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Razor’s edge

Judy Kaye on reuniting with Sweeney Todd’s Demon Barber
By SALLY CRAGIN  |  October 17, 2007

Judy Kaye with Demon Barber David Hess

When Judy Kaye steps onto the stage of the Colonial Theatre in British director John Doyle’s Tony-winning revival of Stephen Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, it will be her fifth incarnation of the not-so-lovable Mrs. Lovett. But according to the Tony-winning actor, there’s always more to discover about the Demon Barber’s culinary accomplice.

“I love playing a role over and over again and seeing how I’ve grown up,” says Kaye. “It’s amazing what happens quite spontaneously — you think you’ve explored everything and then there’s a whole other layer. It can happen on a day when you’re not feeling well, but you ‘put on the drag,’ as they say, and then a light bulb goes on.”

Doyle’s Sweeney Todd, which kicks off its national tour in Boston, represents a stylistic departure from the original 1979 musical about the Victorian-era barber who turns personal heartbreak into a throat-slitting rampage. That one featured dozens of performers and a full pit orchestra. Here there are just 10 people on stage, and the actors double as the instrumentalists (with Kaye on tuba, orchestral bells, and percussion). The show captured numerous 2005 awards including Tonys for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Direction. Kaye took over the role of Mrs. Lovett from Patti LuPone, who received a Tony nomination. But it’s a long way from her previous experience as the bawdy baker of human meat pies.

“It’s much more intimate — we compress it,” says Kaye of the new production. “I had to get used to its being a chamber orchestra. For example, Johanna’s theme and the ballads were sung by the chorus, and now it’s just one voice instead of 10 voices, so you can hear the lyrics.”

Doyle’s idea emerged out of financial necessity. His production debuted in a 261-seat theater before traveling to the West End, Broadway, and beyond. For Kaye, the stripped-down orchestration is providing a different vantage on the piece. “I’m hearing for the first time symbolic touches that embellish the work.”

But what drew her back to Mrs. Lovett? “I love Sondheim. And I’d love to be able to say I call the shots on this, but it’s whatever comes down the pike. When they asked me to step in for Patti LuPone, it scared me but also told me in my bones to do it. I think I was put on the planet to do musical theater.”

Even so, Kaye has plenty of straight theater credits, and for a dozen-plus years she’s provided the audiobook voice of Sue Grafton’s shamus heroine, Kinsey Milhone. For that role, she says, “It’s just me talking. Back in high school I used to be in forensic tournaments and did dramatic readings and poetic readings. We had to do at least three characters per scene, and I never thought I’d use that talent again, but lo and behold, I go into the studio and let it filter through me.”

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street | Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, Boston | October 23–November 4 | $42.50-$91 | 617.931.ARTS

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