Interview: Thom Sesma and Zachary Noah Piser of Barrow Street's Sweeney Todd
The Hapas of Fleet Street
By Melissa Slaughter
A few hours before showtime, Thom Sesma, star of Barrow Street Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd, is sitting in a delightful cafe in the West Village. He greets me with a smile and a hug when I arrive. Zachary Noah Piser, the company’s most recent Tobias Ragg, meets us a few minutes later. It’s an all-Hapa table and an all-Hapa conversation about musical theatre, art, and race. Thom and Zach are Hapas of different generations, with a decade or so between the two. They have different experiences, and different perspectives. But they share a clear understanding of what it means to be Hapa in show business.
Thom and Zach began performing in Sweeney Todd in February of 2018; I got the chance to see them early in their run. I’ll be completely candid and say that I had already seen this particular production when their second cast was mid-run, starring the incomparable Carolee Carmello as Mrs. Lovett and veteran actor Hugh Panaro as a dark and grumbling Sweeney Todd. But Sesma and Piser’s renditions of Todd and Toby, respectively, brought new life to each of their characters, with nuance that I hadn’t seen before. Having seen this iteration, as a Hapa audience member, it was strangely emotional to watch these two men onstage.
Theatre fans will hear the name Sweeney Todd and immediately hear the low pitch rumbles of the opening number: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd/His skin was pale and his eye was odd.”
For non-musical-theatre lovers, think of Sweeney Todd as the Breaking Bad of musical theatre; an expertly written piece of storytelling that highlights the murderous rise and fall of an anti-hero. Written by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Harold Prince, and premiering in 1977, Sweeney Todd has a special place in musical theatre history. And for many performers, it has a special place in their hearts.
Thom Sesma: I followed Sweeney Todd since it first came out. I had the vinyl, the double album, in 1978. And I was listening to it until I ate through the groves on the LP. I still can’t quite believe I get to do Sweeney Todd. Why? Because I’m Hapa. And I’m doing it! So why is that a question?
Thom is a Hapa who’s more than paid his dues. His list of theatre credentials is long, and he was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award this year for his role in Classic Stage Company’s stripped-down production of Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures.
It made sense that Thom, a well-respected and well-loved actor, would step into such an iconic role for the last few months of the run, but even he was overwhelmed with the idea of a mixed-race Sweeney.
Piser is not to be left out of this love fest. His Toby is charming, heart-breaking, vulnerable and beautifully naive. He cut his teeth in Wicked as Boq, the boy doomed for unrequited love and a witch’s curse. Zach announces his full stage name with pride.
Zach: Zachary Noah Piser is my professional name and you can thank my father for that! When I was going Equity, I said, “I'll probably just be Zach Piser; no one has used that.” And my dad said, “I gave you a full name for a reason.” So I was like, “okay,” so I used my full name. My mom converted [to Judaism] before she had me. He grew up as an Orthodox Jew, so it was a big deal for him to not only marry someone who was not White, but also someone who is not Jewish. She converted, and then they had me. So I was a real Jew cause it goes through your mother’s side.
Thom: Wow. Wow I had no idea!
This is why we have Hapa Mag.
The two were aware of how rare and special it is it have two Hapas in the same production. Thom tells us a story about when excitement of their casting when the press release came out.
Thom: I got so many emails and so many Facebook messages and texts and people saying, “Oh my God, you're going to work with Zach! You're gonna love him so much; he’s so awesome.” And for two days, I was like, “where’s Zach? I gotta meet this guy, this awesome young Hapa.” I haven't met that many Hapas who work a lot.
I have a lot of Chinese-American, Korean-American, Japanese-American, Filipino-American [friends who work a lot,] but the Hapa thing is a distinct category which sometimes I have just missed out on. In the same way that people just missed out on me. Because we fall in between the cracks.
Zach: It’s really funny cause my parents are visiting right now. And my parents are both physicians. They support my career a lot; they’ve been there for me since the beginning. But for them to see someone like Thom, who is a Hapa, who is mixed race, who’s kinda like a Jack of all Trades. I mean, the man does plays, musical theatre, Shakespeare, everything, TV, film. It gave them a little bit of like "oh, there’s someone who’s done this before you that has longevity." It gives them hope, which then inevitably gives me hope.
Getting back to their current projects, just what makes Sweeney Todd so special? The world has seen the stripped-down John Doyle Sweeney Todd, the Tim Burton-ized film adaptation, the giant concert versions and the small and intimate productions. Is there anything new to do? Well, this time it’s in a real-life pie shop. This interpretation of Sweeney, which originally ran 2014 in the UK, was set in a Victorian Era pie shop. The pie shop tradition continues in a nook of downtown Manhattan. Audience members can pay for Pre-Pie and Mash. Former White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses serves as the official pie master. That’s President Obama’s former pastry chef, so you can live your best pie life.
