"You have to love a character to play him" - Bob Gunton.
And yes, that of course includes playing a character like Sweeney Todd.
The first Broadway revival in 1989 of Stephen Sondheim's magnum opus was a scaled-back version, far different from the original staged by Harold Prince eleven years earlier. Satirically dubbed "Teeny Todd" by Gerard Alessandrini in the 1990 edition of his long-running Forbidden Broadway franchise, Susan H. Schulman's reimagined version was first performed at the Church of Heavenly Rest on the Upper East Side before a transfer to Circle in the Square on Broadway. It provided a field day for Bob Gunton cast as Sweeney. Having worked pretty steadily as a New York theatre actor for almost twenty years, at age forty-four, he had arrived at the perfect moment to take on one of the great roles in musical theatre. "I said to myself, you know, I'm the right age. I have more confidence in my ability to really get into the character... and I loved him because I was a man with a wife and a young daughter, and those buttons were very deep in me. And in those various speeches and songs where he references his wife and daughter, I would just fill up with emotion."
In his opening night review, New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote when Sweeney's solo "Epiphany" arrives late in the first act that "Mr. Gunton's soaring anger, the crowning feature of a blazing characterization, seizes us as surely as his razor will have at the throats of his many victims; this actor earns our sympathy even as he threatens to welcome us to the grave." Great writing describing a great performance.
As mentioned in the first part of my recent interview with Gunton, more people know him from his work in film and television over the last twenty years than they do from the twenty years he was taking on important roles in the New York theatre scene of the 1970s and 80s. After all, a few weeks as Claudius in Hamlet at the Public Theatre exposed him to a few thousand people (maybe), while his Warden Norton in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption has been seen by literally millions worldwide. But those fortunate to have seen this actor on stage, where he truly lives and breathes, the feeling you were in the presence of someone with tremendous power and commitment was a thrill and a half.
Just the physicality alone of his Juan Peron in Evita is worth noting. Portraying a man twenty years his senior, Gunton possessed the age and bearing necessary to be utterly convincing. With his slicked back hair, false nose and ramrod straight posture, his Peron was the embodiment of the self-righteous dictator. In the clip below from the 1980 Tony Awards, watch how he listens; how he toys with that cigarette; how he even ties his bathrobe (!). I know it's hard to get past how young and brilliant Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin are but see if you can concentrate on what Gunton's doing, even in the background, without pulling any focus. Masterful.
"I'll tell you a funny story about my audition for Evita," Gunton recalled. "I had a pair of riding boots (I think I had stolen them from some show I had done). Anyway, I had a three-piece suit on with those all-the-way-up-the-leg boots, and I was waiting in the wings ready to go. And when they called my name, I walked out onstage exactly as I did after I was given the role, which was a kind of über-macho-but-somebody-walking-on-shifting-sands, too. Someone certainly not as brave as his wife was, but not as brave as what his position might naturally bring him. And I sang my sixteen bars, and I heard this voice from about halfway back... and then I saw Hal [Prince] point at me almost violently and he clapped his hand and shouted 'That's it!'
Also, another funny thing, was that in rehearsals I looked around one time and thought to myself, 'Wait a minute. I'm the only one using a faintly Hispanic accent. Mandy had his Jewish tenor and Patti had her blow-out-the-roof thing, and I thought maybe I better hang that up.' So, at the next rehearsal Hal came up to me and said, 'Hey kid. What's going on? There's something missing here.' And I explained to him that when I do an accent like that; this man (who's a native Spanish speaker) is trying his best to speak English as correctly as possible. But there's a lingering flavor to it; rolling 'r's' and things like that. And the other thing is that when I do that, it affects my body and how I comport myself. It's not just a vocal choice anymore. And that's what he was missing. The very thing I think he hired me for when I came out onstage like a fascist dictator. And Hal said, 'Put it back in.' And I did and it remains and, if you listen to the record, I'm the only one doing that."
In 1985, only a few years after Evita, the Broadway musical was in the doldrums. Without the arrival late in the season of Big River, the Best Musical Tony might have been done away with entirely. But this Roger Miller musical based on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn saved the season when it took home seven Tonys with Gunton prominently featured as "the King," a role in which he was all but unrecognizable under padding, a beard and wig, in addition to a gruff speaking and singing voice.
"What a great company that was," Gunton reminisced. "So many wonderful actors. John Goodman, Brent Spiner, and dear Rene Auberjonois, bless his soul... Marin Mazzie was a replacement and I just adored her. Kissing her was a highlight every night for me. God bless her and God rest her. She was a giant.
What I enjoyed most about Big River after I'd played it for a couple of months, was that on that schedule, my daughter who was four years old then, I used to carry her in a backpack through Central Park three or four times a week. And so, we really bonded and instead of being away shooting something on location, or going into another rehearsal period, I really had the time to spend with her."
With the lure of increasingly bigger and better roles on film, as well as the pay days that come along with them, Gunton returned to his native California and, to date, hasn't returned to the New York stage since 1990. However, he did take part in two musicals for L.A.'s Reprise series in the aughts, modeled after City Center's Encores!, presenting minimally staged short runs with an onstage orchestra two dozen strong. Gunton's first was a 2002 production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies (which Encores! did in N.Y. a year later). Cast as Benjamin Stone, Gunton played opposite Patty Duke as Phyllis, Harry Groener as Buddy, and Vicki Carr — mostly known as a Grammy-winning recording artist — as Sally. "I loved playing with Vikki. She was terrific," Gunton told me. "I loved the experience. I was in good shape and Ben's songs were right in my tessitura... there were so many wonderful talents in that. Donna McKechnie to Carol Lawrence to Carole Cook... just wonderful. There's even some of 'Waiting for the Girls Upstairs' on YouTube so you can get some idea of how Harry and I played off each other. I loved being exposed to that gorgeous music and getting to sing a couple of the songs in it, as well as playing a romantic lead (sort of)."
In 2003, Reprise asked Gunton to play (at the last minute) a part he'd dreamed of for twenty-five years — Oscar Jaffee in On the 20th Century. "I was so ready. I knew from Jump Street how to play that... It was a huge moment in my life for a lot of reasons. In films I don’t get to play extravagant characters, much less extravagantly comic characters. But to get back onstage and just fly with it and play opposite someone as savvy, talented, passionate and as beautiful—all those things—as Carolee, well I was in heaven.” His take on the role was inspired; lunacy, broad comic playing that was never fake, and a singing voice just made for Cy Coleman's grand score and Betty Comden and Adolph Green's witty lyrics.
Still relishing work that comes his way, it was only three years ago Gunton was cast as Harry S. Truman in Project Blue Book, which aired on the History Channel. It was his fourth portrayal of a U.S. President (the others have been Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon). When I asked him under what circumstances he might undertake a portrayal of the 45th President, his reply carried through one of his core acting beliefs:
"I learned a hard lesson that you can't play a character — especially a living person with a public history — if you can't find a reason to love him or her. Given that requisite, I could never play '45.' I've played a lot of 'bad guys' none of whom I found irredeemable. '45's' level of infamy, self-aggrandizement, self-loathing and greed is beyond my powers. I actually found a way to empathize with Nixon. However, Trump is beyond the pale and beyond my powers of empathy."
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.