s lush and punishing music. Then during my freshman year in college a senior asked me to do the duet portion of “Kiss Me” (as Anthony) with her for her recital, which was a harrowing and rewarding experience. Beyond that, Laurel Mill is such an intimate space to perform a show as disquieting as Sweeney is. That alone was enough of a draw to audition!
How is this production similar or different from other productions you have appeared in, or seen?
Rent at Laurel Mill in 2011 was similarly in-your-face with its intimacy. Those two productions stand out in my mind compared to earlier shows that I did with Laurel (in my high school days) or other productions elsewhere, which typically do not shatter the Fourth Wall. Most plays and musicals don’t invite the audience to participate. Sweeney craves its audience and drags them in kicking and screaming if they don’t accept the initial invitation. While there are certainly logistical challenges to doing a massive production in such a small space, the black box feel gives it an additional layer of unease.
Who do you play and how do you relate to your character?
I am Beadle Bamford, and other than our propensity for singing high notes, we are completely different. At least I hope we are. The Beadle is dichotomous, boot-licking and almost cowardly with the Judge, but alternately pompous and cruel with the public. He has scraped together this little bit of authority by being the Judge’s toadie and he puts on a good show of wielding it well, but he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Somehow with all that, he is also a family man. He’s not a monster. But he is an innately flawed and corrupted public official, constantly seeking to raise his place in life by any means he can think of. Tenors never get to play bad guys, so this is a great change from the usual love-struck airhead roles.
What were some of the challenges you faced preparing for your role?
There have been a few challenges. I’ve actually been sick for a couple of months, and the constant coughing weakened my upper range. I’ve been fighting to get it back to where I like it/need it to be. I also struggled to find the Beadle’s voice, because I kept melding together different accents as I spoke and wasn’t sure what he would sound like. That was a fun challenge, though, and I never got to the point where I irritated my wife while walking around squawking the same lines over and over again trying to figure it out. Tapping into this cowardly cruel darkness was also a fun challenge.
How would you describe Stephen Sondheim’s score for Sweeney Todd?
Punishing. Unforgiving. Cacophonous. Genius.
What is your favorite song that you don’t sing in the show and why?
“A Little Priest.” That song epitomizes the dark wit at the soul of this show. It’s a jaunty fun song that carries the rage from “Epiphany” and twists the story from revenge into madness.
What are your solos/duets and what do we learn about your characters as you sing these songs/solos?
My main songs are “Ladies in Their Sensitivities,” “Kiss Me,” and “Parlor Songs.” In “Sensitivities” and “Kiss Me,” you learn how deferential the Beadle is to the Judge through his sycophantic repetition of “my Lord” and “sir” as he stumbles through a careful explanation of why he thinks the young Johanna may not be as receptive to his advances. It’s not easy to tell your boss that he looks like a mess. In “Parlor Songs,” you don’t really learn much about the Beadle per se, but it builds comedy and tension as you wonder whether Sweeney and Lovett will be caught.
What has been the most challenging scenes/songs to learn and perform and how has your director helped you to overcome these challenges?
The “Kiss Me” quartet is a bear. The four vocal parts rarely support each other, and the accompaniment is all over the place (even if it is probably some of the most consonant stuff in the whole show). TJ has been super supportive in allowing us the flexibility to try different things with our characters and our movement while providing firm direction to keep us grounded.
What do you admire most about your castmates’ performances?
The cast as a whole has a lot of passion, and everyone is invested in their roles. The Neglected (our chorus) have all developed backstories for their characters to flesh out their movement and interactions when they’re on stage. I especially have to praise Sophia (Toby). Not only is she precocious, but she is as dedicated as all of the adults with years under their belts. I was upstairs the other day helping some cast members go over music and she came up to work hard on certain passages. She was killing it already, but she starts talking about her passaggio and how she’s trying to work through it when this one song stays right between her registers. It’s awesome to see that level of care in someone so young.
What does Sweeney Todd have to say to modern theatregoers? Why do you think it is still so popular?
Revenge is a dish best served in hot pies. Also, before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. And then dig some more.
Honestly, though, I think Sweeney Todd is a skewering of the worst parts of all of us, all of society. In “Epiphany,” Todd says two lines one right after the other. First, “There are two kinds of men…there’s the one staying put in his proper place and the one with his foot in the other one’s face.” That’s followed by “We all deserve to die! Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I.” It’s a powerful recognition. You see this corrupt society and what it does to all of its members, from the ones at the top to the ones in the dregs. By the end of the show, everyone has blood on their hands, and the audience gets to see what drove them each to do it. Love, lust, poverty, fear, power. You could take the whole ordeal as nihilistic, try to brush it off, but I think that’s wrongheaded.
Sweeney Todd also continues to be popular because the music, like all of Sondheim’s music, is moving and powerful. It’s not easy listening, and its angularity is often ugly. But the ugliness within the music perfectly complements the ugliness playing out on stage. We’re transfixed by the horror of the production, and it’s difficult to look away.
What is your favorite kind of pie?
Do I have to pick one? Fine. Pecan.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Sweeney Todd at Laurel Mill Playhouse?
Be entertained. Be offended. Be confronted.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays through this weekend at Laurel Mill Playhouse – 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 617-9906, or purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part 1: Director TJ Lukacsina.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part 2: Chad Wheeler.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part 3: Kay-Megan Washington.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ Part 4: Carolyn Freel.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part 5: Garrett Matthews.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part 6: Lauren Lowell.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part 7: Daniel Plante.
Em Skow reviews ‘Sweeney Todd’ on DCMetroTheaterArts.