TALK THROUGH IT ◊ EPISODE ELEVEN
IN THIS WEEK’S THROUGH IT, DIRECTOR STUART MELTZER SITS DOWN WITH JENI HACKER, WHO PLAYS MRS. LOVETT, RIGHT AFTER OUR PREVIEW PERFORMANCE OF SWEENEY TODD.
Stuart: (Singing) Jeni Hacker
Jeni: (Singing) Stuart Meltzer
Stuart: (really singing it) Jeni Jeni Jeni Jeni Jeni Hacker
Jeni: I can’t keep up with that.
Stuart: We just finished our preview of Sweeney Todd. Zoetic Thursday!
Jeni: We did
Stuart: And you’re eating Cuban bread
Jeni: I am
Stuart: You have 2 fabulous wigs! And we always joke about how I hate having wigs in productions and you always say “please put me in a wig!”
Jeni: Yes, I’ve been wigged three out of the four musicals! For Fosca (Passion), for Frieda (Sunday in the Park with George), and now for Mrs. Lovett.
Stuart: You’re playing Mrs. Lovett–
Jeni: I am! You’ve noticed! That’s a step in the right direction!
Stuart: Has this been a role that you thought you would play in your career?
Jeni: Definitely not.
Jeni: Yeah, I didn’t think that Sweeney was going to come around a lot. Sweeney Todd came around a few seasons ago and because we had these friends getting married in Italy, I couldn’t audition for that production of Sweeney. So I think at that point I felt like “okay this show isn’t going to happen for me”
Stuart: Is that how you think, as a working actor, “this show wont happen” or “I’m not going to get a chance to be in this show”
Jeni: I think in a regional setting, yes. Now if I were to go and travel through other regions, then different story. I could map out where the next Sweeney’s are and go audition for them. But in a regional setting you’re not going to have a ton of repetitions. There are some shows, you know Next to Normal has had three productions down here in the past 5 years, so that’s a role that is a more contemporary show and you know it’s probably going to come around again. But something like Sweeney Todd, you aren’t going to see that as often. But it also wasn’t necessarily a dream role until it was offered, and then all of a sudden it was “wait that role, yeah of course I want to play her!”
Stuart: Did you grow up knowing the role of Mrs. Lovett?
Jeni: Definitely not.
Stuart: That’s interesting. I did, certainly in early adulthood I knew the music really well.
Jeni: Nope, I had only seen one stage production and I think she’s deceivingly really difficult. I definitely did not understand how difficult this role was. I’ve never done anything harder onstage. And I feel most of the things I’ve done that have been a huge challenge have been with Zoetic Stage, but this was more difficult that anything else.
Jeni: I think because of my process. I think my process collided with this role in a way that made it stressful, and it made me very impatient with myself, but I don’t do a lot of pre-show work. I just don’t. It’s not how I work, It’s not fruitful for me. I could sit down at a piano and bang out notes, but generally I don’t have to. My musical theatre major was inside a music school, I read music, I know how to count, I’m very confident musically so I’ve never had to go home and study, or even more study before I got to the role—but this—I did not know how much she sang. I mean—we’re all singing more because of our reduced production—but Mrs. Lovett comes on stage for Worst Pies in London and I have song after song after song.
Stuart: I think that people’s processes are very different, I hire actors that can read music, that’s important for me. I think it’s because of the nature of the musicals we do, this is our fourth Sondheim, you were in Passion, you won the Carbonell for it, and you also did Sunday in the Park with George, and you were in Fun Home which you’re nominated for a Carbonell for, but that wasn’t Sondheim, that was easier music.
Jeni: It was much easier.
Stuart: Even though, surprisingly difficult as well, not the music per say—
Jeni: Not the music, but it was just…. Strange.
Stuart: Strange, okay.
Jeni: Not difficult. Sondheim is strange AND difficult.
Stuart: And this one I have to say, too, Sweeney is the hardest one. I know it’s certainly the peak of the mountain of Sondheim’s repertoire, of his cannon, so to speak, and I think going into the process I didn’t realize how complicated it is. And also because of the storytelling, At times it’s non-linear Our production is a little more sparse and a little more Brechtian, a little more inclusive. We have 8 people singing this show, and it’s two and a half hours of music.
Jeni: It’s two and a half hours of music that is written for 20 plus. So it’s a different sound and a different weight that goes on the actor.
Stuart: and the weight they’re losing while doing this show!
Jeni: YES, the Sweeney 5k! I’m excited for the next few weeks now that we have the preview under our belts. We needed an audience tonight. We didn’t feel ready on some levels, some people felt if we just had one more day, one more half a day, but we were never going to feel totally ready. I’m excited for the next few weeks because I think tonight was a bit of an Everest, we went out there with an audience for the first time—and the audience is another character in the show—the 9th character. And so we did not have them, we were singing to empty chairs and walls, and now we have people that are responding to us, they’re laughing, and when you go out and talk to them they’re so tickled to be acknowledged.
Stuart: That’s what I wanted. I wanted our production in the theatre to touch the audience differently- so that they can go out and feel like they had this experience that was special and unique.
Stuart: I have one last question for you, so what is it about the work of Stephen Sondheim that you think is so important and perhaps makes it so different or special.
Jeni: I think in general his wordsmith-ing ability is what separates his writing from most others, and sadly it’s something that, I would say 80% of audiences, will never catch. Because it’s the kind of thing you don’t really catch, truthfully I think Lin Manuel-Miranda is the new Sondheim.
Stuart: I agree with you.
Jeni: His ability to use language so greatly surpasses our ability to understand it in one pass on two, three, maybe five passes, it’s not until you sit down with this thing and really digest it.
Stuart: It reminds me a lot of working on a Tom Stoppard play.
Stuart: Well, I want to say Thank You!
J: No! I want to thank YOU! For the opportunity to play Mrs. Lovett!
Stuart: And the wig helps.
Jeni: And the wig helps.
Stuart: Jeni Hacker thank you very much for speaking with me, I look forward to seeing our next 19 performances.