Tag Archives: Sweeney Todd

Hey, Old Friend…Whaddaya Say, Old Friend?

9 Nov

Dear Readers,

Are there any of you left out there? Have I been absent for so long that you’ve given up on me? On a day in which it seems there is little hope to hang onto, I choose to hope that at least one of you has stuck with me. I might even go so far as to say I hope that at least one of you has been looking forward to the day that I write something new. That might be pushing it a bit, but who said hopes had limits?

It’s been a trying few hours, friends. If I’m being completely honest with you – and what would be the purpose of this blog if I weren’t completely honest? – it’s been a trying few months.

It’s been so long since I wrote anything that I truly don’t even remember where I left off. But here’s where we are today: I am struggling to keep my hopes up right now, as many others are, as well. This election has taken its toll on all of us and the results have left me and so many others feeling unsure of our future – scared for it, even. I’ll not go into a political discussion here tonight because, quite frankly, I’m sick to death of politics and debriefings and analyses and pundits, but suffice it to say that my heart is heavy and I am scared. Perhaps a grown man shouldn’t declare that in a public forum, but it’s the truth.

On top of our nation’s current state of affairs, we in Florida, and particularly Orlando, have suffered through a lot this year. Between the shooting at Pulse earlier this year, which directly affected many of my friends and coworkers, and Hurricane Matthew, which thankfully turned out to be little more than a thunderstorm for many of us in Central Florida because of a fortuitous shift in wind, we’ve been through a great deal of stress these last few months.

And on a more personal note, I’ve recently been struggling with something that I never imagined would be an issue for me – my age. Next week I turn 40, and while I don’t think of myself as a 40-year old, my body has slowly started betraying me and has been not-so-gently reminding me through a series of ever-changing aches and pains that, while I may look 28, I am, in fact, not 28 anymore.

Then there’s the weight gain. After the Pulse shooting, I started comfort eating because…well, it’s what I do when I get stressed. Instead of turning to alcohol or drugs, I turn to cakes and cookies and pizza, and since mid-July, I have managed to gain back all 27 pounds that I worked so hard to lose earlier this year. Right now I feel so defeated that I have kind of given up on even trying to lose it again. And that makes me mad at myself and makes me want to tear into a box of Twinkies. I mean, I just want to destroy those snack cakes. It’s a vicious cycle and I wish I could just snap my fingers and have the metabolism I had 10 years ago and the willpower that I’ve always wished I had. And then I get frustrated at myself for complaining about having too much food when there are others who are less fortunate than me.

I’ve also been thinking about where I am professionally at 40 and I’m unhappy with it. I came here with a purpose and, just as in New York, I’ve become so focused on simply surviving that I’ve taken my eye off the prize and I’ve gotten stuck.

Things aren’t all as bad as all that, though. During the time of the Pulse shooting, I had the wonderful opportunity of performing in a production of Ragtime the Musical at the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando. Through that show, I met some of the most wonderful people in Orlando, I laughed more than I think I have in a very long time, we cried – no, wept – together and we made some incredible music together. I couldn’t be more grateful for that experience and those people. I’m also performing on a semi-regular basis in the dinner theatre show at the Titanic Artifact Exhibition on International Drive in Orlando. I get to play J. Bruce Ismay and I absolutely love it. Once again, I’ve found a theatre family that I love and it helps bring in a bit more money every month, which is a great help these days. And my parents recently got to see me in the show, which was fun and pushed me out of my comfort zone, because there’s nothing much more terrifying to me than having to interact and improvise with my parents in a British accent and fake moustache. But I did it!


A very sunburnt J. Bruce Ismay.

Even with those steps toward what I want here for myself, I often find myself wallowing down in the dumps lately, criticizing myself for living what I think is a pretty lackluster life. I sometimes find myself thinking that I haven’t done much with my life…that I’m pretty boring, even. And then every once in a while, people in the break room at work will be talking about Hamilton or New York or Japan and I’ll jump in and add something that, to me, seems insignificant – interesting, but insignificant – and it always surprises me to see the looks of disbelief on my coworkers’ faces. And then I’m reminded that I have, if nothing else, had an interesting life.

I’ve recently become slightly obsessed with storytelling podcasts (The Moth and Snap Judgment are my favorites), and I hear some of the stories people tell and I think, “I could do that!” I mean, isn’t that what I’ve been doing here for years now?

So here’s a story.

