Actor Jeremy Johnson of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival directed Steven Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” now playing at Ashland High School. With a talented cast of 22, a full orchestra, and a towering revolving set, the production is a fantastic musical delight.
For decades the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has contributed to Ashland High School productions, with company members making time to direct, design and choreograph shows
Johnson discovered acting at age 10 and decided to become a professional actor early on. He majored in theater at Northwestern University and acted in New York and Los Angeles before coming to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 10 years ago. Johnson played Sky Masterson in OSF’s production of “Guys and Dolls” in 2015. We met near the fireplace at Mix. This is the first part of a two-part interview. The second will be published on March 20.
EH: Tell me about “Sweeney Todd.”
JJ: It is a classic of musical theater, a 1979 Tony Award Winner with eight Tony Awards. It is a masterwork of construction and composition. And it is endlessly satisfying in its complexity: In the questions that it raises, and how it seeks to answer them. It is also just a lot of fun.
It’s a delicious thriller; it has great tunes; it is funny; it is surprising. It is an extravagant piece of storytelling that the students are completely sinking their teeth into. They are revealing the story to me in a way that I didn’t expect.
What’s been fortunate for me is that there’s a lot of overlap between musical theater and Shakespeare. There’s a lot of shared emotional territory. There’s a lot of bigness of heart and of expression that is very similar. The instincts and impulses and skills that you need to successfully execute a musical are not terribly different from those involved with a Shakespeare play.
Scoring a scene, and figuring out how to breathe your way through a Shakespearian soliloquy is not terribly different from singing a ballad in a musical. Falling in love — and two seconds later, deciding that you want to be with this person for the rest of your life, no matter what — is something we find in musicals and in many Shakespeare plays. A sense of community pervades both of those forms as well.
EH: Why do people spend their life in theater?
JJ: There is a lot to it. Any child likes to play “make-believe.” I’m sure that appealed to me when I was 10 years old. And certainly the first time I walked out and said a line, and got a laugh — that was an important first hit of a very powerful drug.
But over time, your reasons for participating in theater are manifold. To an actor, it can be self-expression. There is a social justice aspect to doing theater. There’s purely the satisfaction of participating in an ancient art form that still has resonance today, where people will get together in a darkened room, and listen to the same story. And those stories in theater take on all kinds of forms, but they generally embrace values of community, and forgiveness, and love, and transformation and redemption. Those are things that we, as human beings, like to (and need to) repeat to ourselves. Also, it’s a lot of fun.