Pop-Culturalist Chats with Alex Finke
Alex Finke is making a splash in one of the hottest tickets downtown: an immersive, crazy-brilliant new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. The show – which we love every time we see it – trades in intimacy, as the tables where audience members feast on meat pies (don’t worry: we don’t think Mrs. Lovett cooked them up) before the show double as part of the stage. As Johanna, a young woman whose guardian has locked her away so he can creepily marry her, Alex Finke and her killer voice are two of the many, many things this great production has going for it. Refreshingly, her Johanna is as steel-spined as she is sweet, and she gives the impression that, though men are constantly pushing and pulling her in various directions, she isn’t as needy or weak as they seem to think she is.
We recently got to talk to Alex about what it’s like being part of such a unique show and found out a little more about her career, her faves, and why Stephen Sondheim is a national treasure.
P-C: What makes this a really unique and interesting production is that the stage isn’t really a stage in the traditional sense: the entire theater is the performance space and there isn’t a fourth wall. As a result, an intimacy arises between actors and audience. Does this create any challenges for you as a performer?
Alex: It definitely started off seeming as a challenge when we got into the rehearsal room. When I came in with the British cast originally, none of us Americans at that time had ever done anything immersive like this before, at least in a space so small and intimate. We were all a little nervous about this great unknown and what this experience would be like. What was interesting is that there was no real way to know what it was going to feel like until we were in previews and there were people in the seats. There were rehearsals in the pie shop where we could get comfortable in that space, but until you have those bodies and that energy [you can’t truly know]. Because the space is so small, the audience is another character in the show; it’s very alive and different every night. What I thought was going to be the greatest challenge, and something that was very terrifying from a distance, has really grown to become very empowering and thrilling for audience and actor alike. I think I’ll have a hard time going back to a traditional space after this. There’s something freeing about being able to be small and not have to play to the back of a very large house– you can just exist and trust that the story will reach everyone. I think that’s part of the design from Simon Kenny and also from our director. There is something very cinematic about the production, which is really fun and unique.
P-C: This production of Sweeney Todd is in good company. Over the past few years, we’ve seen many immersive productions, both on and off Broadway. Sleep No More and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 in particular come to mind. Why do you think audiences have been flocking to immersive productions like these in recent years?
Alex: I think it allows the audience to be part of the story in a deeper way than traditional productions with a fourth wall. There’s something more communal about it. Theater is always a shared experience no matter where the audience is sitting or how the actors are performing it. I think it’s especially thrilling when the audience is up close and personal– they can really be a part of something. They’re not having their own experience that is separate from the actor; they’re having the same experience as someone else. I think something that works so well about Sweeney Todd in particular is that it’s such a dark and suspenseful story that people can really feel like they’re on the edge of their seats and experience this wild tale in a very visceral way.
P-C: What is your favorite part of the show?
Alex: It rotates from night to night, depending on the audience. But my consistently favorite moment is the top of the show. We have a pre-show when everyone can come in and experience the pie shop to have their pie. Then the cast enters, and we get to sit down and chat with the audience at their tables. The show then begins with Tobias flipping the light switch– the lights go off, the candles light, and the piano starts. That moment for me is really thrilling because it’s the first collective moment where the audience gets a taste of what they’re in for. You can feel the air change in the room. The adrenaline pumps when you have that moment and you get so excited to perform and share the story. At the beginning in rehearsals, I remember our director saying, “Don’t put your foot on the gas. You gotta lean back and let everyone come to you a little bit.” We wanted to be so front-footed with it because we got so excited.
P-C: Has Stephen Sondheim been involved with this production?
