Standbys, swings, and understudies have long been the unsung heroes of the theater industry. While each job is different (read more about them here), they all help sustain the acting ecosystem.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, currently playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, is no exception. Paul-Jordan Jansen and DeLaney Westfall are both in the ensemble of the Tony Award–nominated revival, and also understudy two principal roles each: Jansen understudies Sweeney Todd and Judge Turpin, and Westfall understudies Mrs. Lovett and Johanna. In addition to keeping their own ensemble tracks logged in their minds, they have both of their understudy roles memorized so they can step in at a moment’s notice. The show must go on, after all!
The pair will take on the lead roles for several performances in between Josh Groban’s and Annaleigh Ashford’s final performances January 14 and Aaron Tveit’s and Sutton Foster’s first performances February 9. Ahead of these preplanned performances, Broadway Direct chatted with Jansen and Westfall to learn about their first experience with Sweeney Todd, what it’s like to understudy two roles at the same time, and the challenges of singing Sondheim.
You two are in the ensemble, but you also understudy two principal roles each. How would you describe the roles that you understudy?
Paul-Jordan Jansen: I understudy Sweeney Todd, who is the titular character, so they’re big shoes to fill. I like to think he is a family man who is wrongfully accused and sent off to prison and comes back a completely different person, obviously a product of his environment. He is seeking vengeance for his family and for everything that was taken from him.
I also understudy Judge Turpin, who is the man who sent him to prison. He is purely driven by his lust for Sweeney’s wife, and power, and physical attraction to anything he can get his hands on, and ownership of things. We may know some people like that in the world. I think of him as the epitome of toxic masculinity.
DeLaney Westfall: I understudy Mrs. Lovett, who owns a pie shop. Back when Sweeney was around she had this infatuation with him, and once he returns she recognizes who he is, she will do anything necessary to please him, to gain his approval, and to help him. He is her driving force for the whole show. She’s got a lot of issues within herself. She has this sweet boy who ends up in her care, and though she has this genuine love for him, her love for Sweeney prevails.
I also understudy Johanna, who is Sweeney’s 16-year-old daughter. I’ve played her before and it’s always fun to go back to. She’s been apprehended by the judge and greatly affected by being kept under lock and key. She meets this boy, and they instantly fall in love. Then they try to find a way to be together and to escape this hold that the judge has on her.
Paul-Jordan Jansen and…
How do you approach memorizing these roles as well as your ensemble tracks?
DW: I played Johanna down [the 2017 Off-Broadway production of Sweeney Todd] at Barrow Street, so it’s revisiting and reminding myself who she is.
With Mrs. Lovett, I have this journal that has all of the lines and lyrics. There are a lot of words — that’s the biggest struggle. I put a little squiggle when it’s someone else’s line or a line when a song starts, and if I don’t remember, I go back to the pages.
I have a wonderful template from Annaleigh [Ashford, the original Mrs. Lovett in this revival], and I’ve learned a lot from Jeanna [de Waal, the standby for Mrs. Lovett], so I take that and mix it with who I am, and spew it back out.
The one time I did go on, it wasn’t perfect, but I had enough of a sense of the show that I was able to fix and act quickly on my feet. I started by focusing on words and lyrics, and then I could have fun with it, and that’s when I am able to explore different things and her different tactics. I use my own quirky silliness and let that drive different things. It’s been fun.
In preparation for these next shows I’ll be in, I don’t think I’ve fallen asleep once in the last two months without starting from the top of the show thinking through the words. I think I’m going crazy.
PJJ: [Sweeney has] been a dream role of mine. I’ve been obsessed with this show since I was 13 years old, so I feel like I’ve been mulling over it for a long time. Fortunately enough, I had the opportunity to play Sweeney at a regional theater in Chicago a few years back, so I had a bit of a leg up in terms of character work. In preparing, I like to keep a journal where I take the scenes and deconstruct them and write about how I would personally interpret and connect with the characters. And how you connect with someone who murders people — I don’t know, but you can find humanity in anything.
Are you thinking back to personal experiences when you journal?
PJJ: Yeah. I think the best feel for any type of character is to find those truths and realistic emotions. It’s super helpful because it’s hard to relate to someone who is seeking vengeance and murdering people. I connect with Benjamin Barker, the family man who would do anything for his wife or child. I think, “What does it feel like to have that taken away?”
When it comes to the actual performances, do you keep your binders in the wings so you can run off and check your notes?
DW: I have my notebook with my dresser, Christina. Once when I was on, right before I went out for a song, I quickly looked at the scene in my notebook. But you have to trust you’ve done the work.
PJJ: I’m the opposite. If I have something written down backstage, I’m going to constantly be thinking about that and I’ll probably mess up. By the time I’m lying on the lift and it’s hoisting me up, it’s just like …
PJJ: Yeah. Like, “See you on the other side!”
Like you mentioned, Paul-Jordan, Sweeney and Judge play opposite each other. What is that like? Do you ever have moments of confusion who you’re playing in a scene?
