Annaleigh Ashford on the Tony Awards, WGA strike, ‘Sweeney Todd,’ and Sondheim
The Daily Beast
May 5, 2023
In a candid interview, Annaleigh Ashford talks her “Sweeney Todd” Tony nomination, Sondheim’s special notes, supporting the WGA strike, screen ambitions—and loving Mrs. Lovett.
Eight times a week, Annaleigh Ashford relishes checking a pile of dough.
“I touch that dough and we’re ready to play,” the Tony-winning actor told The Daily Beast of the last-minute preparations she undertakes to play the loopy, love-blind baker Mrs. Lovett in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, booking to Jan 14, 2024). “I check the dough to make sure it has the right consistency to just plop down every single night. You have to. Humidity in New York City, she’s very tricky! Me and the dough, that’s where it begins. And I talk with a British accent a lot of the time—well, slightly British. I sound like Madonna in her Guy Ritchie years.”
Ashford has been nominated for Best Actress in a Musical in this year’s 76th Tony Awards for her role as Mrs. Lovett; like all the nominees, she isn’t yet sure how this year’s awards will map out—with the almost-certain cancelation of the TV ceremony on primetime CBS because of the ongoing Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) strike. “As a proud WGA member, I stand with the writers,” Ashford told The Daily Beast. “It saddens me that the Tony Awards won’t go on as planned, but standing up for equitable pay is more important. Now more than ever, it’s crucial to support, and go see, the many magical shows on Broadway.”
For the witty and engaging Ashford—who won a Tony in 2014 for her role in You Can’t Take It With You, and was nominated a year earlier for her role in Kinky Boots—her 2023 nomination for Mrs. Lovett is “a celebration of all the people who have supported, loved and taught you, and also told you ‘no.’ I’m also grateful, for my family at home, and having such kind audiences at Sweeney. Every night I am so overwhelmed by the crowd. It’s clear there are people there from 18 to 80, and I think that would have really pleased Steve (Sondheim). He would have loved that so many people are getting to see the show, and celebrate it.”
Is she competitive about winning? “I feel like I’m hiding under a table, going ‘Oh noooo.’ At its core, this is about art. You don’t go to the Met, and go, ‘Which painting is the best? Is it the Matisse, or the Seurat, or the Jackson Pollock?’ It’s the same with the Tonys, and celebrating theater.”
In Sweeney Todd, her Mrs. Lovett is a wheedling, physically comic joy—at one point sliding down some stairs into a crumpled heap at the bottom—desperate for the barber’s love, only realizing she is in too deep with his murderous rampage far too late.
For Ashford, 37, it’s been “interesting” to see Sondheim’s works being revisited in the last 15 years, and see “people celebrating them in the way they should have been the first time around. In theater, you go to the text, mine it, and whatever you and the director find together is really an extension of your spirit. In Mrs. Lovett, this is a woman in survival mode. Her main objective is to survive, and how she will survive—through a man—and why, because at that time the only way to survive was with the support of a man. She needs this man to keep on living and keep on going.”
The part is taxing, particularly in a springtime New York City swirling with aggravating airborne particles. Ashford is soon off to do a nasal rinse. “Everyone’s allergies are crazy right now. Every day I walk into the theater, and it’s like, ‘Did you take your Zyrtec?’ ‘Oh God, I did two neti pots today.’ ‘Do you have lozenges?’ Why we open these shows in the spring I don’t know. Do them in the fall! Why not?”
Mrs. Lovett, said Ashford, “is the clown of the show in the same way there is always a fool. So, there’s dark and light to everything she does, and behind her smile is always a cry. When we started exploring the piece, I realized it lives in the tone Sondheim set. Steve would always say, ‘This is a comedy and a melodrama.’ The same thing is in Shakespeare, where we walk the balance of this line, the wacky and the wild, because it’s on the page. It has to be grounded by the heartbreak that’s underneath that, which is how we came up with the play’s physicality.
“We joked that Sweeney Todd is like a tree, and Mrs. Lovett is an animal climbing all around it. My objective as Mrs. Lovett is to hold on to him—to get him to love me, to see me, to hear me. I am holding on as tight as I can. I make sure he puts his arms around me, I sit in his lap. Sliding down the stairs is an uncomfortable display of social status. She is at the bottom, he is on top. He is the fanciest person she has ever come across.”
