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Side by Side With Ken Jennings
by Bruce Janiga

The following interview with Ken Jennings took place in early 1998. Jennings, who originated the role of Tobias in the Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, had just recently starred in the Broadway musical Side Show, and was happy to discuss his experience of playing in Sweeney Todd.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I have done seven Broadway shows if you consider A Christmas Carol a Broadway show. My other Broadway shows are Sweeney Todd, Grand Hotel, Side Show, All God's Chillun Got Wings, Present Laughter, and London Assurance. And then I've done numerous Off Broadway shows, regional theatre. I've been doing this now for thirty years or so.

How did you get into theatre?
I lived in Jersey City, went to St. Peter's Prep, went to St. Peter's College on a dramatic scholarship. I got my first union job out in Halfpenny Playhouse in Kearny, New Jersey. There's a company out there. This guy was running this Equity children's theatre. He saw me out there and asked me to join them. And then I just began to do stock things after that. My first Broadway show was All God's Chillun Got Wings and I just went to the Equity principle interview for it. They were looking for a short Irish gangster. I walked in, then got auditions, got the part, and suddenly had a Broadway show on my resume. So, I just have kept going since then through the years. Really just being in the right place at the right time. Being really right on the money for the role, getting other jobs, getting an agent from them, and just going on from there.

When did you first come to know Sondheim's work?
Oh, I had always been enamored of Stephen Sondheim's work. Even when I was in college I'd see all the Sondheim shows I possibly could. There's only one that I did not see on Broadway, I did not see Merrily We Roll Along because I was in California at the time. I saw all the others. In St. Peter's and the drama group there, he was on Olympus, one of the great shining stars that cast light on us all. We were all so impressed with him and of course understandably so.

Sure, and how did you come to be cast in Sweeney?
Sweeney was my second Broadway show. I had an agent, got an audition and went in and sang for them and was asked to come back. I don't even think I had to read for them, I'm not sure about that. I sang a couple of times and was called and I had the job.

What was it like auditioning, was Sondheim there?
No, but he was there at the early rehearsals. Boy, that was intimidating. It was perhaps the third rehearsal and we were all astonished that he was there so early on because, I mean, we had just gotten the music, you know, and it was so fresh. Luckily I had put in a couple hours at home the first couple of nights because it was really intimidating to have him sitting a few feet away. It wouldn't have been so bad the second week of rehearsal. But it was like the third day! Oh that was really, I couldn't look at the area of the room in which he was sitting. It was as if the wall was, you know, twelve feet closer than it was.

And how involved was he in the rehearsal process?
He was always friendly and we always had nice conversations. Any notes he had for us would have always come through Hal, of course. I'm sure he was giving lots of input but that input would always come to us through Hal.

How much did things change during rehearsals?
Not much at all. That was amazing. If memory serves me correctly, we rehearsed four weeks and previewed four weeks and then opened. No out of town, no workshop. Side Show we had a six week workshop. I just finished the workshop for Hunchback of Notre Dame and that's starting in Germany in January. That often happens, you do the workshop, the writers look at it and they amend it according to the workshop, the director looks at it. Maybe we rehearsed five weeks for Sweeney and maybe previewed five. I can't remember. But, that's all it was. And that's just unheard of! I, at the time did not realize how unheard of that was. I had no idea that that was so unique, so singular.

During previews, things pretty much stayed the same?
Pretty much. There were changes. But not, as there often are, wholesale changes. Songs are moved, songs put in. At one time Sweeney sang, after he killed his wife, "Nothing's Gonna' Harm You" again and that of course was cut out right away. That got bad laughs. And then "The Judges Song" was eventually cut. Those were the most extreme changes.

What was behind "The Judges Song" being cut?
That was cut in the third or fourth preview, very early. Sweeney had not achieved the acclaim that it's achieved in hindsight of course so people were not willing to look upon it so kindly. He was standing on the table looking through the window, whipping himself as he lusted after Johanna and audience members, I guess, just found it to be too difficult a moment.