PJJ: I think it’s fun. The hardest part is that they sing a duet. I’ll be in rehearsal with Nicholas Christopher as Sweeney, and me as Judge, and I’ll start singing the Sweeney line.
DW: Understudy rehearsal is crazy. One day I’m [Mrs. Lovett] trying to get him [as Sweeney] to want me, and then the next day I’m [Johanna, with him as Judge, saying] “Don’t look at me.” It’s so funny.
You both had familiarity with Sweeney before this production. Do you remember your first experience with the musical?
PJJ: I was sitting in the Lakewood Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, waiting to go into a voice lesson, and I found Sweeney. I popped it into my CD player with my headphones, and I heard the opening number, like, “Swing your razor!” and I lost my mind. I was like, “Musical theater can be this?” That’s when I fell in love. I played the CD constantly after that. I would fall asleep to “City on Fire.”
DW: I wasn’t super familiar [growing up]. I mostly learned the songs [for my Barrow Street audition]. I had a couple of callbacks — and actually, my final callback had me paired with my now-husband as my Anthony to sing “Kiss Me.” I messed it up and he was perfect, but I booked it, and he didn’t. We kissed at the end of the audition and didn’t feel anything, and just left like, “Did we book the job?”
That version will always have a special place in my heart, but doing this [version on Broadway] with the orchestra every night, is like, “Whoa, this is how it is meant to be.”
It’s cool to hear that you have different perspectives on the musical. In terms of the actual music, Sondheim composes very complex scores. When you learned the material, what were some of the challenges you encountered and how did you overcome them?
DW: I’m still in the process of overcoming.
PJJ: You’re learning something new every day with Sondheim, especially with this show. I went to a work session with [conductor and music supervisor] Alex Lacamoire and [director] Tommy Kail, and I was like, “I have all the notes right.” After I sang through it once, Lac is like, “This note, and this note, and this note were wrong.” He knows every single note of that score. You could miss one little thing, but it makes such a difference when you get it right. Sondheim was so intentional with his music, so it’s been a treat to go through everything with a fine-tooth comb.
DW: We also had Kristen Blodgette come in as a conductor for a while, and seeing two different perspectives on it was fun. They both love it so deeply, and watching them nerd out of it is great.
This is the hardest music I’ve ever sung in my life, especially Mrs. Lovett. There are still parts of “A Little Priest” I think I’m doing right, but [if I mess up] I’m like, “She’s quirky and she talks a lot,” so I’m constantly learning and working on it.
Which song do you enjoy performing the most?
DW: I really like “Wait.” It’s her calm, cool, collected song — if she’s ever that. She’s trying to cool him down and this is one of the times she is really successful at doing it. I like where it sits in my voice. It’s kind of sultry and the scenes before and after are silly.
PJJ: I’d have to say “My Friends” has to be my absolute favorite number to sing in the show. It’s almost this element of reunion between Sweeney and his former self. It’s almost a glimmer that we get of who he truly is before we figure it out later on.
Funnily enough, that was one of the first songs for my audition for the show. [Sweeney] was my first audition back after COVID, so it had been about three years since I had sung anything for anyone. It was very emotional because it brings back so many memories, including of the time we didn’t know what the future of our profession and this art form would be. To sing this music specifically is absolutely wonderful. Every time I go on is truly a blessing.
Thinking in a broader scope, how has the industry impacted your identity?
DW: Fully and completely in every way. It is my identity. I always joke that I have to do this because I don’t know how to do anything else, but it’s really true. I can’t imagine anything else bringing me this much joy. Even with the stress that comes with it, I feel so lucky to be doing what I do. There are people who function with a 9-to-5 [job], but I feel like it’s not fair that I get to go be with this family that we created and be silly for three hours and then I go home. And, yes, to do the same thing every day, it gets mundane and tiring, but I’m so grateful.
PJJ: Beautifully said. I agree. Even with the times that get hard, I go back in my mind and there is literally nothing else I can imagine doing. It’s such a huge part of me, my wife, and our family. A lot of it comes from the joy you get from it, even the initial joy as a kid. It’s that joy that you can never lose that keeps you going. It is a huge part of me as a human. I love being in every facet of it — producing, education, arts admin, all of them give me so much joy. A friend said, “To love this art form is to love the business of it too.” You have to really find joy in every little bit of it, instead of focusing on one little aspect. It’s been a part of me for a really long time, even during the three-year period when I wasn’t performing, I was teaching, and producing. I don’t think I could do anything else.
Sweeney has such devoted fans, I’m sure that helps keep you going and keep things fresh too. Have there been any heartwarming stage-door stories?
PJJ: There was one kid who came dressed as a Johnny Depp–inspired Sweeney. They were so enthralled by the production. Sometimes it can be tiring when you’ve just finished a two-show day and have rehearsal, but it’s those little moments and conversations you have with kids that really inspire you to keep going. In a lot of ways, we’re doing this show for the next generation. We’ve had a lot of young kids who see it two, three, or four times. Sondheim is continuing to thrive.
Now they’ll be the ones falling asleep to “City on Fire.”