Meet Bryn Terfel AKA Sweeney Todd, the Bloody Barber

Bryn Terfel talks to us about playing the part of Sweeney Todd in the West End's new musical

Springing onto the London stage soon is world-famous Welsh bass baritone singer Bryn Terfel, who plays the murderous barber in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Stephen Sondheim’s deliciously gruesome musical is at the London Coliseum (30 Mar-12 Apr). His co-star is Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson, who plays Todd’s pie-baking partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett. Although both performed this in New York’s Lincoln Center last year, this is Thompson’s first appearance on the London stage in 25 years; more accustomed to opera, Terfel admits that he still ‘dreads’ having to do spoken dialogue.

When rehearsing the show in New York, Sondheim would frequently pass Terfel ‘muttering in his own unique way’, and each time he would say, ‘darker, darker, more revengeful.’ Luckily Terfel’s looks are convincing enough for such villainy. A bear of a man, he has, in the past, been mistaken for the hefty American actor and musician Marvin Lee Aday—aka Meat Loaf. 

Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd in London Coliseum
It's no wonder that Brun Terfel is often mistaken for Meat Loaf (©Chris Lee)

In person, however, Terfel is far from villainous—more a teddy bear than a grizzly. He reminisces about his innocent youth. ‘I’m a farmer’s son,’ he says proudly. ‘And there was always music on the farm, in the house. My mother sang, my father sang.’ After all, Wales is the land of song, and Terfel did his countrymen proud, winning numerous singing competitions as a youngster. But the turning point of his career came in the fifth year of his course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama: ‘it was as though somebody had dropped a bucket full of musical techniques over my head.’ What followed was a major prize in the Cardiff BBC Singer of the World competition, followed by an intensive round of auditions, ‘and from all of those came two jobs.’ It was enough:  ‘if you do two jobs really well then the whispers start,’ says Terfel.

But even when the most prestigious opera houses beckoned, Terfel refused to narrow his musical tastes, frequently programming folk songs and hit tunes from musicals alongside operatic repertoire. ‘I had a journey through most styles of music as a teenager: Pink Floyd, Queen, Elton John, Rod Stewart, all those protagonists.’ Nowadays, he’s still a devoted fan of musical theatre, often taking his three sons to shows with him. ‘They love it, my boys. I took them to the Book of Mormon; Les Misérables; Shrek the Musical—they adored that one.’

London Coliseum, London, UK
London Coliseum is more accustomed to staging classic opera and ballet, but now hosts a very different type of musical event (courtesy Gde Laubier68)

As Terfel points out musicals, unlike operas, run for months and even years, and so their job is to keep us entertained. ‘Luckily Britain has one of the greatest exponents of music theatre: Andrew Lloyd Webber. He can write tunes and he knows what the public need for entertainment.’ And what about Sweeney Todd? How well does it fulfill that role? Terfel pauses. ‘Well, I’m sure many an essay has been written about Sweeney Todd. But above all it’s a piece that was designed to shock. What’s more, it’s a tale that could be alive today,’ he insists. ‘Only last week did I read in a newspaper that some woman had made people into pies, indeed, just like Mrs. Lovett. Some people call Sweeney Todd a dark operetta. I like to think of it as Musical Noir.’

Book tickets to see Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at London Coliseum (30 Mar-12 Apr).

See more entertainment in London here.