Sweeney Todd, like any show, says Ashford, is a “living, breathing organism. You have this other scene partner, the audience, who teaches you something new every day.” The collective gasps of shock at certain moments delight Ashford. “We all want to get the laughs, but when somebody gasps it’s a moment of unbridled emotion. You can’t choke it back. I’m all for going for the gasp.”
Like Broadway icon Patti LuPone, Ashford said she particularly missed the performance notes Sondheim gave. “He was one of the great geniuses of our time, and he was also one of the greatest teachers,” Ashford told The Daily Beast. “I find myself looking back every once in a while to the notes he gave me for Sunday in the Park with George [which Ashford performed to much acclaim at ‘Encores’ in 2016, then on Broadway, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal]. And it always came back to the story, and making sure the audience knows what you’re saying. He was so kind and generous of heart with me.”
In both shows, Ashford has had two big-name leading men, Jake Gyllenhaal in “Sunday in the Park” and Josh Groban in “Sweeney.” “They feel like similar shows to me,” Ashford said. “They’re almost two-handers. The title of both shows is about men, but Sondheim crafted these exquisitely complicated women who are orbiting these men, and—I would argue—are infinitely more interesting than the men, because they also have the struggle of being women in men’s worlds when equality was a far cry in the future.”
Ashford laughed. “And getting to work with these fancy, famous men in fancy, famous roles, and getting to climb all over them! They have both been great, and given exquisite performances, and have such respect and reverence for the work and the craft. I have been really lucky to have them as partners-in-crime. And they’re J-names, and my two boys at home have J-names [husband Joe Tapper and son Jack].”
Ashford warmly recalled a specific note of Sondheim’s. “Steve loved a liquid ‘u.’ So, ‘neww,’ not ‘nu.’ He told me that doing Sunday in the Park, and I know he would have said it for Sweeney. ‘Don’t forget that liquid u,’ he would say. Also, my little boy was born six weeks before we did the first concert of Sunday in the Park at Encores. For me, there are only two worthwhile things we leave behind when we leave this world: children and art. These are words I live by, and Steve is such part of that. It’s a sort of life goal for me. So, I’m going to say what Patti LuPone said: I miss Steve, and I miss his notes.”
‘I’ve been doing eight shows a week since I was 13’
Ashford grew up in Denver, Colorado, in a family of athletes. Her mother was an elementary school gym teacher, her brother was a collegiate wrestler, her sister a soccer player and her father an athlete.
“I really just wanted to go to dance class and sing the national anthem. If you had taken me to play basketball, or asked me to sign up to the local softball league, I would have declined politely because that was not in my wheelhouse,” Ashford said, smiling. “It was in my spirit, even as a little person, to be a storyteller. I didn’t know how, or what that meant, but I knew music was part of my spiritual fabric. I know it sounds clichéd, but I can’t remember not wanting to do this. The only thing I have ever wanted to do was be a storyteller.
“At 4 years old I would do Saturday Night Live impressions at parties—very inappropriate ones. I don’t know how I knew (Mike Myers’ famed character) Linda Richman and ‘Coffee Talk’ at that age, but I did, and I talked about ‘Barbra’ and her skin like buttah.’
“I knew even at that age the communion that is the laugh between the audience and the storyteller, and how it doesn’t just make you feel good, but makes the audience feel good—and how the space between you and the audience is energy, magic, and I think love. I find that part very spiritual, God-filled, and communion—like love. My parents were outrageously supportive. At around 7, my mother asked me, ‘Do you just want to dance?’” A trip to Denver’s legendary Tattered Cover bookstore was always a delight to savor.
Ashford performed in school productions and then community and small company productions. “The Denver theater community in the ‘90s was thriving, with this incredible group of working actors doing wonderful, beautiful work. Not only did they teach me about craft, but also the life and etiquettes of being an actor, how to be in the dressing room, and how to treat people with kindness. I’ve been doing eight shows a week since I was 13 years old at the (now shuttered) Country Dinner Playhouse. It wasn’t Broadway, but a version of Broadway—the talent held in these theaters was so immense, and it’s really like a blessing that I look back on with such joy and gratitude. I learnt so much from these incredible regional actors.”
Ashford’s younger self was ambitious for fame on stage and screen, “but as I got older it was just to be an actor, doing what I love doing. If you’re truly an eternal student and lover of the craft, the rest is just gravy. The meat and potatoes is the work.”