What was it like working with Hal Prince?
Wonderful. He's very strong. He sets the tone. he really lambasted one of the performers early on in rehearsal. I got the impression that it was not really because she had done anything out of line. In maybe the second week, I got the impression that it was an announcement to the cast, "Don't mess with me. I can really come down on you if I want to." He set the parameters right away. I found him very easy to talk to. Other people said, "Oh he's not going to be very easy to talk to..." Even he made announcements that he wasn't interested in interior work. I found that to be not true at all. I found him very easy to talk to about all that kind of stuff. And as a matter of fact, one day I even approached him and he said to me, I forget the actress he may have used - it may have been a comparison between Angela Lansbury and Kim Stanley or something, he may have said something like, "Ken, I've been working with Angela Lansbury and I'll direct her in one way. If I was working with Kim Stanley, I'll direct her another way." And I found that to be true. I found that he'd tailor his approach to the actor.

The set was incredible. What was it like working with such a large set and theatre?
Well, you know, I climbed all around it when we were first in there. Climbed all up and down the stairs and everything else. But then, of course, I in my part had almost nothing to do with the set. From that moment on. I was only using that little pie shop. That little revolving unit, only coming up through the basement of it at that one time. So the set, for me, was simply like a proscenium arch. After I climbed around on it, it didn't have much presence for me. The theatre, though, was amazing. That was one of the few shows where the sound designer, looking back this would never happen now, there were two people in that show who did not wear a body mic. Myself and Merle Louise. We were only picked up by other people's mics and foot mics. So, the size of the theatre had an impact there because one had to be aware of projection. Now, of course, all the principals wear body mics at all times. But at that time Merle and myself were not on body mics.

Did you ever have any problems with the set?
Well, of course, there is the famous story about the day the bridge fell. That was the most famous of catastrophes. Well it wasn't a catastrophe, they were away from it. And it got huge laugh because Angela's next line was "Nothing's gonna' harm you..." That happened in previews, I don't think we had opened yet. That was the biggest problem we had. Not many other difficulties with the set. It didn't move much. It basically was static. The thing that moved was the pie shop. So, there weren't many things to go wrong.

Any other stories about the show?
One of the nicest stories about Angela Lansbury was, as I said this was the second Broadway show that I had done, the first play I had done was a straight play so there was no orchestra. I didn't realize that the first orchestra rehearsal was going to be as momentous as it sometimes proves to be on Broadway. All the producers were there and Angela Lansbury was very nicely dressed, not in her normal rehearsal clothes, and I didn't know that this was a special moment and I came in in my normal rehearsal clothes and we were in this dirty old rehearsal room in the Uris and we came up to the moment of "Not While I'm Around". Looking back this was so gracious on her part. We had rehearsed I guess three weeks by this time and part of that of course was done sitting and I came up and just sat on the floor. And Angela said to me, "You know Ken, there's no need to sit for the orchestra rehearsal." She just sat on the floor next to me. We did the moment. And looking back, she was not in her rehearsal clothes, she could have handled that in a different way. It really epitomizes the graciousness of Angela Lansbury.

As for Stephen, I was always aware, not that he made me feel this way, I was in the presence of Stephen Sondheim. I could never feel comfortable with him. I was always sure that I was going to use a word improperly. I was going to use the word "laconic" or "lugubrious" mistakenly. I thought, "Oh God I'm going to feel so embarrassed in a few minutes." So I was so aware of my conversation when I was speaking with Stephen. I made myself feel awkward. I was always aware that I was in the presence of this master of language. I was tongue tied, in awe of him.

With Hal, of course, that was not the case. There was a great deal of dialogue between myself and Hal. Just actor to director. Len was great. He was stern, though. He'd scare you. And you really thought he was going to kill you. He really did. He got so into it. You thought he was going to slit your throat on stage. It was terrifying.

Anything funny happen during rehearsals or the run?
I remember there was one time, looking back, Angela would be quite a cut up. It was basically very disciplined. I tried to maintain a sense of discipline, too. But I remember one time when Angela was making a meat pie and I was sitting right next to her on stage. I was a foot away from her. The lights were going down and the pie shop was being wheeled offstage and suddenly Angela took a wad of dough and hurled it at Paul Gemignani. He was conducting! Right from the stage! She just took that wad of dough and flung it like it was a baseball or something! I was astonished.

I wonder what that was all about.
Oh, she was just playing around with Paul.

This was during a performance?
Yeah! Paul would have an Easter bunny with a baton in his hand and he'd disappear and there'd be an Easter bunny conducting the show. So little games like this were played.