Just a few months after I moved to New York, it was announced that the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, would be producing a summer-long celebration of Stephen Sondheim. There would be six shows produced that summer, all featuring big-named theatre stars, running in repertory, meaning the first three shows would be presented on alternating nights for the first half of the summer, and then the second set of shows would follow suit for the last half of the summer. The lineup was incredible – Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski in Sweeney Todd, Melissa Errico, Raúl Esparza and Florence Lacey in Sunday in the Park With George, Lynn Redgrave, Emily Skinner, Alice Ripley and John Barrowman (yes, that John Barrowman) in Company, Judy “Pocahontas” Kuhn, Michael Cerveris and Rebecca Luker in Passion, Raúl Esparza, Miriam Shor and Emily Skinner in Merrily We Roll Along and Randy Graff, Blair Brown and Kristen “Princess Anna” Bell in A Little Night Music. For a musical theatre nerd like me, this was heaven on Earth. The problem was – it was all the way down in Washington, DC.

Luckily, I had a friend named David, who I’d met in the old Theater chat room on AOL, and he and I had become friends in real life. David was in the original Broadway company of Merrily We Roll Along and, naturally, was forever a Sondheim fan. David was going to see each and every one of those shows and had a spare set of tickets – I just had to get myself down to DC! So I did, of course – twice.

The first show we saw was Sweeney Todd, and honestly, the whole thing was a blur. I remember the sound being a huge issue – during the Joanna trio in the second act, Stokes’ mic went out and suddenly we heard Hugh Panaro backstage vocalizing, and as soon as Hugh stepped onstage, his mic went out and we could hear Celia Keenan Bolger singing scales backstage. And I remember going to dinner at the restaurant on the ground floor of the Watergate Hotel (yes, that Watergate Hotel) and sitting across from Brian Stokes Mitchell, which was a huge thrill for me. I had no idea what was coming next.

David’s friend, Annie, joined us for the second set of shows, which included Merrily. Annie was also an original cast member of the show – in fact, she was the leading lady, and she was sharing a hotel room with us. Ann Morrison is also one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve ever met in my life. On the train ride over to the theatre, I asked Annie if she would sing something from the show for me and, as we ascended the giant escalator out of the train station, she sang, “Charley…why can’t it be like it was? I liked it the way that it was, Charley – you and me…we were nicer then,” and my head nearly exploded. (Hear her sing it on the Original Broadway Cast Recording here at around 1:42).

But wait…there’s more.

As we entered the huge lobby of the Kennedy Center complex, we were making our way to the theatre doors when someone yelled out, “David!” We all turned to see who it was and, standing there in the flesh was Anthony Rapp. Yes, that Anthony Rapp. I couldn’t believe it. I had never been a Renthead per se, but I loved the show just as much as everyone else, and I had spent countless hours listening to him on the cast recording. And then, after the show, once again at the Watergate, he was sitting across from me and David and Annie, talking about how he’d just returned from opening Rent in Japan. And then he started singing “Seasons of Love” in Japanese! Right there at the table. Annie and I both couldn’t believe what we were experiencing as we shared a caesar salad with sirloin beef (she and I bonded very quickly), and as I went to bed that night, I simply could not wrap my head around everything that had happened that night. It was all so wonderful. I mean, the only way it could possibly get better would be if I actually got to meet Stephen Sondheim himself.

And then I met Stephen Sondheim.

That Sunday night, after the closing performance of A Little Night Music, which was also the closing night of the Celebration, David got us into the closing night party. Sadly, Annie had had to fly back home early that morning – she left us all lovely notes under our pillows before she left, because that’s the kind of woman she is – but because of his involvement with Merrily, David was able to get me and some friends into the party that night. A few minutes into the soiree, we turned a corner and there he was – basking in a halo of heavenly light (well…maybe not) – Stephen Sondheim! David walked up to him and said, “Hi, Steve!” They had kept in touch through the years and they greeted each other as old friends and then David turned and introduced all of us to Sondheim. I shook his hand and we all stood around nervously for a few minutes while he and David chatted a bit more and then someone else walked up to “Steve.” I’m not sure who he was, but “Steve” introduced him to David and then proceeded to introduce each and every one of us to this person. By name.

“And this is Jason…”

Whenever I feel like I’m a nobody…that I’ve led an uninteresting life…that my voice isn’t being heard…I need to remind myself of this:

For one brief, shining moment, Stephen Sondheim knew my name.

I’m Beautiful. And I’m Here.

21 Jun

A MOTHER and HER DAUGHTER approach my booth.

