Worst pies in London
Even That’s Polite: The Worst Pies in London
When in doubt, take a bite
Is it just disgusting?
You must admit it
It’s nothing but a crust
Here, drink it, you’ll need it.
Worst pies in London
During a short preview of the upcoming Austen Opera “Sweeney Todd” earlier this month at KMFA’s Draylon Mason Studio, Mela Sarajane Daly played Mrs. Lovett with undisguised gusto.
Her 19th-century London meat pie maker can’t afford meat, which is why she calls them “simply disgusting.” Later in this Stephen Sondheim show, Mrs. Lovett teams up with the main character, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, to cook pie meat – human.
Singing “The Worst Pies in London,” Daley, who is familiar to the Austin audience as a singer, actor and producer, made Sondheim’s rhythms wobble and his lyrics crackle. In the published score, each line is accompanied by a large gesture – cutting dough, beating it, rolling it out, serving beer.
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To emphasize these actions, Daly stamped her foot on the echoing floor, which, even in the cramped studio, signaled the coming horror.
In short, it’s a lot of words, music and movements compressed into one song. And on this day, Daley was just the kind of performer who could do it.
“Getting that role in your body and mouth is almost an athletic feat,” Daly says. “If I was paid per word, I would be a millionaire.”
Sweeney Todd: opera or Broadway musical?
This widely viewed preview was provocatively titled “Sondheim: An Opera Genius?” The performance was led by Timothy Myers, Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the Austin Opera. Soon the director of the play, Doug Scholz-Carlson, joined him.
The theme was timely: Sondheim, who passed away last year, transformed the Broadway stage. Theater figures are trying to prove it: A 2021 revival of his Company won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and recently closed on Broadway; meanwhile, a national tour is planned. A production of the hit “Merry We Roll” has just finished off-Broadway and is heading to Broadway. A major revival of Sweeney Todd is waiting in the wings, set to premiere on Broadway in February.
Yet opera companies love Todd almost as much. I have seen it successfully staged by two different opera companies. In fact, since its opening on Broadway in 1979, I have never seen a bad Sweeney Todd, regardless of the size or skill of the troupe. It’s so solid and exciting.
Myers started the conversation that evening by noticing the obvious differences between opera and Broadway musicals. For example, the first genre is usually sung, while the songs of the second are most often intertwined with oral dialogue.
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He and Scholz-Carlson delved much deeper into the types of singers and actors that might be employed in opera and theater and how they approach music and rehearsals.
Myers reminded the public of Sondheim’s controversial interview, in which he stated that the main difference can be found not on the stage, but in the audience. The opera audience, seeing “Sweeney Todd” at the opera house, expects one thing; the Broadway audience expects something else. Even from the same material.
Pretty convincing argument, if you think about it.
Two more songs rounded out the performance: Kevin Burdett sang about sweet revenge as the lead character, and Raven McMillon spoke about the sad dreams of imprisoned Joanna in The Green Finch and the Hemp Bird.
Myers concluded by telling the story of the Broadway opening of Sweeney Todd. One opera director told a critic that he had always wanted the play to be staged at his opera house and called it one of the finest American operas ever written.
Figuring out how to do it all on her terms
Fortunately, the Austin Opera hired the multi-talented Austin Daley to play Mrs. Lovett. She not only sings opera and Broadway, she is equally at home in country, pop, classical music and jazz.
As the preeminent singer of Conspirare, the city’s Grammy-winning choir, she has raised all these musical flags season after season.
Given that she spent the first 15 or so years of her life in little Jacksonville, Texas, it’s no wonder she was the first to conquer the country. After winning the vocal competition, she was accepted into the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Booker T. Washington in Dallas. Her family moved there so that she could take advantage of her education. As a specialty, she chose jazz vocals; Norah Jones—yes, that same Norah Jones—was her pianist.
She soon secured a position as a backing vocalist for a touring country artist headlined by Nelda Kane, the third of the five wives of financier T. Boone Pickens.
“We played, it seemed, at every state fair in the country,” Daley says.
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Around the same time, she first heard her real name “Mela”. Before that, everyone called her “Sarajane”, her middle name.
“My parents divorced when I was 8 months old,” Daley says. “My father liked Mela. My mom liked Sarajane. When someone yelled “Mela” while reading my Social Security card, I heard my real name for the first time.”
