As the opening night for LSESU Drama Society’s Sweeney Todd approaches, I had the lovely opportunity to join some of the major talent behind the production to talk about dream roles, film adaptations, and theatre at LSE and beyond.
I was joined by Sam Rippon (Drama Society President and Anthony in the production), James Knudsen (Sweeney Todd), Anna Chedham-Cooper (Mrs Lovett), Holly Davies (Johana) and Calvin Kong (Musical Director).
One week out from opening night, how is Sweeney Todd preparation going?
Anna Chedham-Cooper: If it’s panicky the week before it usually means the week after is brilliant. Get all the bad stuff out the week before.
Holly Davies: If you know that the rest of the people you’re acting and singing with are talented and you know the directors know what they want out of it then you know it will be good.
How does preparation for the musical compare to other plays this year?
Sam Rippon: There’s a lot more stuff to bring together for a musical. The cast and band rehearsed separately and only came together for the first time last week. We had to gel two different rehearsal processes.
How was that?
Calvin Kong: It was long. I almost fainted at the end of it.
SR: It was a six-and-a-half-hour epic, but it was sadistically fun.
The Drama Society is enjoying a great year. What makes this year stand out?
AC: The Drama Society has made more effort to be more social and inclusive. It’s all down to Sam and the committee. Sam directed Made in Dagenham and out of the four plays I was in last year, it was the most confident I had felt in any director. He has made the society an environment where everyone can contribute.
HD: I think that’s the main strength of this play as well. Everyone is glued together in the Drama Society thanks to Sam, making us a unit going into things.
What it your opinion on the presence of the arts at LSE?
JK: I think London is a great place for theatre and art. When I researched LSE societies, I saw there was a high turnover of shows in the Drama Society, and that high turnover would lead to more opportunities for me personally as an actor. And it was a pleasant surprise to learn that there are a lot of passionate actors here.
HD: My reason was actually totally different. I didn’t realise there was such a big Drama Society here. And I didn’t want there to be in some respects. I left theatre and my parents didn’t want me to get a degree. It seems like a very academic place. Then, they sent me a newsletter about auditions, and I saw the pictures from the other shows, and I thought “I could do that”. Even the people who auditioned me were so friendly. That convinced me to do the show.
SR: The cast turnover is high, giving different people lots of opportunities to perform. And you can see around this table that there are two first years in the main cast, including a first year in the lead. (James grins.) But that’s not something you’d necessarily get in other cases where you’d have to work your way up the ranks. We’ve had first year directors both this year and last year.
HD: You don’t have to work your way up to a particular rank. It’s quite refreshing.
How has it been working under Layla’s direction?
AC: I remember working with Layla on The 39 Steps and she just seemed like she had an idea of what she wanted to do. I was relieved when I found out she was directing the musical because she really does have an idea of what she wants the result to be.
SR: Last year, I directed the musical and then I became president of the society. The musical was my child and I would not have handed it over to someone I didn’t trust. The moment she came to the director’s floor last October and was proposing some plays, I thought that this is someone I can work with because she seemed to have an awareness of theatre to the level I would want.
Do you have a dream role?
JK: Phantom from Phantom of the Opera.
HD: When I was fifteen someone asked me to audition for the cast of Wicked and I wish I had taken it. That is the one decision I look back on and think I wish I had gone, because I would love to play Glinda. That is my dream role.
AC: I saw Imelda Staunton in Gypsy and she also played Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. As musical theatre actresses go, she is one of those people who acts through singing and that’s phenomenal to watch on stage. I just want to be Imelda Staunton.
SR: Can I answer the question with two? One is more of a sentimental one. I’m in love with Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. I’ve played Joseph before but I would love to play the role in a professional show. But also, Edna Turnblad in Hairspray because it’s one of the greatest musical theatre roles ever written.
Do you have plans to continue with drama after graduating?
