Every 25 years or so, Lynne Sigler likes to pre-heat the oven, roll out and pound the pie dough, and make those “Worst Pies in London”. Co-starring with Helen Hayes nominee Russell Sunday, who plays the demon barber of Fleet Street at Toby’s – The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, Lynne has the critics raving about her high-energy, dough smacking, comedic performance of Mrs. Lovett. I asked Lynne to talk about working with Toby Orenstein and Russell Sunday, and playing Nellie Lovett.
Joel: What is Sweeney Todd about from the point of view of Mrs. Lovett?
Lynne: Sweeney Todd is about the hopes and dreams for the life Nellie Lovett wants instead of the life she has. She also has a quick wit that allows her to identify opportunities that hopefully will permit her to accomplish her goal.
Joel: How do you relate to Mrs. Lovett?
Lynne: I don’t relate to Mrs. Lovett at all! But, she is an actress and so am I. I become Mrs. Lovett. I spend a lot of my time backstage alone focusing on each scene even after all this time into the production. She is a quick witted realist, and I do think we may share those personality traits. She is an optimist however, me – a cynic perhaps.
Joel: You have played Mrs. Lovett before.
Lynne: I was much younger, and had only been doing theater at the community college where I was teaching. Although I was about 34 years old when I did the show the first time, I had limited theater experience. I was even amazed that I got the role. I considered myself a singer and really not much of an actress. Braxton Peters played Sweeney Todd, (He also played Phantom in an original Toby’s production of Phantom of the Opera, in 1992, and he did it again in 2008), and he – like a few others in the show – was an opera performer. I was very concerned that my loud, brassy voice would not blend with his, but it worked out very well. We rehearsed for four months and did only 13 performances. But they were 13 of the best performances I have had – still to this day.
Joel: How is your performance here at Toby’s different than the Mrs. Lovett you played with Braxton Peters?
Lynne: Well, this time the approach to the role is from the actress’ point of view. The first time, I focused on the music because, as I said above, Braxton Peters was an opera singer. I was concerned that our voices would not blend, and that I would not achieve the quality of singing that would be required to accomplish such a performance. In this production Toby emphasized finding the comedy in the role. “Little Priest” is much funnier than the last time, as I remember it. You must remember that I did this show about 25 years ago and I was elderly then…I am 61 now…a lot of brain cells have met their maker in a bottle of tequila!!!!!
Toby said that she wanted to play this role, but she can’t sing. I told her you don’t have to be a good singer to do the role of Mrs. Lovett. She disagreed with me, but I still think it would be fun to see her do it.
Joel: I would pay to see Toby make those pies!
Lynne: Me too!
Joel: I’m sure many other local actresses would have killed to play Mrs. Lovett in this production. What did you do in auditions that made Toby choose you? What song did you sing in your audition?
Lynne: I haven’t received any death threats that I know of! Needless to say – there was quite a turn out in general, as I’m sure there is for any production of Sweeney Todd. It is interesting though how many of the people that audition have never done the show. I suppose that is a testament to the frequency of how often Sweeney Todd is performed. It is also interesting how few performers, even some in our show, have never done any Sondheim shows.
I sang the opening of “Worst Pies in London” and a small segment of “Poor Thing”.
I didn’t find out until well into the rehearsal process – what is was that caused Toby to cast me as Mrs. Lovett. I offered them an optimistic, hopeful woman with a passion for life and love. She says what’s on her mind, does what she has to do to accomplish her goals, and does it all with a quirky sense of humor. Toby must have liked it.
Joel: What is the best advice Toby Orenstein gave you about playing Mrs. Lovett?
Lynne: Find the comedy, tell the story, and have fun.
Joel: How would you describe Russell Sunday’s portrayal of Sweeney Todd?
Lynne: He is properly brooding but sympathetic. I can say that – as I do – he finds new things every time we do the show. I believe that this is a role that he should feel confident to pursue throughout his career because he, I believe, has more in common with Sweeney Todd than I have with Mrs. Lovett.
Joel: What is it about Russell’s performance that is different than the other Sweeney you worked with?
Lynne: Russell has better acting skills than the first Sweeney I worked with. My first Sweeney was familiar with the role from a musician’s point. The music was a “no brainer” for him. Russell is more of an actor with a very great voice, and had little to no knowledge of the show or role. This is the first Sondheim show he has ever done. He had to tackle the music before he could let his acting instincts creep in. It has been a very interesting and ultimately rewarding experience watching him evolve in the role of Sweeney Todd.
Joel: What is your favorite scene in the show that you appear in, and when you are not on the stage?
Lynne: My two favorite scenes that I appear in are “Epiphany” and “Little Priest” (aka end of Act 1). This is when the two characters’ journeys begin to follow the same path. Mr. Todd sees a way to get his revenge and Mrs. Lovett finds the common thread that allows her to get meat for her pies and get her man. When not on stage, it’s “Ah Miss” and the “Ladies and Their Sensibilities” quartet. I believe that Sondheim created a brilliant segueway from a typical Act I exposition of the story to an Act II, where anything can happen and does in this piece.
