Speaking to Annaleigh Ashford and Josh Groban on a recent Thursday evening at 5 p.m., it was hard to imagine the pair were about to hit the stage for a sold-out Broadway crowd in just a few hours. Ashford was Zooming from her bathroom, hiding away from some construction noise in her Brooklyn apartment. Groban was already backstage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, dressed in a cozy hoodie and beanie, looking more likely to curl up on the couch for a TV binge than slit people’s throats onstage as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. With a Sweeney Todd curtain call waiting, both actors were about as zen as could be.
“It’s amazing how many people want tickets,” Ashford said of the musical, which opened last month and is the first full-fledged stage production of Stephen Sondheim’s murderous masterpiece—complete with 25 actors and a 26-player orchestra—on Broadway in 43 years. “They don’t want to see me—they want to see the show,” said Ashford. Theatergoers would beg to differ. The roaring crowd that screams for Ashford, a Tony winner, and Groban, a Tony and Grammy nominee, and their millennial-magnet costars Gaten Matarazzo and Jordan Fisher, feels like the theatrical equivalent of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. But Ashford does have a point.
“We all collectively got really excited to bring the original grandeur of it back to Broadway with a fresh approach after all those years. To do it with this size and scope, it’s not an easy show to mount. It’s expensive and takes a lot of effort,” said Groban, who has wanted to play the title role since first seeing a production at 14. “For all of us to have the stars aligned and to bring it to an audience this way is something that went beyond my wildest dream.”
Sweeney Todd opened to rave reviews across the board—for Groban’s very flawed lead; Ashford’s hysterical, anything-for-love counterpart, Mrs. Lovett; and direction from Thomas Kail, of Hamilton fame. In a post-lockdown world, the vibrations from the audience transfer to the stage (even from the balcony). “After everything we’ve been through and the isolation, that buzz is the feeling I love more than anything else,” said Groban. “That’s the community and the alchemy of live theater. We’re excited, and they’re excited, obviously.”
Here, Groban and Ashford talk antiheroes, Sondheim, and hydration.
Vanity Fair: What was your Relationship to Sweeney Todd before coming on board the show?
Annaleigh Ashford: Sweeney Todd is one of the all-time greats in the canon of American musical theater, so you sort of grow up knowing that. And Stephen Sondheim has always been the goal. Another piece of this show that’s really special for me is the Angela Landsbury of it all. She originated the role [of Mrs. Lovett] with such unique craft and care. She was truly one of my idols. All I ever wanted to be when I grew up was Angela Landsbury. She was the epitome of the true character actress—her characters were real, full of heart, and still delightfully funny and wild.
What about you, Josh?
Josh Groban: I totally agree. I’ll never forget, when I was about 14 years old, a friend took me to see a local Los Angeles production of Sweeney Todd with the East West Players, which is an Asian acting group. They absolutely blew me away. It was not a full orchestra—there were maybe about 10 pieces. But this is one of those shows where in any capacity, even when we play the music on the piano in the rehearsal room, you get chills. It just moved me so deeply. When I hear the opening chords of this show from underneath the stage before I come out, I like to imagine that there are people out there who are having that same first moment with Sweeney that I had when I was 14.
There isn’t a single cast member in this whole group that doesn’t have a full circle swelling of gratitude to be in this show. It’s a bucket list show for every single person that’s involved. We feel very privileged to take the torch for the time that we have it, until it gets passed onto the next 14-year-old who’s in the audience tonight. Maybe 20 years from now they’ll be giving the same interview.
When you’re Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, what does it mean to be cast in Sweeney Todd? Do you audition?
Groban: I would’ve gladly auditioned. This started with a seed of an idea between myself, my manager, and Tommy Kail. We had breakfast before Covid and talked about maybe doing this one day. We of course wanted to get Sondheim’s permission. We kept talking about it, and then Covid hit. Tommy and I kept texting periodically about it to say, “Are we still interested in doing this one day?” There are a million ways that a production—from the nucleus of an idea to opening night—could not happen. It’s a miracle when it all happens, and when it happens this well, it’s a double miracle.