How did you develop your character of Tobias?
I basically approached it very, as I do most characters, the typical Stanislavski way. You know, discovering. It's like most actors do, you know, discovering the background of the characters, seeing what the text says about the character, and of course paying attention to how the director guides. Also, really careful study of text and continual concentration and delving more and more into the overtones or reverberations that one picks up from the text. Trying to dig deeper and deeper, trying to overturn stones in the actor's personality.

Do you remember anything about his background that may have helped the interpretation?
The abuse, of course. I was upset when they cut the tooth pulling for the road tour. I think they just wanted to make the show a little shorter. The tremendous abuse of the child was something, of course, that was easy to uncover. It was so apparent and therefore the tremendous attachment he would develop towards anyone who showed him kindness since no one had showed him any kindness and how attached he would get to Mrs. Lovett because of that. Also, in the last scene I would crawl around under the stage which eventually goes down to the cellar, the body parts, and rats. So, I would literally be crawling around under the stage during that moment. It was tempting to give myself some emotional experience of the trauma that he would experience in those cellars because to understand how the mind had snapped when he came out of the cellars was to gain an understanding of where his mind had gone then. The fury and the twist and the broken mind that developed in those cellars and that eventually caused the slitting of Sweeney's throat. One time, I think I scared a stagehand. I was crawling around underneath the stage and nobody is expecting someone to be crawling out through the shadows.

How old was Tobias, as you played him?
Tobias, we're talking about fifteen. Maybe even seventeen. Because of his mental difficulties he was probably, he might have been seven really in terms of emotional and mental maturity. Truly a child.

Sweeney is such an intense show. Was there anything special you needed to do to prepare for it?
Sweeney was extremely intense. It'd be hard to shake it. In terms of the preparation, crawling around and the continual delving into the character. But, the funny thing about Sweeney was how difficult it was to shake at the end of the evening. Because, especially of the darkness and the intenseness that stayed with you.

Was "A Little Priest" in it from the start?
Yes. Now, we didn't see Angela rehearsing "Worst Pies in London". One day suddenly, she had been rehearsing it privately of course, and one day we came in and she just did it and it was magnificent! It was wonderful. But "Little Priest" was in it from the start, yes.

What was opening night like for you?
Well, opening night was not the most exciting night. I have a wonderful story, though. And this was more important than the opening. One of the most magnificent experiences I ever had in the theatre, one of the most memorable evenings was Len and Angela's closing. They each signed a years contract so they had the same closing night and it was amazing what that evening was like. There was, we were so aware. I mean, we knew Dorothy and George were going to come in and they were wonderful. But, we had begun it with Len and Angela. The loss, the experience it was more even than a theatrical experience was more like a religious experience. They were like the priest and priestess who were leaving us. It was an extraordinarily special evening, to start out with. To think that these two, these leaders, these members of the clergy, were leaving. There was such a pride. We were so honored to have the experience.

There was a tremendous pride backstage. I remember, so many people saw their closing performance. So many people had seen it before. So when the organ player first came out to play in the beginning there were these huge roars of applause from the audience. These bravos, and when the grave diggers came out this huge surge of sound from the audience. It was like that almost for the entire show. I got the impression that the audience thought the show was theirs. It was kind of grim. I remember it being almost somber. If there were any nights that we were going to go all out, it was this night. Eventually the show began to weave its spell and the audience began to grow silent and eventually we felt that coming back and the show was again ours.

Then we were coming to the curtain call and we all knew that this was the end and that Angela and Len were leaving. The stage manager had gone around and told everybody in the cast just what to do. How we were going to applaud for them and then step back and when Angela came out, the ensemble was given roses and they were standing on the towers and they were going to toss down the roses onto the stage when Angela came out. We all wanted to shout and scream. We didn't want to maintain our discipline as we were told to do by the stage manager. The show reached its end, the audience was with us again after these huge cheers from the crowd. The person to break it was Len. Len came out that great metal door in the back of the stage and ran down to the lip of the stage and with arms in the air like a runner who had finished a race and he reached the lip of the stage with the audience cheering for him. He suddenly rolled around and he took his first bow to us. That broke us. We began to cheer like crazy. He asked the ensemble to come down and they all began milling.