MOTHER (to HER DAUGHTER): Which shirt do you want?
DAUGHTER (timidly): The black one.
MOTHER (to ME): She’ll take an extra large in the black shirt, please.
ME (to HER DAUGHTER): Well, these are are regular-cut shirt – for men – so I think an extra large is going to be too big for you. I think you’d be better off with a medium, actually.
MOTHER: No. She’s bigger than you think. She needs an extra large.
ME: OK. (Pulling out an XL. To HER DAUGHTER) Take a look at this and tell me what you think. I still think it’s going to be too big for you.
MOTHER: It’ll be fine. Thank you.
ME (to HER DAUGHTER): Well, if you decide later that it’s too big, you’re welcome to bring it back and exchange it for a smaller size.

I am slightly ashamed to admit that I have started following Amanda Bynes on Twitter since her bizarre behavior and arrest in the past few weeks. I fully admit that I followed her on Twitter only because I was curious to see just how crazy she really was. Part of me, however, was hoping that people were somehow just misinterpreting what she was trying to say – that she wasn’t as bad off as people were reporting.

What I’ve learned from Ms. Bynes’ tweets is that she is obsessed with her looks, and more specifically, changing them. When she’s not fighting some sort of Twitter assault against “the haters,” she’s talking about how excited she is for her surgeries. And then tonight she tweeted something that really upset me, because it goes against everything that I believe we should be teaching young people – particularly young women – these days. She wrote, “It doesn’t matter if you feel sexy if you don’t look sexy.”

From the time I hit puberty, I knew something was kind of different about my build. I developed leg hair very early in my development and my Mom, who was younger then than I am now, made jokes about the hair that was starting to grow in various places on my body. I know she didn’t mean any harm by it – I think it helped her cope with the idea of having a teenaged son – but it made me incredibly self conscious. I stopped taking my shirt off when I went swimming. I must’ve gone through a bottle of roll-on deodorant a week to try to avoid body odor. I didn’t understand what was happening to my body and having my Mom ask me about it just made me feel even grosser. I was mortified when my grandfather once hugged me and then felt my cheek, telling me it was time I started shaving. I was well aware that my body was changing and I really didn’t want anyone else pointing it out to me.

As I got through puberty and settled into myself a little more, I didn’t really think about my body so much. I still wouldn’t take my shirt off in front of anyone, but I didn’t worry anymore that I was weird-looking or awkward. I made it through high school and college without any real issues. The braces came off my teeth. I never had acne. Sure, friends would comment on how big my calves were now and then, but that was pretty much the extent of it. It was no big deal. Once I got to grad school, things changed.

Show business is, unfortunately, a very image-based industry. In undergraduate school, it never occurred to me that I would eventually be limited to being cast in certain roles based on my appearance. That all changed with my first audition in graduate school. The first show of the season was My Fair Lady, and auditions were held before we even started classes.

I had heard that it was very difficult to be cast in a show at my new school. The talent pool at that school was quite deep, so I was really pleased to get a callback for the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who sings “On The Street Where You Live” in the show. I sang a cut of the song at the callback and waited to see if I would make it into the cast. As it turned out, I was cast in the “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” quartet and I was also to understudy Freddy. I was really excited, flattered, honored and a little bit scared. The day the cast list went up, I went down to the office of our Director of Opera and Music Theatre to thank him for casting me in the show. It was only our second day of class, and I wanted to start off on the right foot.

Things didn’t go quite the way I expected. I knocked on the door, introduced myself and thanked him for putting me in the show, adding that I was really excited to get to understudy Freddy. I was expecting a simple, “You’re welcome. I look forward to working with you.” What I got instead was, “Well, if you were 20 lbs. lighter, you wouldn’t be the understudy…” That was the moment that I became painfully aware of my weight. Over the next two years, Herr Direktor would repeatedly come back to it to keep me in check.

The final show of my first year in school was Sweeney Todd. Everyone wanted to be a part of that show – especially me. I would have been happy just to be in the ensemble, but I secretly had my heart set on the role of Anthony. If I recall correctly, auditions for Sweeney were to be held at the beginning of the spring semester, just after we returned from Christmas break. Herr Direktor, who was also my acting teacher, had warned each of us in his acting class to be prepared to face our neuroses in our acting final, which would be held one-on-one with him in the male ensemble dressing room just down the hall from his office. The final was a three-parter: 1) A prepared monologue, 2) Presenting a monologue using song lyrics and 3) Herr’s neurosis analysis.

