Michael Portantiere wrote:
TSR: (W)hat would you say if I suggested that Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd is even more difficult (than Rose in Gypsy), at least from a vocal standpoint?
AL: It's very difficult for most actresses. For me, it was as if I had landed in the perfect spot for my talent. Sweeney Todd was an extraordinary opportunity to bring to the stage my London humor, which I was born to one day eventually show, and my ability to do a funny Cockney character. To this day, many people say they enjoyed Sweeney Todd more than anything else I've ever done — not just for me but for the entire production. And they absolutely adored Nellie Lovett.
TSR: It sounds as if Sondheim wrote the role specifically for your voice, and it has proven a challenge to some other performers who aren't able to effect such a good mix between chest voice and soprano singing.
AL: Yes, that's where my soprano really paid off for me. I never had voice training, but in my youth, I was a rather high soprano. When I started to sing in musical theatre, I was always called upon to use my middle register and I seldom used the upper — although in Whistle, I did sing way up in my range sometimes, as in the song "I've Got You to Lean On." I developed that part of my voice further for Sweeney Todd, and I've noticed that while other singers have very successfully played Mrs. Lovett, it's not so easy for them to kind of mix and match the vocal registers.
TSR: I saw the show the night after the opening, and it was electric. I imagine the audience response changed considerably after those rave reviews.
AL: Oh, God, yes. It took a while for us to build our audience. I think the issue was the subject matter, and the fact that blood was tending to splatter on the people seated in the front row of the orchestra.
TSR: May I ask you to share your feelings about the film version of Sweeney Todd?
AL: Yes, you may. I simply missed the vocal end of it. I thought Johnny Depp managed to do very well, all things considered. But he certainly didn't have the vocal depth or range that George Hearn or Len Cariou had. Also, I admire Helena Bonham Carter enormously, but I felt her performance was terribly hampered in that she wasn't allowed to show any humor at all. I was sorry for her sake that she didn't get to fool around a bit and play it the way I understand she wanted to.
TSR: It's a joy to have your stage performance as Mrs. Lovett preserved in the video that was made of the touring production and is now available on DVD.
AL: Thank God for that! It's the only show of mine that was preserved in its entirety, except in the library at Lincoln Center...