Hugh Maynard – first black performer to play Sweeney Todd…

A Derby Theatre and  Mercury Theatre Colchester Production SWEENEY TODD

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Book by Hugh Wheeler

Interview with Sweeney Todd  aka actor, Hugh Maynard

As the first black performer from the UK to play the iconic role  of Sweeney Todd in a professional UK production, Hugh Maynard is breaking new ground, but he’s simply delighted to have the opportunity to tackle this Sondheim classic.

Hugh Maynard“I believe Stephen Sondheim is a living genius,” he says. “To be in this  show is a dream. It’s not a role that I ever thought I would have the honour of playing. It was never on my wish list. Being the first black person to play Sweeney Todd in the UK is an honour but with that comes a lot of fear and a lot of responsibility – but I’m so, so looking forward to the challenge. Obviously someone like Idris Elba has had a lot to say about the industry and accessibility to roles. Personally, I have not had any issues because of my colour. I truly feel that if you are right for a role you will get it.  If it’s a period piece I accept that my role in it might be a stable boy, so I can understand to a certain extent frustrations that there are more roles out there for one gender or race but it is changing and I never thought I would be playing Sweeney Todd – and here I am. I went along to the auditions hoping to show my ability and land a small part but I’m playing Sweeney Todd. I still laugh when I say it as it hasn’t truly sunk in. What I believe is that if you are the best person to bring across what the director wants from a role, then you should get it.”

Sweeney Todd is set in Victorian England and charts the return to London of a barber after 15 years of exile. He plots revenge on the corrupt judge who banished him and conspires with the pie maker Mrs Lovett to exact his revenge.

Sweeney Todd made its Broadway debut in 1979 with the West End following a year later. It won both the Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Musical and it has been packing houses worldwide ever since. In 2007, Tim Burton released a film version starring Johnny Depp.
It’s now being revived as a Derby Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester production.

The title role has been played by a long and distinguished list of performers including Michael Ball and Bryn Terfel on stage as well as Depp on film, which Hugh admits are “big shoes to walk in”. “It’s hard not to be influenced by other people’s interpretations and that’s also how we learn,” he says. “That’s not to say you should copy and mimic but instead observe and think about what you can take on board and then ask yourself what you can bring to the character. The fact that director Daniel Buckroyd has cast me in this role means that he can see something in me that I didn’t think I had. The creative team knows what it takes and I’m going to do my best to give them what they want.”

Hugh’s just got back from a run when we talk and he’ll have to be fighting fit to take on this role.

“I will need every ounce of energy,” he laughs. “It’s not only challenging lyrically but mentally as well. When you look at it, it is so mind-bogglingly clever. I went through the score and script and found myself belly laughing. It’s so macabre and darkly humorous – on so many levels it’s challenging.”

After making his West End debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Hugh has appeared in The Lion King, Notre Dame de Paris, Follies, Dancing in the Streets and Sister Act.

He was also the youngest performer to ever be cast as John in Miss Saigon, for the original tour, winning acclaim from Cameron Mackintosh for his stand-out portrayal.

Hugh says: “I find myself to be one of the luckiest guys in the world. Cameron Mackintosh is now a good friend of mine and he trusts me and gives me so much freedom. I didn’t have to go into such a well-known and popular musical such as Miss Saigon and just do the role verbatim. He wanted to see my version and wouldn’t even let me see it before I went into rehearsals.

“When he said it was the best interpretation of the role he had seen, then that accolade just made me want to work harder. I’m a normal guy who is blessed with this talent and I have to make the most of it.”

Hugh has also enjoyed success touring the UK, Europe and America singing with the group the Tenors of Rock – including the 2012 London Olympic Games concert – and he has recorded and released his own album Hugh Maynard: Something Inside So Strong.
“I have been fortunate enough to have a varied career,” he says.  “And it means so much to me. The songs on the album were chosen by fans and supporters. They told me why they wanted me to sing a certain song and some of the stories were truly inspiring. Like in any stage performance, if you take your work personally, what seems to come out is the best.”

The title track of the album, originally written and performed by Labi Siffre, is one that Hugh particularly wanted to include. Abandoned by his mother as a baby, he spent the first eight years of his life in and out of residential care and foster homes. He found permanent foster carers at the age of eight and went on to achieve a scholarship to university and drama school. He says: “Something Inside So Strong is a song that means a lot to me having grown up in care and not being able to fit in and wanting to prove to the world that I’m a good person and that I have abilities. As you go through life and do well, sometimes you forget where you come from but that song always reminds me that we must remember who we are and understand how much we can achieve.” Hugh now works with children’s charities and uses his own experiences to inspire young people.

So does he see himself as a role model?

“It’s more that when you meet someone else who has been through a similar experience there is an instant understanding” he says. “The carers work hard to nurture these children and young adults but when someone like me comes along then straight away they latch on because we understand each other. We don’t specifically talk about the experiences we have been through, I’m not qualified to do that, but we talk through music and I hopefully make them believe that someone from their background can achieve things. I do truly believe that hard work does pay off.”

The future is bright for Hugh and having Sweeney Todd on his CV is not going to harm his prospects but, for now, he’s just concentrating on giving this production his all.

“I want to make the audiences in Derby and Colchester happy and I want to fulfil what Stephen Sondheim has put down in ink. I’m aware that, historically, the people of Derby love musical theatre and I want this show to go down as a winner in their eyes.

“I also want to make a mark with this character –that’s my challenge. If I do that, who knows what the future may hold.”

Interview by Nigel Powlson

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