This became her stage name. What can come in handy: if someone calls her “Mela”, it’s for work, if “Sarajane”, then no.
After high school, she won an audition for NYU’s prestigious Broadway Intern program, but chose not to risk her family’s modest means—she was raised by a single mother whose cancer was recurring at the time—on such an expensive program.
Instead, she visited what was then known as Southwestern Texas in San Marcos.
“For some reason I thought it was the sea,” she jokes. “What I got in San Marcos was great training.”
In the theater department, she appeared in one musical, Carnival, before being recruited to become a music specialist.
“It was there that I staged my first opera, The Merry Widow,” she recalls. “I fell in love with her. It’s funny that after country, jazz and pop, classical music was my last.”
She was hired again, this time in 2001, for a master’s degree in opera at the University of Texas, where she worked with the indomitable Martha Deseridge. In the meantime, she traveled back and forth to New York for concerts.
“I took every job as a singer that I could get, working unimaginable hours,” she says. “I felt very backward. Unlike other singers, I have never had private lessons. It gave me the opportunity to say, “I’m going to work harder.” You see, from the age of 15 I had no financial support, no one could fix it.”
What Daley didn’t quite understand was the demands of the operatic lifestyle. If you’re good, any opera company can hire you for three weeks to rehearse and play the role, and then it’s time for the next concert. For example, her calls for “Sweeney Todd” go from 10 am to 10 pm.
At 25, she spoke to opera superstar Renee Fleming at a private home concert in Austin.
“She was the one we thought was perfect,” Daly says. “However, the way she described her life – three weeks here, three weeks there, never at home – sounded awful. I had a panic attack.”
Eventually, Daley abandoned regular operatic work and instead took up concerts, often performing what she calls “greatest hits arias”.
“You can wear pretty dresses,” she says. “You work from Wednesday to Sunday, and you get paid the same as someone who plays for three weeks at the opera.”
Life had other plans as Daly met her future husband, Austin Symphony Orchestra conductor Peter Bay, at a music store on Drag.
“I knew I wanted to be a mom,” she says. “I wanted a home, society and time to watch my husband’s show.”
The couple have a son, a budding athlete.
Daly was also in complete control of her career, producing herself.
“You can control who you work for and avoid power imbalances in the industry,” she says. “You are no longer just a commodity.”
Her most impressive achievement as a producer to date has been the full production of Leonard Bernstein’s massive and rarely revived Mass. Under Bay, he combined music, dance and theater at the Long Center. Numerous other performing arts groups have collaborated. Critics and audiences went crazy over him.
Mrs. Lovett’s game: “Here’s a woman who survived what others could not”
Each Mrs. Lovett is unique. Yes, they all speak with cockney accents, at least the ones I’ve heard. And, as a rule, they are age appropriate.
Plus, they come in all shapes and sizes. Some sound street rough and noisy. Others are mostly cute or smart. One of the funniest moments came from comedian Randy Rainbow, who sang Mrs. Lovett’s “By the Sea” with a meaningful wink at an unseen audience for a streaming video commemorating Sondheim’s 90th birthday.
“I saw her play dumb,” Daley says. “I saw how she was portrayed as unattractive. I completely disagree with this choice.”
Every Mrs. Lovett since 1979 has carefully avoided comparisons with the late Angela Lansbury, who conceived the part on Broadway. (Smart move. Only Lansbury could have done Lansbury.)
“I love her,” Daley says of Mrs. Lovett. “I feel connected to her. I protect her. I have to fight, this feeling of desperation. Here is a woman who survived what others could not.
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Her Mrs. Lovett always wanted a family and lived close to Todd, his beautiful wife and daughter. She witnessed Todd go insane after the corrupt Judge Turpin banished a barber to gain access to the women in his family.
“She missed him,” Daley says. “Think about it: Even without eating almost anything, she kept his very expensive razors for 15 years.”
But does she become an accomplice in serial murder and a direct supplier of cannibalism?
“Everything happens gradually,” Daly says of Lovett’s moral evolution. “And this is a prime example of an unbalanced power structure. One person (Turpin and his team) says who is human and who is not. I can say, “I can demote you too!” This is what you do when you have nothing.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s amazing what you do when you’re cornered.”
If You Go: Sweeney Todd at the Austin Opera
When: 19:30 January 28 and February 2 and 14:30 February 5.
Where: Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive.
Expenses: from 39 to 239 dollars.