After high school, Ashford studied in Marymount Manhattan College in New York, and completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Starring in Feeling Electric (an early, shorter incarnation of Next to Normal) was Ashford’s first major role in the city, through which she met the composer Alex Lacamoire, who went on to fame with In the Heights, Hamilton, and is the music supervisor for the current revival of Sweeney Todd.
Ashford gained an agent, then toured with Wicked. For her Broadway debut, she debuted the role of Margot in Legally Blonde. “She was a blonde girl who talked to dogs. It was my first foray into roles Judy Holliday played. She used to say, ‘You have to be smart to play dumb.’” Playing Maureen in Rent off Broadway in 2012 was “absolutely pivotal” for Ashford, playing against type. (On nights off from performing, she babysat for extra cash.)
Ashford won her first Tony Award for her role as Essie Carmichael in the 2014 Broadway revival of George F. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You. The production was also special for her because of the “family of actors it brought me on stage and off”: her husband starred in the show alongside her, as well as James Earl Jones, Kristine Nielsen, Rose Byrne, and Julie Halston. “That was a true family affair—a perfect play and everyone being perfect. It was a whole company of actors knocking it out of the park. I feel that way about every company I work with, but that was so special. You have to be more honest in comedy than any other form. The audience knows if you’re lying. You have to be dead honest to get the laugh.”
There was also a “beautiful family” in Kinky Boots, and for her role as Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park With George, which was “one of the most special pieces of theater I have done in my life, and—along with Sweeney—two of Steve’s masterpieces that live in their own universes for me because they’re so special. They’re like magic dust.”
In recent years, Ashford has built a formidable resumé of TV roles alongside her stage work. “It was more of a challenge finding screen work 15 years ago,” she said. “Now TV people are more enthusiastic about reaching out into the theater community. I think Hamilton helped theater actors make the jump. Also (Law & Order: SVU star) Mariska Hargitay is a lover of theater, and such a champion of theater people making the transition to screen.” Ashford has starred in two major Ryan Murphy productions, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, in which she played Elizabeth Cote, a close friend of murderer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), and then Paula Jones in Impeachment: American Crime Story.
“Nobody really knew who Lizzie was, she was just a window into Andrew Cunanan’s heart,” Ashford said of the first role. “But the world knows what Paula Jones sounds like and feels like. I didn’t want to do an impression of her. I wanted to make her a real person. She has a such a heightened look and accent that if I did it too much it would have pulled the viewer out of the show. I found it to be an opportunity to help people understand a different side of the narrative, and question how they see people in the media, and maybe take stock of, and observe, why someone behaves in the way they do publicly. At her core, I saw Paula as trying to please her husband, which is so heartbreaking. If we could give empathy and compassion to this woman for that alone, then I did my job as an actor. I hope I gave both women agency in their stories they never had before.”
Most recently, Ashford appeared in the sitcom B Positive, the second season of which she especially enjoyed as so many theater actors appeared in episodes, including Ben Vereen, Katie Finneran, and Linda Lavin. “Being able to say Linda Lavin is one of my dearest friends now is one of the treats of my life. And hey, I get to say I was in a (co-executive producer) Chuck Lorre sitcom.”
Ashford’s roles span comedy and drama, but she doesn’t have a preference in performing one over the other. “Chekhov always said his plays were comedies. I would say there is a reason the comedy and tragedy masks are next to each other: They’re the same and live within one another. For me, we laugh at funerals and cry when babies are born. I would say comedy and drama live with each other. I can’t do one without the other. There is clearly an explosion of television we’re seeing, and one thing I think is really exciting are the many strong, fierce, female-driven shows I hope to be part of.”
Ashford’s other great TV love is watching reality TV, which she feasts on royally. The saga of “Scandoval” and the resurgence of Vanderpump Rules is also an abiding passion of Ashford’s, as viewers of a recent edition of Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live will have seen when Ashford appeared alongside Kristen Doute. “I said it on the show, and will say it again, Vanderpump Rules is the Succession of reality TV,” Ashford said, laughing. “Every week we watch and wonder what will happen next. Isn’t it wild? Who would ever have thought Raquel would help the show find a new footing.”
Before the show, Ashford said host Andy Cohen had indicated, apologetically, what the focus of the show would be—less Sweeney, more Tom and Ariana—telling Ashford, “I’m sorry, I want to let you know that on Vanderpump nights there’s a lot of ‘Vanderpump.’”
