When Broadway star Carolee Carmello was growing up in Albany, she treasured her summer evenings at SPAC, taking in concerts such as James Taylor from the lawn while dreaming of performing there herself someday. That milestone was looking elusive, however, as SPAC historically hasn’t been a home for Broadway shows. But Opera Saratoga changed that last year when it brought Man of La Mancha to the amphitheater. After its resounding success, theater-lovers will this year get to see the musical thriller Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street—with Capital Regionite Carmello starring.
“I’m thrilled,” says the Broadway veteran who’s starred in shows such as Falsettos, Finding Neverland, Mamma Mia! and most recently as Dolly Levi in the touring production of Hello, Dolly. “It’s going to be nostalgic for me. SPAC is a very special place. I always dreamed of performing there but thought I’d probably never get to. My family is still in the area, plus my friends from high school. Showing them what I do is going to be great. My folks come to NYC to my shows, but this is in their backyard.”
Carmello gets to be wickedly villainous in Sweeney Todd, which uses dark humor to tell the story of the wrongly accused title character as he returns home from prison to exact his revenge. He partners up with the unassuming pie shop owner Mrs. Nellie Lovett—played by Carmello—to get rid of any potentially tasty evidence. The show plays SPAC June 29 and June 30 and is part of Opera Saratoga’s new summer festival model, which sees performances of several shows hit venues all over the Capital Region. Carmello’s co-star is internationally acclaimed bass baritone Craig Colclough, playing Sweeney Todd.
“Sweeney Todd is thrilling in a dark way,” says Carmello, a three-time Tony nominee for her work in Parade, Lestat and Scandalous. “I hope people won’t be scared of the subject matter. If people don’t know the show, it is actually really fun, not daunting. It’s so funny—really entertaining. Don’t be afraid of it!”
Carmello would know: She recently sang the part of Mrs. Lovett off-Broadway, with only three musicians and in a tiny space that allowed her to walk on the tabletops where the audience was sitting and sing without a mic.
“SPAC is completely the opposite,” she says. “You’re far from the audience, and there’s a full orchestration. I loved doing the role, so doing it again on a big open-air stage is exciting.”
The music and lyrics for Sweeney Todd were written by the great Stephen Sondheim, who is known for a particular style of complicated rhythms that make it sound almost as if the actors are both singing and talking at the same time.
“Sondheim is tricky to learn, but once you have it in your body, it starts to feel more natural,” Carmello says. “When you’re doing Sondheim, you want your audience to be on a ride with you. I’m having a flashback to my first performance of Sweeney Todd in New York City. Sondheim came to our very first performance. We could have used a little more time to settle in before he came! It is already challenging to do Sondheim, even more so when Sondeheim is in the audience!”
The legendary composer and lyricist passed away last November, which makes this performance even more poignant and impactful for Carmello.
“It’s a great way,” she says, “to honor Sondheim and his memory the year of his passing.”