Sweeney Todd’s Nicholas Christopher and Jeanna de Waal on Their Craziest Understudy Stories | Playbill

Special Features Sweeney Todd’s Nicholas Christopher and Jeanna de Waal on Their Craziest Understudy Stories

The two standbys are leading the show until February 8, and they've been able to put their own spin on the main characters.

Nicholas Christopher and Jeanna de Waal take their bows at the January 17, 2024 performance of Sweeney Todd. Heather Gershonowitz

Last year, during previews of the Sweeney Todd revival on Broadway, its original star Josh Groban suddenly got sick and had to call out of the show. His standby, Nicholas Christopher, was told (three hours before showtime) that he had to go on as the demon barber. The only problem was he didn’t know the lines, and he had never rehearsed that part in the show. Christopher was also cast full-time as Pirelli, the rival barber to Sweeney, so he had been focused on learning that role.

“It was just crazy. It was definitely a group effort,” recalls Christopher. During the show, a production assistant would have the script ready when Christopher exited a scene, so he could read his lines for the following scene. Then they would tell him where to enter and exit for the next scene. There were also lyrics and lines pasted onto the set. “It's definitely one of the proudest moments of my life, because I felt so supported. I don't think it could have happened with any other cast.” 

Christopher also points out that he was also able to pull it off because of his Mrs. Lovett, fellow standby Jeanna de Waal (who covers both Lovett and the Beggar Woman). “Jeanna taught me the part because we did try to rehearse together in breaks.” 

Jeanna de Waal getting into her wig for Sweeney Todd (with makeup artist Dotty Peterson's help) Heather Gershonowitz

And here, de Waal chimes in to clarify. “I was writing down everything [Annaleigh Ashford] and Josh were doing, because we weren’t getting any rehearsal. So I was very aware, ‘Hey, Nick, we might have to go on.’ So I would grab him in breaks [between scenes] and try and, like, make sure. And then he was like, ‘It's not gonna happen.’ And then, lo and behold.’

Responds Christopher affectionately, “This is my roll dog right here. She keeps me right together.” And now, after a year in the show, never knowing when they would have to go on as the leads, Christopher and de Waal are getting something that’s rare for an understudy or standby: a set schedule. Following Groban and Ashford’s departure, the two understudies are currently on the boards as Sweeney and Lovett until February 8 (with Paul-Jordan Jansen and DeLaney Westfall performing the role in some performances). Starting February 9, Tony winners Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster will take over the lead roles.

The hit revival, written by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, follows a barber named Sweeney who turns to murder after experiencing a massive injustice. His accomplice Mrs. Lovett takes Sweeney’s victims and turns them into meat pies.

Both de Waal and Christopher have gotten buzz for their performances in the lead roles, an indication of the increase in respect that understudies have received since Broadway’s reopening in 2021. Christopher admits that in today’s Broadway landscape, having celebrities above the show title is a draw for audiences. But he never wants anyone to feel disappointed that they’re witnessing an understudy perform. (Though the terms are commonly used interchangeably, a standby covers a lead performer, while an understudy usually performs in the show full-time and covers a lead role.)

Nicholas Christopher getting his Sweeney makeup done by Dotty Peterson Heather Gershonowitz

“We were cast in these parts not to hold the curtain up—we're here to put on a show for the people that come,” explains Christopher, with de Waal applauding in agreement. “Whether or not somebody in Wyoming has heard of us or not, when they step into that theatre, they're going to feel something—not a name, not a paycheck, nothing can replace that. So what we're doing is we're giving people an experience, and we're riding this show together, all of us. And if they didn't know who Jeanna de Waal was before Wednesday night, they sure as hell do now.” The show has been particularly fun for Christopher because his brother Jonathan is also in the show in the ensemble (he plays the bird seller and is an understudy for the Beadle).

Speaking to Christopher and de Waal together, it’s clear they’ve built an affection for each other. In the conversation, both of them were eager to compliment their co-conspirator; the British-raised de Waal calls Christopher, “darling.”

As Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, the two complement each other well on stage. Christopher gives Sweeney a dark, brooding edge (and in a surprising vocal choice, he options up during the line “I will have salvation” in “Epiphany”). Meanwhile, de Waal delivers Mrs. Lovett’s laugh lines and pie-making physicality with aplomb, but she also brings a more sinister energy to the role that makes you believe that she, to quote Christopher, “likes eating those people pies.”

De Waal smiles in response, and admits that she didn’t set off to make a darker Mrs. Lovett. “It's not intentional. Annaleigh is like a feather—that's part of what makes her so joyous and light, she floats. I think in our natural demeanor, I might have more of a heavier missing-no-meals feeling.” She also jokes that as a single woman, she didn’t have to dig deep to understand Mrs. Lovett’s need for affection. “You just have to relate to your own life!” she exclaims while fake crying.

Nicholas Christopher takes a moment to center himself before going onstage Heather Gershonowitz

It’s normal for understudies to be directed to provide a similar performance to the person they’re covering. But in the case of Sweeney Todd, the actors are encouraged to bring their own interpretation to the role. For Christopher, this has been particularly special because he’s the first Black actor to play the role on Broadway (Norm Lewis played the role Off-Broadway in 2017).

“Sweeney Todd to me is the Blackest musical theatre character ever written,” he exclaims, saying that the character is a victim of a miscarriage of justice and a barber—characteristics that have particular resonances for the Black community. For Christopher, in particular, he feels affinity for Sweeney as a father himself (Christopher has two daughters).

“Being a Black man in America, I think that absolutely influences my performance,” he explains. “The darkest parts of myself, I'm able to exorcise in this show. Any sort of frustrations or questions that I have, I'm able to feel those frustrations. I'm able to ask those questions of myself: What would push me to this limit? What outside influences could push me to the point of murder, of going crazy or being pushed to the brink to act outside of myself?”

While Christopher has understudied a role before (he was the understudy for George Washington in Hamilton on Broadway), this is de Waal’s first time as a standby on Broadway. She did have an understudy stint briefly on the West End when she was in her 20s (in We Will Rock You). But having recently been the lead actor in Diana on Broadway, where she was onstage almost the entire time, Mrs. Lovett has been a different challenge. Sure, there’s plenty of backstage naps in Ashford’s Victorian-style dressing room.

Jeanna de Waal backstage in her dressing room at Sweeney Todd (which was occupied and decorated by Annaleigh Ashford) Heather Gershonowitz

Though there is downtime, there's also the tension to be ready at any moment to jump onstage. “One of the reasons why I certainly chose the job, and maybe Nick, too, is it's a challenge. You have to really trust yourself. And it's been a great shake up and letting go of perfectionism,” says de Waal. “It's definitely an additional pressure. And something that has been hard but also wonderful about this past year.” On that theme, Ashford left de Waal a note on her dressing room mirror that says, "Be kind to yourself."

While they’ve been able to put their own spin on the roles, there is one thing that de Waal and Christopher can’t change: the meat pies that they have to eat onstage. At the request of Groban, the props department made the meat pies out of eggs.

“They're disgusting. They could have been made to have anything under the sun from like carrot cake to chocolate to mincemeat, and Josh Groban wanted egg,” explains de Waal.

“It’s cold scrambled egg with food coloring in it that makes it look like a gray sort of red,” clarifies Christopher. “And they’re back ordered until May 5th. But it helps that it's sometimes cold, scrambled eggs. And then you don't have to act. The less you can act, the better.” With these two esteemed actors at the helm, it’s clear the hit Sondheim revival is in safe hands.

Go backstage with Nicholas Christopher and Jeanna de Waal as they get ready to step into character for Sweeney Todd in these exclusive portraits.

Photos: Nicholas Christopher and Jeanna de Waal Step Into Sweeney Todd

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