Ashford’s Bravo devotion extends to “watching all the Housewives, almost from the beginning. We watch Summer House. My husband was once like, ‘Why watch this stuff?’ Now he watches with me. We cover all the Bravo, and this is turning out to be one of the most banger seasons of reality TV I’ve ever seen.” Tapper came with her to WWHL, it is he Ashford kept turning to, as if to say “Can you believe it?” after every gossipy morsel. She laughed. “He’s a total convert now, he asks to sit in the Watch What Happens Live audience every time.”
Ashford’s adoration extends to the stars of the shows. “When I encounter reality television personalities, especially from the Bravo universe, I find myself behaving far more starstruck than I do when faced by great actors. With actors, there’s something about the common craft we share. There’s also a great understanding that we’re not playing ourselves—indeed you hope to play many people not like yourself in your career. In reality TV, it’s them, or a version of them, and it’s always so strange to be around them. I feel so familiar with them. I am just blindly following these people’s lives. It’s like having drinks with someone you didn’t mean to have drinks with, but you’re having a wonderful time anyway.”
Ashford was once the ‘bartender’ on the show in 2013 when Harvey Fierstein was a guest alongside Kim Zolciak (now Zolciak-Biermann), who had a “complicated energy,” Ashford recalled, laughing. “I found her down to earth on Real Housewives of Atlanta. She was unaware of what happened on Broadway in any shape or form. She was living her TV star dream.” She also once saw Kyle Richards, husband Mauricio and their children in Aspen (not being filmed), and sent Richards a DM to say how adorable they all seemed. She didn’t receive a reply.
‘I sound like Mama Rose, but he’s so good!’
Ashford initially saw Mrs. Lovett as similar to Lady Macbeth; as time has gone on she sees her more as Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the Fool in King Lear. “I have fallen in love with her so much,” Ashford said. “I can reconcile with her amorality because it’s unfortunately the product of her social status, patriarchy, and position in life. It’s just survival. And I always say: she doesn’t actually kill anybody. The show ends with the audience being told how the story ends, and I see it as a cautionary tale about revenge, and a reminder you can’t hold on to revenge or resentment because it will eat you up and destroy you. I love the playoff music is a Carousel-sounding version of ‘A Little Priest.’ It’s like this joyous love letter to Angela Lansbury.”
Ashford has met Lansbury—famed for so much, including her own Tony-winning Mrs. Lovett—three times. “I have cried in a weird way every time and had to walk away,” Ashford told The Daily Beast of the encounters. “She is truly one of my idols, one of my heroes, and she represents to me what it is to thrive in this lifetime of being an actor—being kind to people on and off stage, a wonderful wife and mother, and a truly great character actress.”
“Actor for hire, storyteller waiting,” is how Ashford describes herself. She has “nothing specific” planned for after Sweeney Todd. She laughed, looking at her Disney World sweatshirt. “I have no idea, but whenever the sun sets on the show, me, my little boy and my husband are heading to Disney World for a couple of days.” She is “so grateful” for her husband. “He is a brilliant actor, and he has taken care of me, our son, and our old sweet lady dog Gracie, named after Gracie Allen, in a way that I can’t wait to repay for him. Eight shows a week is truly a challenge for the whole family. I’m full of nothing but gratitude to my husband and my sweet son for letting me do this show, and follow this dream.”
She and Tapper didn’t meet on a set; they were set up, and later when they did work together she was first worried in case it didn’t work. But it was fun, which was a relief. As to whether her son has inherited the acting gene, Ashford smiles. Jack was born (in September 2016) six weeks before she did the first Encores concert of Sunday in the Park With George, “and he’s suddenly becoming this incredible visual artist. I see that as a little homage to Sunday in the Park, to have this incredible little artist.” She laughed. “I sound like Mama Rose, but he’s so good!”
Has Ashford faced misogyny and sexism in her career? “I don’t think you can be person in the world and not face adversity in any career and any workplace, so the answer is yes. There have been moments in my past. For me, I have always taken solace in the craft, and whatever the art is in front of me, which I think people generally have been doing since the dawn of time. The art is the outlet, you use the art. I would say I feel there has been an incredible shift in the last five years in people’s awareness that it does exist. Not just for me, as a white female cos woman, but I think for everybody there are more conversations to be had and more equity to be had.”