JK: I am tending towards taking a master’s in acting after I finish my undergraduate programme. I’ve wanted to go to drama school for a long time. I feel like when you go to drama school there’s an air around you that you’ve levelled up. Or maybe I’ll go straight into acting.
HD: I think I’m going to stick to academics unless a role comes. I’m still going to pursue it on the side, but I did theatre and I wasn’t satisfied. But the chances of me getting a very big role are very slim. So, I think I’ll go back to teaching singing. I want to do counter terrorism.
SR: I couldn’t imagine living a life without musical theatre being a part of it. Like James, I haven’t ruled out doing a master’s afterwards. I always say my two interests are musical theatre and politics, and they’re both acting just on a different stage. I remember having a chat with my academic adviser who said something like, “Drama surely isn’t an efficient use of your time.” But I think theatre is all about viewing the world around you and emulating it, and that’s what political science is all about as well.
AC: I’m very realistic that my chances about going into acting professionally are very slim. I’m very standard and that’s so fine. I get to do acting at LSE. But the scary thing is choosing something else and realising how competitive the political, consulting and finance worlds are and that you could end up going into something that wasn’t necessarily your first choice and not being any better at it. You could end up being at the same level in both.
CK: This actually keeps me up at night. It’s such a difficult one. I took a year out of doing any theatre or music last year when I first came to LSE. And now I’m back. It’s almost been a complicated relationship. It’s so enjoyable but it’s so stressful. It’s hard to decide.
If you had to sing an audition song that showed your skill and personality, what would you choose?
HD: I have two. ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is my go-to serious acting piece. And ‘Defying Gravity’ from ‘Wicked’ is my show off piece.
AC: Sam, you definitely have a back-pocket song.
SR: If it’s an acting one I usually go for ‘Someone’ from West Side Story. If it’s more of a singy one for a more modern musical I usually go for ‘Neverland’ from ‘Finding Neverland’.
JK: A go-to one for me would be ‘Hard to Be the Bard’ from Something Rotten!. It’s a musical about Shakespeare, but it’s a parody of his life and some of the characters he wrote about.
What’s your favourite musical film, adaptation or otherwise?
AC: Love’s Labour’s Lost. It’s the best film you’ll ever see. It’s directed by Kenneth Branagh and is set to 20th Century jazz music. It’s set in France during World War II and it’s amazing and you should watch it. It’s one of the great examples of taking a Shakespeare play and changing it so much but keeping its feeling.
SR: There’s a huge number of people in the musical theatre world who are very pretentious about musical films. My biggest criticism of them is that they should do more casting of people who are involved in musical theatre because it would make the vocal quality better. But I think the films on the whole make musicals more accessible and boost the profile of them, and for that I could never be angry. My favourite musical film is Hairspray because I think it was done so well and the casting was A-list but kept the quality the stage show provided, which you can’t say about Les Misérables, but we don’t talk about that. Or the Sweeney Todd film.
AC: There is something to be said about the accessibility of films. Tickets can be upward of £60 at the West End. I think touring productions are great because local theatre can be lovely. But you want to watch the greats and the classics without having to fork out a day’s wages for them. So that’s why films are great.
JK: My favourite musical film is Rent because quite a lot of the cast still work in theatre now, such as Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp. The guy playing Collins is excellent, so emotive.
HD: Borrowing on what Sam said, I think for me it’s just about the cast. That’s the crucial backbone for me.
SR: Which is why I’m shaking in fear about the prospect of the Wicked film because of the cast. There’s a Cats film as well. Nobody asked for that.
JK: Because singing is such an emotive thing there’s something very different in acting through song and acting. Often, when you act through song, emotions, feelings and expressions are heightened. I think that musical theatre actors are trained for that job.
AC: They’ve spent their life training to do exactly that, so hire them!
Look out for the Sweeney Todd review this week. The performances take place during LSE’s Festival of Creativity, from Wednesday 6th to Friday 8th March. Buy tickets here.
This interview was edited for clarity purposes.