Parts 1 and 2 went pretty well. Part 3 had me terrified. I honestly didn’t think I had any neuroses – I was only 22! I wasn’t even really sure what a neurosis was! He had assured us, though, that he knew us better than we knew ourselves. Part 3 of my final was being told that if I expected to land a role in Sweeney Todd, I should consider losing 15 pounds.

I wasn’t cast as Anthony, but ended up with what I now consider to be a much more interesting role – Tobias Ragg. Toby really gave me an opportunity to act as well as sing. It also gave me the opportunity to sing “Not While I’m Around.”

In 1985, Barbra Streisand released her first Broadway album, which included amazing arrangements of “Putting It Together,” “Somewhere” and “Not While I’m Around.” My Mom has always been a big Barbra Streisand fan, and I distinctly remember sitting in the back seat of my Mom’s car one night, listening to Barbra, and as that song began, my Mom looked at me in the rear view mirror and said, “This is my song to you.” In the show, it’s a song sung by, for all intents and purposes, a child to the woman he loves as a mother. As sung by Barbra, it is essentially a promise from a mother to her child to protect and care for him as long as she’s around. I had forgotten about all of this until we got into rehearsals. One night, as we were doing a sing-through with the entire company, just before my song, our conductor whispered to me, “Make them cry.” Suddenly it all came rushing back to me, and the song – and the role – took on a much deeper meaning. The night that my parents flew in to Oklahoma to see the show, I could barely make it through the song. Even though I was singing in front of 1,200 people, it felt like I was just singing it to my Mom. I had told the story to some of my cast mates before curtain that night and I couldn’t look at my Mrs. Lovett or our conductor because they were both teary-eyed, too. It was one of the most wonderful moments I’ve ever had onstage. I felt like I had finally come into my own. I’d done something right.


Things continued to go well at school through the next fall semester. Herr Direktor and I had pretty well kept out of each other’s way, even though I had been cast in every mainstage show (all of which he directed) since I’d entered the program. I got to my last semester and started to put the final touches on my Masters thesis and recital. According to the rules of the university, I was able to choose my graduate review panel, and I deliberately did not choose Herr Direktor. Even though he and I had figured out a way to work together, I was certain he would make my thesis approval a living hell and I didn’t want the stress of dealing with him. He approached me one day, asking why I hadn’t selected him and then told me he needed to be on my review board and that he would speak to my graduate advisor about swinging him in. I emphatically told my advisor that I did not want him on my board, and to his credit, he defended me and my board choices and would not allow Herr Direktor to push his way onto my review board.

This did not sit well with Herr Direktor.

Casting had begun for the last show of our season – the last show I could do In my school career. It was The King and I – a terrible choice for what was basically a music conservatory full of white kids in the middle of Oklahoma. I knew the only place I could possibly fit in that show was as Lun Tha – Tuptim’s love interest – but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be cast in the role. What I expected even less was being cast as the non-singing Kralahome, who was required in the first scene of the show to be shirtless. Shit.

As I had with each show, I thanked Herr Direktor for putting me in yet another show, and his response this time was, “Don’t think I didn’t know exactly what I was doing by making you take your shirt off in this show.” I immediately went on a diet and hit the tanning bed for 20 minutes a day for four months straight. By the time we got to tech rehearsals, I was as brown as a biscuit and had lost about 10 pounds. Jazz and ballet class had helped tone me up, as well, but I still couldn’t bring myself to take off my shirt in front of everyone. I wore a wife beater as a way of slowly easing myself into the idea of exposing my torso in front of my closest friends. I couldn’t even begin deal with the idea of 4,000 people seeing me shirtless in one weekend. To their credit, my cast mates were incredibly supportive, and looking back at photos, I looked really good. In the throes of it, though, I just knew I looked awful. I had a panic attack before our first performance.


During the photo call for The King and I, we were setting up for the final scene of Act One. The King has called all his wives and advisors in to pray to Buddha because he has heard the British are coming, and Anna and the King are testing each other’s will, seeing who can bow lower than the other. The entire company was onstage, and many of their families were out in the house taking photos and waiting for us to finish up to go home. We had professional photographers in the house, as well, in addition to the show’s crew. There were a lot of people there. I was situated downstage, next to Anna, sitting with my legs folded under me, my hands pressed together at my sternum, trying to sit as still as possible so we could just get the shot and go home. From the back of the auditorium, in front of all of my colleagues, their parents, etc., I heard, “SUCK IT IN, BRATTON!

