This guy is so COOL! Nicest ever fellow, and just the most incredible facial expressions on stage. He was hauntingly good as Sweeney Todd, and I saw him more recently as Lord Capulet in Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. THOSE EYES!
Also one of my most favourite responses ever to an interview question I’ve asked is the last one here.
The interview was originally posted on Arts on the AU.
Sweeney Todd is the compelling musical retelling of the murderous ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ that pulls the audience into its tumultuous events with dazzling lyrics and a glorious score. All at once it is shocking, intensely moving and brutally funny.
The AU Review caught up with the Demon Barber himself, Justin Stewart Cotta, to chat about madness, Sondheim, and his unique portrayal of the murderous “other-wordly” figure, Sweeney Todd. Oh, and his likelihood to cut off your thumbs.
How did you come to be cast as the Demon Barber himself, Mr Sweeney Todd?
Bishanyia Vincent, the partner of our director Giles Gartrell-Mills, recommended me having seenThe Removalists (Rock Surfers) and The Floating World (Griffin Theatre). I originally turned down the opportunity, as I was slated to do another show in Melbourne. But at the 11th hour, and after several sleepless nights, I called Giles in a sweaty panic and asked if he had cast the role of Sweeney. Upon hearing that The Demon Barber was still up for grabs, I promptly shot a video on my iPhone of me singing “My Friends” acapella. That was literally my audition. I think I used a butter knife in the lo-fi effort. A few hours later Giles confirmed that I would be his Sweeney Todd.
How did you first get into musical theatre?
I got into it 8 weeks ago when I said yes to Sweeney Todd. This is my first role in a musical theatre piece. I grew up on classical piano and guitar, and for 10 years toured the US and Europe in rock bands, namely VAST (Elektra Records) and Memento (Columbia Records). Singing has always been a passion of mine. It is such a gift and an honour to be involved with this production as I am learning to apply a new vocal technique. We could have done Sweeney in a contemporary rock style, but that would be reductive. I am not interested in bringing Sweeney to me. I am not interested in bringing you a modern take on Mr T. I am wholly interested in and solely committed to launching myself towardSondheim’s Sweeney. Not just as a mark of respect, but because the character himself will be richer for it. This is a modern classic. And Mr Sondheim’s vision for Sweeney is of paramount importance to me.
What is it like playing the snap personality Sweeney? Sondheim explains that we as the audience are “watching a man’s mind crack as he descends into madness”. How does one portray that on stage?
Shouldn’t be too much of a stretch… 😉 Mr Sondheim informs much of the descent with his ingenious score. Technique and discipline, ironically, will charter much of that journey for me.
Is there anything in particular that you like to do to get yourself into the mind of Sweeney?
The songs and the lyrics immediately connect me to Sweeney. There is no greater porthole. But having said that, I have spent a lot of time alone. Sweeney = Devil, Todd = Alone. So i haven’t really connected with family or friends for a couple of months now. I’m not proud of that, nor do I recommend it. It just is what it is. That isolation has been a great teacher. Without a connection to other humans what are we? Nothing. I started to feel like a ghost. Probably appropriate territory in prepping Mr T. Conversely, it is also vital to find the child and the LOVE and the naivety in Benjamin Barker; the young man wrongly sentenced to life in Van Diemen’s Land. For Sweeney Todd is indeed the Shadow Self of Benjamin Barker. This is a piece drenched in Love. It pervades everything. Sweeney Todd is not just prone to Love. He is Love.
Sweeney Todd is one of those characters that has been portrayed in so many different ways. From Michael Ball in London’s 2012 revival to Johnny Depp in the recent film adaptation. Have you taken any cues from these in your performance?
Johnny Depp and Michael Ball are both superb actors, and both give deeply fascinating portrayals. I tip my hat to them in genuine admiration. But with the greatest of respect, I will resemble nothing of them or their choices. I have been adamant from the start that our Sweeney Todd will not speak in cockney tongue nor in local London-speak. To my mind, Mr T is other worldly. A creation of Van Diemen’s Land and thereby the product of man’s fierce cruelty. He is a shapeshifter. He is a hybrid being, and I want to explore a speaking voice that reflects his brutal restructuring. Actor’s are often seduced into the class war underpinnings of the piece, and therefore play Sweeney as a working class hero. That’s fine, (everyone wants to be liked yadda yadda), and I have seen it work to stunning effect. But. For me the writer and the text reign supreme… Mr Sondheim has given us direct clues… He has written Sweeney on the page as a great orator. Extremely well spoken with eloquent and expansive sentence structure. The writing speaks to a man who is strangely refined, educated and a master of language. It actually defies regionalism. Mr Sondheim prescribes and spells out phonetically when he wishes a character to sound cockney (Mrs Lovett), or indeed Italian (Pirelli). Not so in penning Sweeney. My gut feeling, which has pissed a few people off, is that Sondheim asks the actor to go beyond cliched dialects. He asks the actor to find a voice that speaks from Hell.
What is your favourite song to perform?
Aah, it changes… “Barber And His Wife” will always hold a special place for me. I am rediscovering “Epiphany” at the moment…. It is my favourite in truth… If only I could remember to breathe in the right spots!! But then listening to Josh Anderson sing “Johanna” has long been my favourite moment in rehearsals. Just divine; song and actor both.
What is the best part about performing?
Dissolving into a character… connecting with an audience and the other actors on stage. I have always thought of theatre as a magical place… A place of worship and irreverence under one roof.
What would your dream role be?
Sweeney Todd and Randall Patrick McMurphy
And finally, how would Sweeney Todd try and convince audiences to come and see the show in Sydney? “YOU SIR! HOW ABOUT A SHOW?”
Sweeney Todd does not “try to convince” anyone of anything. You come. Or you don’t. But if you do come, and your phone rings during the performance, I will cut off your fucking ears and your fucking thumbs.