Dark, Cool, Murderous

Mark Benninghoffen talks with Minnesota Monthly in the lobby of the Ritz Theater about his role as Sweeney Todd in Theater Latte Da’s production of the Steven Sondheim Musical (which opens Sept. 23 and runs through Oct. 25). Benninghoffen, who had never auditioned for a musical before, explains his past aversion to acting in musicals and what makes this production different.

Why haven’t you done a musical before?

I always separated myself out because I can’t dance. If you put me in a burning building and said ‘Just dance your way out,’ I’d die in there. I can sing and read music, but I don’t have any vocabulary as a musician.

What was different about Sweeney Todd?

I saw Sweeney Todd on Broadway in 1979. It blew my brains out. It wasn’t all happy hands and dance lines. The score is acrobatic and beautiful, and discordant with syncopated rhythms. It was this dark, cool, murderous thing—an actor’s musical—kind of like Richard III. Someone is going for broke and willing to take out everybody.

What do you mean by an ‘actor’s musical’?

In Sondheim, the story and the characters are deeper and richer. As an actor, I can become Benjamin Barker [who becomes Sweeney Todd], and I know Barker can sing the part. You come into an actor’s musical from the character. Maybe a whole bunch of musical actors would be furious with me and say ‘We all do that!’ And maybe that’s the case and I just haven’t done enough musicals to know.

No other musical has grabbed you in the same way?

No. Well, a well-done rendition of Man of La Mancha, which again is sort of an actor’s musical. They’re all actors’ musicals, but some are more presentational. 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, for example, there’s lots of singing and dancing and good old primary colors. Something with a little grip is more interesting.

What have been the challenges and satisfactions of stepping into such a famous role?

I’ve had the soundtrack playing in the background—in my car or in my apartment—for years. Len Cariou originated it brilliantly, and George Hearn did it forever. Those are two big Broadway names. Johhny Depp certainly had a different spin. Having listened to Len Cariou’s Broadway album, the sounds and the voicing and the rhythms of the character are very, very, patterned in my head. I’ve worked against that, to not just fall into what famously came before.

Rather than just singing karaoke.

That’s right, that’s exactly right. Johnny Depp’s rendition was much softer. On stage, Sweeney Todd can be sneaky and smart, but his vocal track is bold. He’s gonna stomp around. The tone of the play is very different from the movie.

What has surprised you most about doing a musical?

When I’m doing a regular play, coordinating the action onstage has always been natural: pick this up here, turn there, talk there. It’s not choreographed but you learn patterns of how to be onstage. Early on when I sang, I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t pat my head and rub my tummy at the same time. Musical actors are doing exactly what I said I don’t see in musical theater: they’re telling the story by moving—dancing, jumping, climbing something—and singing. For me it was like “Okay, I’m singing, what else am I supposed to be doing? Oh going over here and picking up the razor.” That was tricky at first. The other thing that surprises me is I know I can sing the role. I know I can do it but it’s challenging. It’s a different game.

Visit the box office to claim your tickets for the upcoming performance of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, featuring Benninghoffen.