Alex: He has come to the show multiple times. He actually had us over to his home. It was a total pinch-me moment. It was one of the first things we did as a cast—we were still in rehearsals at the time, and he invited us over. It was the first thing all of us had done socially outside of work, and I think all of us were just in a dream to be there with the man himself in his home. It was lovely. He’s just been so generous and so supportive of this production. It’s really blown all of us away and it’s made this experience even more special than any of us could have imagined. To be able to sing this incredible score ten feet from the man is a pretty crazy thing. It’s a huge honor to perform one of his shows in this way and that he would come and meet us. It’s a total surreal experience. What’s even weirder now is that when he comes I’m not nervous out of my mind anymore. He’s come so many times and I’m not longer on the verge of fainting from nervousness!
P-C: What other classic shows might be fun to do in this type of immersive setting?
Alex: Oh gosh. I’ve never given thought to this. Joe Taylor always said Little Shop of Horrors would be cool, and I agree with him.
P-C: Everyone has a different story of how they got into this business. How did you end up in theater?
Alex: I always danced growing up, and my grandparents were the ones that introduced me to the classic musicals—all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, My Fair Lady, etc. I really fell in love with the music. I remember growing up seeing PBS specials and saying, “I want to be on Broadway!” before I knew what it was or that it was actually a profession. I did my first musical my freshman year of high school with an organization in downtown Dayton where I grew up called the Muse Machine. A big fundraiser for this organization was a musical where kids from all the surrounding towns could audition to be a part of the show. So it had a student-run crew, orchestra, cast– everybody from all different places and all different high schools. That was my first taste of performing in a musical on stage. It’s also where I met students that were older than me that were pursuing it at a collegiate and professional level, or planning to do that. That’s when my eyes really opened to the fact that it was something I could make a career of. So by my junior year of high school I was committed to making that happen and looking into college programs to audition for and get a degree in performance training. That’s how I found myself here.
P-C: If you weren’t an actor, what would you be doing?
Alex: I was really interested in genetic counseling. That, or I’d be interested in teaching. There wasn’t anything else I was passionate about like I was passionate about performing. So this is the only path I ever truly saw for myself. Ever other interest was maybe a back-up plan, maybe not. Nothing ever felt as real to me as this did.
P-C: What has your favorite New York moment been since moving here from Ohio?
Alex: There are moments when I feel I’ve been initiated almost. There was one year at Thanksgiving I was carrying a big tray of dessert to take to a family friend’s house and walking to the subway and someone went straight into me, and I went flying and the tray went flying, and I was on the ground picking everything up and yelled, “Happy Thanksgiving to you too, a**hole!” And I thought, “Oh my gosh! This is not my Ohio self!” I actually briefly lived here when I was 17 in the summer before I went to college and I studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse. I was walking with a friend after class who was going to get his guitar repaired and we hear on the opposite side of the street from us, “Stop! Stop! Somebody’s got my purse!” Like, out of a movie. We looked across the street and some guy had stolen this purse and was running down the sidewalk. And for whatever reason this gentleman decided to turn and doubled back on our side of the street. So this man with the stolen purse starts running at us and—this is one of my favorite New York moments ever—everyone on our sidewalk jumps out to try and stop this guy to get the woman’s purse back. Everybody started throwing their bag at him, hitting him, trying to grab his clothes. He kept getting past everybody. Finally he gets to me and my friend, and I just remember whipping my water bottle out of my purse and hitting him on the shoulder as my friend grabbed the purse, and we got it back! It was so cool—all of these strangers banded together for that second until the woman got her purse back, and the day continued. Only in New York would that happen.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
Guilty Pleasure TV Show
I watch reruns of 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, and The Office a lot. That’s like my 30-minute comedy before bed. But recently, Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. I could not stop watching. I flew through that. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. I used to watch The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, but I’ve kind of fallen off the bandwagon.
Favorite Play or Musical
I have so many– it’s like asking to pick a favorite child. My Fair Lady is the show that made me want to do musical theater. I can thank my grandparents for that one.
I do calligraphy. I’ve recently gotten into doing wedding invitations and little quotes for people’s walls if they ask. I find it really meditative.
Sweeney Todd Photo Credit: Joan Marcus