Since then, my weight has been a constant concern. Only recently, ironically, my muscles have also become an issue.

I’ve always had large calves. I don’t know how they got that way…they’re just big. The last time I had a costume measurement, I think they were 18” around when flexed.


About three years ago, I started working with a marketing and promotions company that hired people to work as brand ambassadors to promote various companies. I got the job through a friend and it paid really, really well for what it was. I quickly climbed the ladder at that company and began managing for them within a couple of weeks of being hired. I was one of their top brand ambassadors and a go-to for most of their major accounts.

Two summers ago, they hired me to promote a television network’s summer lineup. There were eight of us – four men and four women – and we had been dressed in identical clothing at the request of the clients: a branded t-shirt and hat, white ankle socks, blue sneakers and khaki capri pants. Throughout the day, our manager would gather us up and have to take a group photo – tuck the shirts in, untuck them, roll the pants up another half inch, roll them down, etc. For some reason the client just did not seem to be happy with the way we looked.

At the end of the shift on our first day (the promotion was to run a week), I got a text message from the project manager back at the office asking me to come back to the office for a meeting when I finished up. I knew that couldn’t be good, but she assured me it was nothing to be nervous about. She just needed to chat with me.

When I arrived at the office, she took me into the conference room and closed the door. “Jason, I can’t even believe that I’m about to say this to you because you’re one of our very best, but I’m afraid we aren’t going to be able to continue the promotion with you. It has nothing to do with you work – you’re the best B.A. we’ve got. It’s just that the client has decided to go with a different look. I’m so sorry. They feel that they need another girl on the team. You will, of course, be paid for the rest of this week, but you won’t be needed any longer. I hope you understand.”

I didn’t understand. If I was the best brand ambassador they had, why had they specifically chosen me to be let go? There were three other men on the team, but I was chosen to be fired. Why? She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give me any more answers. No specifics. I might have believed that they really did just want to have another girl on the team…until I was offered $500 in addition to the remainder of the week’s pay to keep quiet. In hindsight, I know that it was essentially hush money for them firing me based on my looks. Was I too fat? Did they not like the way my legs looked in the awful capri pants they’d put us in? What was it? No one would tell me.

Around that time, I also started noticing people on the subway reacting to my legs. People would nudge their friends and point and whisper. I saw at least three people on separate occasions taking pictures of my calves with their smartphones. (Here’s a tip if you’re trying to sneak photos: People can see reflections in your glasses, so don’t pretend that you’re playing Angry Birds when one can clearly see their own legs reflected in your Ray Bans!) One man actually ran across 8th Avenue to stop me on the street to say “Damn! I ain’t never seen legs like that before!” A bike messenger passed me once and said, “Damn, bro! I wouldn’t want to get kicked by you!” At that point, I certainly would have been happy to give him a swift kick. A woman actually grabbed one of my calves and said, “I’m sorry – I just had to touch it.” I felt like I finally had an idea of what life must be like for women with large breasts. Each time these instances occurred, it sent me into a tailspin of anxiety, frustration and self-loathing. I felt like a freak, so I ate. There were long, tearful come-to-Jesus talks with my roommates. And I ate. I wore long pants regardless of the heat. And I ate.

I found a wonderful therapist in New York who helped me sort out a lot of things and put a few things in perspective, but even after two years with her, I still struggle with my body image. I find that I dress to blend in – to not call attention to myself. To hide. Not a good thing for someone whose career depends on standing out. I’ve gained a good amount of weight on this tour just because of the nature of touring. It’s hard to eat “well” on the road with no kitchen. Traveling with a bunch of dancers who have the most incredible bodies I’ve ever seen makes it hard, too, but I have to say, not one of them has ever made me feel badly about my body. I know how hard they work and what they have to sacrifice to maintain their build, but I also know that they love to eat. And nothing gives me more pleasure than to see a ballet dancer shove a Double Quarter Pounder in her face on a travel day.

As someone who struggles with his inner fat kid demons every day, it makes me so angry when I read things like Ms. Bynes’ tweet. “Sexy” or “beautiful” or “talented” has nothing at all to do with what you look like and everything to do with how you feel about yourself. Weight can change. Your hair changes colors or falls out or grows where you don’t want it to. Skin wrinkles. All of that is simply cosmetic. It’s what’s in your heart that matters. So to Ms. Bynes I offer this challenge – rather than being so concerned with getting your nose “fixed” and paying thousands of dollars to a plastic surgeon, spend that money on a therapist who can help you fix whatever is broken inside you.