In Part 9 of a series of interviews with the director and cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s Sweeney Todd meet Sophia Nasreen Riazi-Sekowski.
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.
Sophia: When I was three yearold, I thought it was wrong I couldn’t be Jean Valjean. I had memorized the tune of every Les Miserables song and in the car I sang Jean Valjean and made my momma sing Javert. By the way, I am Sophia Nasreen Riazi-Sekowski and I am an 11 years-old 7th grade student at Judith P. Hoyer Montessori.
I believe I can do anything. Before you misunderstand me, I am not a diva. I just long to tell any story I can on stage. I think of musical theater as storytelling. Poetry. I started going into my world of acting when I saw my neighbor, Miss Amanda, act in what was our local children’s theater, Cheverly Young Actor’s Guild. She was amazing! I suddenly realized, “I can do that!” I started out in CYAG in the pre-show and at age seven, I was cast as Michael in CYAG’s production of Peter Pan and got to fly!
I’m starting from the bottom, like William Shakespeare. Before I flew with CYAG, my first “real” show was at Laurel Mill Playhouse. I was 6 years old and was cast in the London version of Peter Pan. Cast as a nameless Lost Boy, I named myself “Cuddles.” Another girl in the cast became my partner in crime. The things I most remember are 1) We got to chase Smee all around the stage with our wooden daggers, 2) Captain Hook was an amazing and generous actor and I loved acting and exchanging lines with him.
Since then, I have been in over a dozen community theater performances. I have a long history with Laurel Mill Playhouse (LMP), including the super-fun opportunity to play Molly in Annie, (the always fun and amazing character, thrown into the laundry cart and who sings “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile!”) and Little Girl in Ragtime.
Ragtime at LMP still remains closest to my heart. I remember I said to my Ragtime Tateh, “Well since I am supposed to be your daughter, I will be your daughter all the time we are here.” So I was. We were like glue and became lasting friends. I loved the show so much and poured my heart out into my role and the cast truly made something powerful, I don’t think I, or we, could have done it any better.
I have been so lucky to have each theater experience offer something special. Sometimes it is learning how to laugh at your self and make others laugh like with The Heritage Players in Catonsville where I played Ling in Anything Goes. Sometimes it is about a great cast family and the their dedication to rehearsing each step and position over and over in order to make something amazing like with my experiences with 2nd Star Productions in Bowie, where I have been in ensembles for both Hello Dolly! and Children of Eden and most recently their 65 Years of Broadway Cabaret.
Sometimes it is about reimagining stories and roles and using theater to give back, like two years as Tiny Tim in a benefit production of A Christmas Carol for Wolf Pack Theatre Company. This modern take on the Dickens story surprised and moved our audiences and helped raise money for a local hypothermia shelter program.
So far, I have only had the opportunity to be in one professional show. What an experience! I played Gretl in The Sound of Music at Compass Rose Theater. I had a lot of support in that show from all the cast. We built our characters together and formed lasting relationships. It left me wanting more professional theater opportunities “anyone listening?”
So, this is what I look for in my favorite shows. I look for friends. I look for people to look up to. I look for people who respect me. I look for a chance to draw you deep in and share a story that makes you, the audience, love theater and want to return.
I may never be Patti LuPone, but I will always keep going and hopefully have the experience of making it to Broadway. Outside of the theater, I love math and science and playing the French Horn. I am very involved in Montessori Model United Nations and environmental activism in my community. I am learning to play softball and am now a Cadette in Girl Scouts. I want to be an oncologist, an environmentalist, and to work with the UN—oh, and forever to be a storyteller.
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?
Well, let’s start with I am too young, too small, and I am a girl. Then again, I wanted to be Jean Valjean. I never intended to be in Sweeney Todd. Truthfully I just came to get the experience from the audition. It always helps to watch other people. I told myself I wasn’t supposed to get the role, but I had this tingling inside me saying, “maybe, maybe.” I sang “Not While I’m Around” for my audition. My momma received an email and the part she saw was, “we have decided not to call Sophia back.” My momma wasn’t surprised, because, after all, I was too young, too small, and I am a girl. They were looking for a boy from the ages 13-18. What she missed, though, was the part saying “…Because we already decided to cast her for the role of Tobias.” When she told me, I was so excited, but she was a little horrified. I am so grateful to Mr. TJ for stepping outside of the box and taking a chance on me, and I hope to surprise you in a good way.
I wanted to be in Sweeney Todd because of the music, how it is both so pretty and so creepy at the same time. Sondheim can really do that and he draws me deep into the music. Also, it could be a new opportunity and good experience to be it a show that is a little different than some of the musicals I know.
