Interview with 3-time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello

On a recent trip to the Barrow Street Theatre, my colleague Dom O'Hanlon had the opportunity to chat with three-time Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello, who is currently wowing audiences as Mrs. Lovett in the hit off-Broadway production of Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Carolee Carmello is a Broadway favorite, earning Tony nominations for Scandalous in 2013, Lestat in 2006 and for Parade in 1999. She was last seen on the Great White Way in Finding Neverland and her other Broadway credits include Tuck Everlasting, Sister Act, The Addams Family, Mamma Mia!, Urinetown, Kiss Me, Kate, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1776, Falsettos and City of Angels.

Her numerous off-Broadway credits include the Lincoln Center Theater productions of Elegies and Hello Again, and the Manhattan Theatre Club production of A Class Act.

Dom O’Hanlon: What does it mean to you to take on the iconic role of Mrs. Lovett?

Carolee Carmello: I’ve never played Mrs. Lovett before so I was really thrilled but also kind of intimidated. Amazing women of the theatre have already played this part, so it was a little scary to step in. Siobhán [McCarthy] was so wonderful, originating the role in this production, so I stole a lot of things from her. I watched all the Mrs. Lovetts that I could and tried to make a compilation that would come out as my own (Laughs).

DOH: Well, I have to say you gave her such a funny vibe and it totally worked. Did you consciously make her so quirky?

CC: I think so. I think it was conscious. I wanted to find the humour in her as much as I could. A lot of the show is so dark and as an audience, you need those lighter moments in order to digest – you should pardon the expression – to digest the story. It’s written so brilliantly because every time you feel it’s getting too dark, you’ll then have the Pirelli scene or the “Worst Pies in London” number that lighten the mood. That’s the brilliance of Sondheim’s writing.

DOH: What has been the biggest surprise for you being in such an intimate production?

CC: It was really scary at first to be that close to people because, as an actor, you’re used to the anonymity and the safety of the darkness. And you don’t have to see people’s faces! There are times when someone is not paying attention or they’re looking at the other side of the stage and I start thinking: “Oh, why aren’t they looking over here?!” But now it’s really fun because I get to see that moment of surprise when their faces really open up and gasp. You can’t feel that in a proscenium stage. You can hear laughter and applause, but to actually see someone’s eyes widen, when they realise what’s going on or when they understand a particular point in the story, is priceless. As actors, I think the greatest thing is to tell a great story and when you feel like that story is landing, that’s a success.

DOH: What do you love about singing Sondheim?

CC: It’s very challenging. I do like a challenge, but I think I just like the fact that it is so clever. His lyrics are so smart. I can’t imagine what goes on in his brain, when he comes up with these different rhyme schemes. It’s so beautiful to sing because you don’t really have to work extra hard to tell the story. It’s so clear and funny and interesting. I can’t say enough about the lyrics. They’re so brilliant!

DOH: People know ‘Sweeney Todd’ so well, why do you think they should make a trip to the Barrow Street Theatre to see this particular incarnation?

CC: I think it’s such a fresh production. I think Bill Buckhurst did such an amazing job of directing it in a creative way. I think the story is so streamlined and I think you’ll find that it’s funnier than you ever thought. A lot of people have come up to me after the show and said that this production has the most humour that they’ve ever seen. I think there’s a lot to be said for that, not to mention the fact that you’re so up close and personal with the actors and I know people like that.

Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is currently booking through to December 31, 2017 at off-Broadway's Barrow Street Theatre.