Angela hadn't even come out yet. The door opened upstage and they began to part. There was just a parting in the center of the stage and Angela just eventually came through us and these enormous cheers from the darkness of the house. Then I remember Len and Angela embracing center stage and we began backing away from them. We knew it was their moment. Len began saying "Don't go away! Stay!" Suddenly, I remember this so clearly because it was so beautiful, there they were Len and Angela standing and embracing center stage with this long white spotlight piercing down through the darkness of the house from way at the top of the back of the house. This long shaft of light falling in a pool on center stage with them embracing and suddenly then the ensemble began to toss their roses into that white light from the darkness. I remember that sight, those two people standing in the at pool of light with the red flowers sort of dancing in the light around them and falling to their feet and the roar of the crowd that surrounded them. It went on so long, eventually the house lights came up and there we were. All of us. Then the stage lights came up and we were all in this huge semicircle. There was a couple thousand people sitting out in the house. All of us cheering for Len and Angela in the middle of the circle. It was one of the most thrilling moments I've ever had in the theatre. Probably the most thrilling.

Did you receive any special Sweeney opening night gifts?
I remember Angela gave us lovely silver meat pies and the producers gave us nice silver razors.

What was the recording session like?
The recording session was unique in that we didn't do it stationary. They had a stage for us with mics situated all on stage for us. A stage in the sound studio, of course, with the orchestra playing out in front of us. Almost as if it was a performance so one got the sense of movement that allowed the sense of stage movement to occur as opposed to many recordings with the principles just singing at microphones. It was a unique way to approach it.

How long were you in the show?
A year and four months on Broadway and a year on the road.

So, you closed the show on Broadway?
Yes. I did 859 [Broadway and touring] performances.

How was the response on the road, compared to Broadway?
It was not as good as it was in New York. I think that in that case some mistakes were made by the creative people. I remember one reviewer criticized us on the road. He said something like, "I guess this is as grand as grand can get in a road tour." They certainly softened the savage aspect. And that's unfortunate because the road tour was the one that was taped. It was not as dark on the road. Things like cutting the tooth pulling. We didn't have a grave on the road. Not the grave they could actually come in and out of. You know, on Broadway they came out of the grave in the beginning and came up from the grave at the end. On the road they just used the back door. I thought we sacrificed some thematic overtones that way. It was much more interesting when Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney kept coming out of a grave actually. Resurrection of the dead. The road I don't think was as good as the Broadway production.

Do you have a favorite Sondheim show?
I like almost all, I don't thin there's any Sondheim show I don't like. The one show that I think, because it's so comic, is always left in the background that I think is just so brilliantly comic is Forum. He's not after the same game that he's after in some of his other shows. But, it's so masterfully comedic in music and lyrics that I always feel, I don't think Forum gets the notice that it deserves because it was so early on. I've always loved A Little Night Music and also, of course, Sweeney Todd. But I've always liked all of Sondheim's shows.

How about a favorite moment or scene?
I remember the one time at the end of A Little Night Music, I forget exactly the dialogue. I remember Len standing on a chair talking with Glynis Johns and they started to sing "Send in the Clowns" and then a musical break as they approached each other and held each other. They were facing upstage, their backs facing the audience. Then as they approached, the whole audience broke into applause for them. I remember the next line they sung was "applause for the clowns" and "Oh God that was masterful, I thought. How they got that applause and lyric was "applause". I just thought that was magnificent.

You were recently in Side Show on Broadway. Anything about that that you'd like to share?
I was doing that, I'm sorry we're not reopening. That was a tailor made character for me. I loved bringing that character to life. A poor little twisted man. A twisted body and soul. I loved playing him. He was wonderful. I tried to bring as much life and depth to that as I could. I really found that a very rewarding, gratifying experience to bring that. He was such a rich character and to discover the richness of that character was wonderful. And, of course, you have Henry Krieger's music. I'm sorry that that did not have more life to it.

Any plans to put it on the road?
England. Looks like England maybe in the fall. The National Theatre. But, who knows if that's really going to happen.

What about your future plans
I just finished Hunchback. Hopefully that will start in January in Germany. I just finished that and now I'm back to auditioning.

Will you go to Germany with Hunchback?
Hopefully, one never knows how things will work out.

What role were you?
Clopin, the narrator.

Here's hoping it all works out for you. Thank you Ken.

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