How is this production similar or different from other productions you have appeared in, or seen?
I haven’t seen or been in any other performances of Sweeney Todd. I have seen the movie, though. Our production is very different than the movie. The musical in general is very different than the movie. You cannot get the full glory and meaning of the show through the movie. The layers of meaning in the musical are lost in the movie. In my opinion, the musical Sweeney Todd is full of so much. It is about politics and how the people in the world destroy each other. It is about grief and loss and drastic measures—not just blood and gore. In the movie they cut a lot of things that I think would be important, like both of the Ballads. In “A Little Priest,”,not even half of what Sweeney is talking about is about meat pies or putting people into pies or the flavors as it shows in the movie. It is all politics and the state of the world in which Sweeney lives.
Who do you play and how do you relate to your character?
Thank goodness I don’t relate too directly to poor ! I do connect to that role, though, because I, too, feel like I would do anything for some people in my life, just like Tobias would for Mrs. Lovett, even if it means to kill or be killed. I am far luckier than Tobias, as my trust has never been betrayed, but I have done a lot of work to put myself into his shoes. I am a child who stands back and watches and thinks and puts things together that others don’t think a child can. I have felt that need to be heard and I can feel inside how Tobias would feel as he pleads with Mrs. Lovett for her to heed his warning. To make Tobias come alive, for me and for you, I need to be able to connect with the process of how an 11-year old would react and then put it through another layer of Toby’s world and personality.
What have been some of the challenges preparing for your role?
“Diction is done with the tip of the tongue and the teeth…” Try saying that 5 times fast while singing and acting! In other words, what was really challenging for me was articulation and enunciation. I have to feel like I am enunciating too much to be able to be understood sometimes. Also, learning the music. I have to be able to reach all those high notes and be able to act at the same time. In “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” I have to sing with the whole ensemble singing different parts back at me at the same time. It is super hard. A goal for myself is to be emotionally exhausted by the end of the show. It is all a challenge of “What would Toby do?” “How would this feel?” “Who is Toby?” I believe Toby has a story like everybody else. Maybe he used to have a mum, but all he could remember is that she loved him and that he loved her. Maybe he wants to find someone who loves him and for Toby to swear to protect that someone with all of his heart. He wants to get people’s attention and hopefully one day find someone to love. He thinks that person is Mrs. Lovett. He wants to protect her from any danger he can find. And a whole bunch of other things are going on, but I won’t be a spoiler. Now the challenge is acting this into being.
How would you describe Stephen Sondheim’s score for Sweeney Todd?
Well, let me start by saying that Stephen Sondheim is a cruel but beautiful composer. From a singer’s perspective, he has no mercy. The range required for Tobias has demanded that I grow as a singer. Though there are a lot of random rhythms, there is something about the music, when it is put all together, that is extraordinary. His score makes you believe the stage is alive. There are so many layers and he seems to use people as his instruments, putting their individual parts together to form his composition. It takes a lot of talent to sing this show!
It seems like Sondheim follows a pattern of tension and release. His score builds and builds, reaches its point, and then it becomes calmer. It will make you uncomfortable in some songs and others will wrench your heart out. It is on purpose Sondheim does some crazy things that I don’t even begin to understand in the music. It may seem silly at first, but when you look at it all together, it somehow makes sense. It is magical, I’m telling you! It is so wonderful, and when I imagine the pit behind us, I promise you it is going to be even better.
What is your favorite song that you don’t sing in the show and why?
Oh no! There are so many! My favorite song is probably either “A Little Priest” or “My Friends.” I also love the “Johanna Quartet.” If you go under the words and just listen to the tune, everything has beauty. I hope the audience will be able to notice that. “A Little Priest” is so wrapped with politics and if you look close enough, it isn’t about meat pies; it is about how horrible our world can be to some people. Then it becomes a play on words. A game you could say. “My Friends” is just so powerful. I can’t get over it. And finally, the “The Johanna Quartet” is so pretty it makes me sigh.
What are your solos/duets and what do we learn about your character as you sing these songs/solos?
To mix musicals, Tobias really is such a “Poor Unfortunate Soul.” Ha ha. Tobias’s first song is “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir.” During that song, we get a snippet of Toby’s life. How he is bold and nervous and fearful all wrapped up into one and how his very world (and even his life) depends on making Pirelli proud. After that song, we see the consequences if he doesn’t perform as he should. We can see how Toby is stuck in a situation and is trapped. How he isn’t loved.