The pie shop doubles as the set. The lights go down and the cast proceeds to walk on the tables, use their silverware as instruments, and sit in the audience. It’s immersive, it’s in your face, and it’s an entertaining challenge for the audience and actors alike.
Zach: The fact that it's immersive, that fact that it’s in this tiny shop… that in-and-of itself makes the interpretation and the view, the outside view of the story change, obviously. But I think, at its core, this production of Sweeney Todd is still staying as true as it can to Sondheim’s vision for the show. [This] was made clear when he came and saw the show and said, “yeah, this is it!”
Thom: The choice of words, the terminology that [Zach] just chose to use, “the core of the show,” is very much the object in this production for the actors, and for the musicians, for everyone who is involved in the making of the show. [It] is that this aesthetic has forced us to dig deeper and deeper and deeper into the core of the narrative. And I’m discovering things about the show… it’s an emotionally, and, for lack of a better word, spiritually deeper show than I've ever really discovered before.
Zach: I think, for me, what’s the best part about this show is also sometimes the worst or the hardest part about the show. When you do a show that is this immersive, it's so easy to be distracted. All you can think about is continuing to further the work, further your work, focus on your scene partner, focus on the piece, focus on what all the basic things you think of as an actor, because it’s enhanced. There's so many things that will get you off-guard, you really have to fully immerse your own self to the show. There's no such thing as auto-piloting.
Inevitably, the topic turned to race. We are Hapas, after all. And being Hapa, living between two worlds and two cultures, can be a strange burden. As actors, Thom and Zach understand this all too well. Controversies still arise when characters that aren't race-specific are cast with non-white actors. See Diana Huey, star of the recent Little Mermaid National Tour. Some people were up in arms over casting an Asian-American woman to play a ginger fish. And though this certainly isn’t the first production of Sweeney to cast people of color, I wanted to pick Thom and Zach’s brains on the importance of color-conscious casting.
Sweeney Todd is a show that is very distinctly set in a specific time and place in history, and it’s also in a very specific place in music theatre canon. So it should be a show that lends itself very well to having a diverse cast because it’s so established and because it has to be continually updated it in order to keep it interesting. I asked Thom and Zach their thoughts. Are there other shows that could be updated with a diverse cast?
Thom: Yeah, I think what I've learned over the years is that it works in any show unless it's very very specifically about race. Like Allegiance [a Broadway musical loosely based on George Takei’s experience in Japanese Internment camps during WWII].
Zach: Or Once on This Island. Shows that are very specific to a heritage, or a culture. The culture and heritage is investigated, researched in the show. It is a cornerstone of every part of the show.
Thom: For the most part, people who have objections to diversity on stage, when they articulate their objections, they reveal more about themselves than they do about the play itself. Rather than illuminating the play, they illuminate, I’m not going to say their own racism, but their own perspective on what race is. And I think more than anything else, it’s sad.
Because it doesn’t give art the chance to be spontaneous and to grow which is what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be an active thing. Art in-and-of itself is not inert. A sculpture is not inert because it speaks to generation after generation after generation in different ways. You know, same with a play, a movie and a television show. Those things should be seen in different ways over time by different audiences.
Zach: I think something that [Melissa] said, that’s something that I think about a lot, is the idea that a neutral actor is, even in my mind, white. When you say the word “actor,” I think of white person. There might be some hidden subconscious baggage behind it. But that’s just in my brain to see cause that’s what I grew up seeing.
Thom: You know, all good artists have to ask hard questions of themselves when they're creating their work. And it always seems that in theatre, the last hard question people are willing to ask is “how do want something to look” in terms of a diverse landscape onstage. So my question to them is “why are the other hard questions easier for you to ask yourself?” You know, questions about the aesthetic of your play, questions about style, questions about--
Zach: -- how many musicians, what’s the music, orchestrations….
Thom: Questions about whether someone is going to fly in this production or not. Why is the race question so hard to answer? I don’t know what the answer is. I think a lot of it has to do with what people call “institutional racism.” But I really don’t know what the solution is. Other than the fact that people have to be reminded everyday that this hard question is a valid one and has to be moved up to the top of the list of questions.
I think in many respects because that question raises other questions. It really does raise the specter of how do we define racism. That's a terrifying question to ask in the United States of America in the year 2018. Are we inherently a racist country? If our feelings about race are reflected in art - and I’m not going to say it, I’m gonna ask the question - does it make us a racist country?
