Jett Pangan: 'Nothing prepared me for Sweeney Todd'
MANILA, Philippines – The ensemble cast of Atlantis Theatrical’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street reads like a who’s who of Philippine theater. There’s rock legend and veteran stage actor Jett Pangan in the title role, and Tony Award-winning actress Lea Salonga playing his accomplice, Mrs Lovett.
Rounding out the cast are the likes of theater stars Ima Castro, Nyoy Volante, Gerald Santos, Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, and the world-renowned baritone Andrew Fernando, who makes his musical theater comeback in this play.
Between them, the ensemble has performed on countless stages all over the world, and run the gamut musical hits from Miss Saigon, to Kinky Boots, to Aida, to Rock of Ages. And yet as experienced as they are, they all agreed – Sweeney Todd was something else.
It wasn’t so much that the story is a dark and twisted one (one of its main plot points involves enforced cannibalism, for instance). It’s Stephen Sondheim’s music itself, and the book by Hugh Wheeler, that made it a challenge for even this group of seasoned theater actors.
“I’ve worked with Atlantis for more or less 17 years, since 2002 I’ve been doing productions. I’m fortunate enough to be cast by Bobby [Garcia, the director], but nothing prepared me for Sweeney Todd really,” Jett said at the Sweeny Todd press launch on October 2.
“Two words: Stephen Sondheim. I almost hate the guy. But he’s a genius no doubt, and to put his music into our bodies and tell the story at the same time, with a very new way of telling the story, is indeed a challenge for me and I guess for most of us – except Lea because she can do anything,” he said, teasing his co-star who was seated next to him.
In the play, Jett’s character is a bloodthirsty barber who arrives in London seeking revenge for being wrongfully exiled and forcefully separated from his wife by a corrupt judge. As part of his plan for revenge, he reopens his barbershop and ends up renting a space above a down-and-out pie shop owned by Mrs Lovett – who later comes up with the most twisted idea to get rid of the corpses of Sweeney’s victims.
Jett shared that he saw Sweeney Todd about a decade ago, with Audie Gemora and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo playing the main roles.
“When I saw that show and I saw how difficult it was…I said to myself I’ll never do this thing, and here I am,” he said. “And I respect the material so much that my body really hurts. Nothing prepared me for this and it’s a wonderful experience.”
Ima had a similar reaction when she first watched the play on Broadway.
“I saw Sweeney Todd with Ms Patty LuPone and Michael Cerveris in New York. And I was like, I’m gonna move away as far as possible from this musical 'cos it’s just so hard,” she said.
When Bobby approached her with the opportunity to play the beggar woman in the play, Ima was unsure if she wanted to take it. But the chance to work alongside the director and the cast won her over.
“I was like, ‘I miss working with direk Bobby,’ and then I found out who was playing Mrs Lovett. 18 years ago [was] the last time I’ve worked with Ms Lea…and then Jett Pangan…I was like, okay…I’m like, wow, this is an amazing cast and I’m not gonna let this pass without being part of this, so that’s why I did it,” she shared.
Ima said that as difficult as rehearsals have been, she’s gotten by with the help of the “amazing cast” and musical team.
“We’ve become a family, so I’m really happy to be part of this and it doesn’t matter how hard the work is, I’m so proud of this cast. So no regrets and I think whatever musical comes my way, I’m gonna be like ‘easy peasy,’” she said.
Lea echoed Ima’s sentiments, saying that working with the ensemble helped her meet the demands of the play.
“It’s exciting being in the show with these titans, whether they’re brand new in this industry or been around forever like Jett Pangan,” she said, adding that it was exciting for her to figure out how to harmonize with Jett’s unique voice.
“It’s wonderful getting to just sit to the side and watch Gerard [Salonga] as he puts pieces together, to watch Andrew, because that voice can make the floor vibrate, just watching Nyoy – for example he’ll do something today, Bobby will say ‘can you please do this for tomorrow,’ and then watching the next day seeing what he does, how he processes stuff, it’s like my jaw hits the ground, and like, this guy’s a genius,” she said.
“ And then Ima Castro and I have been together in Miss Saigon in Manila, and to see her play this is one of the most heartbreaking portrayals of this role I’ve ever seen if not the most heartbreaking portrayal of this. It’s like she takes a dagger and stabs you in the heart and just keeps turning it and turning it, that’s the effect that she has,” Lea continued.
“It’s a wonderful company to be in. So the challenge, as difficult as it is, you feel like the burden is shared amongst everybody, that everybody kind of helps you carry what you have to. It’s a wonderful feeling to be around a company of actors like that,” she said.
Sweeney Todd is not Lea’s first Sondheim show, but she said it’s among her favorite musicals by the composer. Some have noted that the role is probably Lea’s darkest yet (this is a woman who has voiced two Disney princesses, after all), but exploring the darkness was something Lea welcomed.
“There is desperation in this era, and the things that they do to survive and how they’re able to justify those things, it’s like being able to kind of step into the shoes of someone and try to empathize with even the most evil, murderous human beings that we get to play, it kind of lends you insights, and kind of makes you think that life isn’t all that black-and-white after all,” she said.
Casual theater fans or audience members may not realize how complicated the musical can be when they watch the play – but Lea gave an idea of what makes Sweeney Todd so difficult to do.
“If we’re singing something correctly, ibig sabihin mali kami (it means we’re wrong), that’s kind of the general rule with this – you’re matching the chord, you’re wrong, you’re supposed to be half a step below that. And it drives people crazy. Or you’re going to be singing something, the accompaniment is doing something, the vocalist is doing something completely different, completely different tempo, completely different rhythm…kunyari (for example) key of C siya, I’m going to be singing key of E flat, ganun, ganung kahirap (that’s how hard it is),” Lea said.
She said that the level of technical difficulty the musical has meant that they needed to get the best musical department they could for the show: vocal director Manman Angsico, associate vocal coach Arman Ferrer, and musical director and conductor, Lea’s brother Gerald.
“This takes so much intelligence and so much investigation and so much examination and asking all of the important questions and so the music department, clearly they’re all really smart and intuitive and reallly asked the question per note…hindi sila tamad,” Lea said.
She said that their director is just as hardworking.
“There are so many levels to this libretto, within the levels, within the dialogue, and with how Hugh Wheeler wrote the script, you kind of have to stick to the words on the page because there’s a rhythm to how everything is written. If you miss one word, it throws the rhythm off,” she shared.
“Bobby will try to dig as deep as he absolutely can and he’ll help us to figure all of that out and then when you finally get to the bottom it’s like ‘oh my god, this is so good.’ And the rehearsal comes and it’s so satisfying and so rewarding. Even if you’re exhausted, you’re happy. Because of just how much digging you did and what you’ve been able to unearth as a result of that,” she said.
“Kailangan hindi tamad yung director mo (your director can’t be lazy) especially with Sondheim and Wheeler,” she said. “You have to be prepared to do a lot of grunt work. If you’re not prepared to do that, don’t do Sondheim.”
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street will run at the Theater at Solaire from October 11 to 27. Tickets are available at TicketWorld. – Rappler.com