Joel: What is your favorite song in the show?
Lynne: “Not While I’m Around”. Mrs. Lovett has to make a choice between Mr. Todd and Tobias. It is a major acting challenge to have to shift from the feeling that you have “the world on a string”- to having to make a decision that will change someone’s (Tobias’) life. I always think about being a little girl that brought a puppy home…it peed on the rug…and daddy gets rid of it.
Joel: What is the most difficult scene for you to play, and what lyrics give you the most trouble and why?
Lynne: “Worst Pies” & “Poor Thing” are the most difficult to play, because it establishes Mrs. Lovett as – like the average Londoner – struggling with life in the time period, the relationship between the “have” and “have nots”, the importance of the human spirit in hard times, and the fact that she has a history with Sweeney Todd, and has a bit of a “Jones “for him. I also set the pace for my character and the rest of the show. She is a quick thinker, fast talker, and because – like most shows – Act I is primarily exposition (THE SET UP), so “Worst Pies” is very fast. You can’t ever think about the words. They just have to come.
“God That’s Good” is the most difficult to do because the lyrics are somewhat similar. For example “What’s you pleasure dearie?/No we don’t cut slices”, and “What’s your pleasure dearie?/Oops! I beg your pardon”, which starts two segments of the song back to back. You just have to know that the correct line is coming out of your mouth. Also, shifting gears between Mr. Todd, Tobias, her customer, and she NEVER STOPS, for example: “Excuse me (to customers), dear see to the customers (to Tobias), yes what love, quick though the trade is brisk (to Todd)” is one line in the song. You can just sing this, but change in acting beats – are also required.
Joel: You have worked with Toby many other times. What is it about her that makes people keep coming back to appear in her shows?
Lynne: Toby always has an interesting slant on the feel of the show, and she does what she can to pull everything she can out of you – to get the right feel of what she wants. She is an icon in the Baltimore-Washington area, and is still able to pull the best out of her actors – if you are willing to listen and ……RISK.
Joel: When people hear the words “dinner theatre” they sometimes think they will see a mediocre production. So, what makes Toby’s Dinner Theatre stand way above other dinner theatres?
Lynne: Oddly enough, I think that the negative perception of dinner theater spouted from the theater community itself. I honestly believe that years ago “dinner theater” was thought to be lower even than “Community Theater”. Let’s face it. Would you like to do “Hamlet” with the sound of dishes being washed as the background noise? There are “Equity” dinner theaters which I presume try to eliminate such sound effects, but the thought still creates an air of “cheapness” to the venue. All I can say is that Toby has always done her best to create a “THEATRE WITH DINNER’ atmosphere…not just a dinner theater. Dinner Theater isn’t just for dinner!!!!!!!
Joel: You have played many roles in your career. Which ones are your favorites, and why?
Lynne: Let me give you my musical characters because I have done quite a few straight plays as well. Aldonza and Mrs. Lovett are my favorites. They are musically and “actorally” complex. I really like that.
Joel: What role would you love to play that you haven’t played yet?
Lynne: Mama Rose.
Joel: When did you first get the “stage bug”?
Lynne: I did a lot of singing in school shows, but my first audition was at Essex Community College where I was teaching, Anatomy & Physiology, General Biology, Biochemistry, and Microbiology (1972 to 1991). They had a summer theater program called “Cockpit-In-Court”. I had “whoa is me” about missing auditions since I had started working at the college in 1972. In 1982, my friend and office mate found out when auditions were for the college summer theater program, and she left a note on my desk: “Piss or get off the pot!” Two of my fellow faculty members dragged me to auditions and the rest, as they say, is history. The first show I ever did was The King and I. I was a royal wife, and was featured in the ballet as one of the narrative singers. I had a great time and I was “bitten”.
Joel: Tell us about your theatre and vocal training.
Lynne: My training is the “school of hard knocks”. I have no formal acting or singing training. My mother sang with a “Big Band” sound band in 1938/39, and sang with me as a child. She taught me how to sing harmony by listening to the other voices and putting them in my head. Everything I know about singing and acting I have learned from other actors, directors, musical directors, with whom I have worked with over the years.
Joel: What advice would you give young students who are considering acting as their career?
Lynne: Never give up your dream to perform, but try to have a skill to fall back on. Theater and the people that follow it are fickle. Be sure you can support yourself when the times are lean.
Joel: Why should theatergoers come to see this production of Sweeney Todd?
Lynne: Sweeney Todd is a theater milestone. Stephen Sondheim brought the operetta back to the Broadway stage with this show. Just think of the other shows that followed: Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Chess, and others who were influenced by this show. The story is simple, but the music is – in the Sondheim tradition – amazingly complex. And this is not a show that is produced very often. This production has been musically crafted by Chris Youstra and directed by Toby Orenstein…. and “what could be better than that”?
Sweeney Todd plays through November 8th at Toby’s – The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, in Columbia, Maryland. For more information, and to make a reservation, call (301) 596-6161, or click here.