Zach: There needs to be generational change. [With] people in my generation and older, the early millennials… as a young musical theatre buff, [my first exposure to shows like] Into the Woods [had] white people playing parts.
Now you have Gen Z, who are listening to Hamilton. That is what’s playing in their head. That’s musical theatre to them. And that generation, they [also] see race, but they see race in a totally different way than I see race. Especially when it comes to theatre, because that show is at the forefront of everyone’s mind and will be for decades to come. It just so happens that the music [of Hamilton] is being sung by people of color. So I just think that systemically, it's all just a generational change. Hopefully the younger generation will continue to usher in this new understanding of race.
With all this talk of Art and casting, how did they feel about going in for Sweeney, a show about traditional white lower class folks in the depths of London’s Fleet Street? Thom isn’t the first man of color to take on the starring role. Broadway superstar Norm Lewis recently did an extended run with the company before Thom’s tenure. So Barrow Street is open to color-conscious casting, right? The answer is a resounding “yes.”
Thom: Here’s the interesting thing: when I went in to audition for this, there was never any question in my mind that I was going in as an actor of a different ethnic background.
Zach: It was the same for me. In the audition room there were people of all different colors going after it. I walked in and it was all different colors, even at the final callback.
I think it should be said that we’re not making excuses for diversity. But we’re both very grateful that the two of us happen to be in this production at the same time. It was surprising at first. But now it’s just like we’re doing a show and we’re just playing these parts and we’re these characters. It’s not a question of “will this make sense.” It makes sense. It’s here. And there’s that degree of faith that these people are taking these chances and opening the door for people of color. Thank you, [director] Bill Buckhurst. Thank you, [producer Jenny Gersten], all the producers, who were like, “yeah, let's see everyone.” Because I don’t know how often that happens.
Thom: One of the really remarkable and lovely things about this is that the question of diversity was never brought up by anyone in the company from management or from production. It was just taken for granted that we are just actors, that we are just part of the creative process.
And you know, Jenny was always very, very lovely; she is the best. She came up to us the first time we all went out as a group. I think we all went out to see the previous cast. And I don’t remember who, but one of us referred to us as being the “replacement cast.” She stopped them and she said, “you are not the replacement cast. You are the new cast.”
She wanted us to be our own. She wanted us to have our own identities. And Bill did the same thing when he came in. He knew he was putting us into a template that had been set, that we were doing the same shows. But we were doing a new show at the same time. We were bringing something to the show, just like the previous cast, that had never been present before. And it was simply based on what we had to offer. It was remarkable.
Zach: We don’t feel like machine cogs just going in doing our jobs. It feels like we’re actually going in from the beginning.
Thom: I did Sweeney Todd years and years and years ago. I did a version out in the regional theatre world when I was younger and crazier and wilder... and I don’t know how I managed to get through it. But when I was asked to audition for this, I almost didn’t go in because I didn't know what I had to bring to it. I thought I knew the show. I thought I knew myself as an actor. And then twenty years after the fact, I’m looking at this material again and I’m reading it and it is striking me in a different way than it ever had before.
Thom: It’s not because the material had changed, and it’s not because I was a smarter actor, or I had more craft to bring to it. It’s because I am a completely different person than I was earlier. I’ve straightened out some things in my life, I’ve settled down more. I’ve experienced loss; I’ve experienced growth and it wasn’t the same material because I was different.
I had learned something new about acting. I had learned something new about myself. And in a really, really wonderful way, I learned something new about a show that I have loved since 1978. And hopefully that’s what’s happening for audiences who see this show, if they know it well. They are coming to see a show that they’ve never seen before.
END OF INTERVIEW
The sun begins to set, and the cafe is closing down for the day. The actors' call time is right around the corner. I could listen to them both all day. Thom with his resonate, thoughtful, dulcet tones, and Zach with his energy and vivacity, discusi race and art in America. Two Hapas; two generations; two actors who have a show to do. We hug good-byes, and go on our way. At the risk of sounding cliche, it was an absolute pleasure to speak to them both. Sweeney Todd only runs for a few more months. I hope to get a chance to see it just one more time, but until then, I plug in my headphones and and listen to a familiar rumble, before I jump on the train, “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is running at the Barrow Street Theatre through August 2018. Buy your tickets here.
Melissa has lived in all four time zones in the contiguous United States. A former actor in Seattle, WA, Melissa now resides in NYC as a content creator. She is the producer of the We're Not All Ninjas podcast, which she also hosts with fellow Hapa Mag writer, Alex Chester. Melissa also writes for online blogs Nerdophiles and The Nerds Of Color. Find her @NotAllNinjasPod.