In “Not While I’m Around”, my personal favorite, you can see that he will do anything to protect Mrs. Lovett because he has found what he thinks is the person he will love forever and he desperately wants to have her love and to keep her safe from something bad and terrible that he has discovered. He is convinced that Mrs. Lovett saved him from all the bad things in the world and that she is sweet and dear and kind. He will be her champion and will do all he can to protect her, if only she will listen. Tobias gives us a hint of what he is made of…
What has been the most challenging scenes/songs to learn and perform and how has your director helped you to overcome these challenges?
In case you haven’t guessed, I am full of questions and full of ideas and lucky to have a director that loves me for both (Thank you Mr. TJ)! Not to give away too much, I think the most challenging thing for me is the scene at the end. I will not tell you the ending. I can tell you the whole show is thrilling and in order to know the amazing, heart-wrenching ending that can’t be topped by the movie—come and see the show! Both my Director, Mr. TJ, and my stage manager, Ms. Lilliana, have helped me a lot in talking through what Toby feels and how he would react. Another hard part has been creating a fourth wall in some scenes, when all I have before me is you, the audience. This is Sondheim, so all of my songs are challenging! I am working with our rehearsal pianist to be able to get the notes, strong, and finding the counts and rhythm with a score that is quite merciless to singers. Oh, the horror… and yet I love it so… definitely Sondheim!
What do you admire most about your castmates’ performances?
I admire how my castmates interact with the audience and get in touch with their characters. Also, how my castmates interact with each other on stage is really fascinating. I am learning a lot from them and watch how they make things work and try on different ways of doing things. Everybody is really good, but I really want to single out our Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Our Sweeney puts all the feelings into what Sweeney feels and I think that he will really draw you in… maybe to your doom. If you didn’t know her offstage, you would totally believe Mrs. Lovett is a very scary reality. She really works her role and she is not afraid of crazy. Come and see the show. You will be blown away by all the amazing voices!
What does Sweeney Todd have to say to modern theatregoers? Why do you think it is still so popular?
Sweeney Todd is all about today. I think that this is part of the reason why it is so popular. I think Sweeney Todd brutally talks about how life can be so miserable for some people and that it is all just a mess. Sweeney Todd rages about how there is no justice for some people and we see how despair can resort to revenge and go over the edge into madness—but is what Sweeney does any more mad than what is done to people every day? How many people play Mrs. Lovett to a real life suffering Sweeney? In our world, today, there is greed and injustice all over the place. Sweeney Todd gives us a big picture of how bad things happen. It is also about revenge consuming people and how things can come right back at you. Just like today, it is about how there are people being wronged and people who are higher class and beat up on the people lower than them. The theme is horrible, but today it is so current, so it is important to have a big picture understanding of some horrible things that have happened and still are happening.
Although being current is one of the reasons Sweeney is still so popular, I think that it is also so popular because it is a musical for people who don’t generally like musicals. It is different. Believe it or not, it is realistic and yet just unreal enough that we can handle it and be entertained by its awfulness. For those people who don’t appreciate musicals with big unison dance numbers and such where you are wondering “who just dances on the street like that, in unison!?” I mean I love shows like that, but anyways, if you don’t like shows like that, this is a new musical for you to see. Also, it is just so fun and scary.
It is a thriller show. That is why people continue to like it and I believe that you will like it as well!
What is your favorite kind of pie?
Now you are creeping me out a little. I have many favorite pies, and no they aren’t meat pies. I never even had a meat pie, although Tobias sure has a liking for them! I have a favorite type of pie every season. Right now my favorite is pumpkin pie. The filling is so smooth and it is even better when it is well-seasoned with cinnamon and such. “The crust all velvety and wavy! That glaze! Those crimps!” Now I am creeping myself out! Anyway, my favorite combination right now is Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream with warm pumpkin pie and apple cider. Yum!
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Sweeney Todd at Laurel Mill Playhouse?
I want our audiences to be left with the horror and pity the show conveys. I want them to have a better understanding of how horrible life can be to some people. I want them to feel the guilt from something they did bad come back up. I want them to feel like they want to fix things. I want them to worry. I want them to be scared. I want them to find something in their own lives to relate to this show. Everyone has something to relate to this show, no matter how small. This show really illustrates things we humans feel and do. A lot of humans love. A lot are greedy. A lot of people resort to revenge (even in the tiniest ways). A lot of people suffer from injustice. This is a show about humans and how they suffer. Most of all, I want people to feel like they want to do what they feel is the right thing. Oh, and of course, I want them to enjoy the show and get that thrill and chill climbing up their backs as they “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!”
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.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part 8: Andrew Exner.
Em Skow reviews ‘Sweeney Todd’ on DCMetroTheaterArts.