Ashford loves aging. “Then I get to play all the really good stuff,” she said, laughing. “I find aging to be liberating and fulfilling. If all women could feel that way ‘what a relief dear.’ That’s what Mrs Lovett says.” Ashford paused, and laughed again. “I’ve never actually realized that. I do feel happy about aging.”
For Ashford it has been “very humbling to be part of the rebuilding of American theater” as COVID and economic uncertainty continue to stalk Broadway—sure to be exacerbated by the Tony Awards TV cancelation.
“I feel this is a robust season, more than the one prior to COVID,” Ashford said. “It’s exciting, acknowledging that people need and want theater and are willing to raise money to stage it. The story of the commercial world of theater is a lot of tax-deductible donations at the end of the day. I think a lot of work needs to be done to make the structure of the financial set-up more equitable. Theater has taken a major step forward this year, and I hope will continue to do so. The rest of the entertainment industry is un-versed in how demolished the theater community was by COVID. I don’t think people comprehend how fractured the theater community was—and is still rebuilding from. We’re doing a lot better, but we’re still rebuilding.”
Ashford would welcome more official/federal funding for the arts, as in Britain. “I think there’s a lack of support from government for theater. To me, it’s such a drop in the bucket. Financially, and the wider impact it has, are exponential. As a theatergoer, as a citizen, as a theater creator, and as a mother I would like to see more money funded to the arts. It’s heartbreaking that it’s a private enterprise, because then it makes it about a lot of other things than the art. Art and commerce have to constantly co-exist. If art could just exist without commerce, it would make it lot easier to just make art.”
There should me more opportunity to build on the “steps in the right direction” when it comes to diversity on stage more generally, Ashford said. “I can’t wait to see more female writers write some more infinitely complex female characters. When people ask what my dream roles I always say Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but what I should say is some incredible role in a new play Sarah Burgess writes, or some incredible role I haven’t read yet.”
Ashford would also love to play Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. “Those two characters, Martha and Amanda, are the dark and the light—extremely complicated, strong, horribly funny, uncomfortably direct women who are so opposite to me. I like to play women who aren’t like me, and I love to play clowns because they feel like the child spirit that’s within all of us. They are most open to the dark and the light. When the clown trips and looks back, we laugh, because the reaction is so devastating and honest.”
When this reporter asked about her Hollywood ambitions, Ashford’s eyes comically widened. “Yessss! Marvel. I would love to play Aunt May. I think I’m old enough to play Spider-Man’s aunt somewhere. Come on, bring me to the Spider-Verse. Momma just wants to be a storyteller any way she can. Television now is basically doing 10-hour movies as limited series. I would love to do a couple of three-hour movies.” Indeed, soon to come out is Dust, a movie Ashford shot with Sarah Paulson, in which Ashford plays a “heartbreaking, traumatized” woman who has lost a lot in the 1930’s Dust Bowl.
“Storytelling,” as both word and theme, recurs throughout our conversation. “I love the word so much, especially as I have a little person who is figuring out how the world works, and we work out how the world works through stories,” Ashford told The Daily Beast. “I’ve sold a script here and there. I would love writing to be part of that next journey—to create a world and get it to live on stage or telly or a movie theater. I think storytelling is an act of service, and I would like to commit to giving this service for the rest of my life. Through it we help those around us escape whatever they need to escape from, and we learn to be better humans in the world. I think storytelling plants seeds for little children for being even better humans.”
Reflecting on inhabiting and shrugging off Mrs. Lovett on and off eight times a week, Ashford recalled hearing Emma Thompson speaking about acting on stage as like walking through a veil on to stage, and then, at show’s end, walking back through the veil into the real world.
“That’s something I’ve tried to live by. With this particular piece, I have been able to tell Mrs. Lovett that I love her and I’ll see her tomorrow. There’s something about how she did the best she could, she fought so hard, that helps me say goodbye to her. The playoff music helps me say goodbye to her every night.” The coup de théâtre in the last seconds of the show—which will go unrevealed here—also helps with bidding Mrs. Lovett farewell every evening, until the next time.
“She’s something I will hold in my pocket until the day I am done with the show,” Ashford said of Mrs. Lovett with affection. “Actually, every character I’ve played is like a thread of my creative soul. Each feels like a section of my heart, and I stitch a character into it every time I play a new one. Mrs. Lovett is the shiny new one at the top. She is with me every moment.”