Sweeney Todd Star Jordan Fisher on Conquering Sondheim Lyrics and Recovering From His Eating Disorder: I Would Go Days Without Food

Jordan Fisher savors those 7 p.m. showtimes. It’s not that there’s a huge difference on the nights that Broadway’s revival of “Sweeney Todd” starts at 8 p.m. But the extra hour of freedom after curtain call at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre means he gets more time to spend with his family.

“I’ll get to bed an hour early and get up with my son so we can hang and have a little bit more time to chill in the morning,” Fisher says over espresso at a swanky bar in Manhattan’s theater district. He got married during the pandemic, and the couple welcomed their first child in last June. “A lot of my mornings are dictated by how late I go to bed. With a schedule like this, we go to work hours after people clocked out of their offices. My body has to get used to it.”

Despite the late nights, Fisher is still giddy at returning to the stage — opposite Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford — in Stephen Sondheim’s grim classic “Sweeney Todd.” He’s the first actor of color on Broadway to play Anthony Hope, a young sailor who befriends the demon barber of Fleet Street and falls in love with Todd’s daughter Johanna Barker. It’s the third bout on Broadway for the 29-year-old actor, who made his debut in “Hamilton” before taking over the lead role in “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Shortly after opening night, Fisher spoke to Variety about the joys of reviving Sondheim as well as the recovery from a difficult period that led to an eating disorder diagnosis. “I feel stronger for going through it,” he says of that time.

Have you adjusted to being back on Broadway?

Yeah, it doesn’t take me too long. Because I started in the industry so young, my body is used to having to shift my schedule a lot. I can acclimate pretty quickly.

Do you have to be a night owl to be on Broadway?

You don’t have to be a night owl, but it is helpful to be someone that functions more in the evening. My creative time has always been when the house is asleep and the world is asleep.

It feels silly to ask any theater person if they have a relationship to Sondheim’s work. But what does it mean to be part of this show?

It’s a dream come true. You’re right — you ask any theater person their relationship to Sondheim, you’re going to get a dissertation. We all love to talk about how close we are to somebody we don’t know. But it’s because of what he has taught us. He was indirectly a lot of our mentors and teachers, even if we never got a chance to shake his hand. I did not. I was very close to and missed that chance by a margin. But that didn’t make me feel any more distant from his work. His passing only made his stuff more truthful and honest. It means so much to come to work every day and it be a Sondheim show. The fact that it’s “Sweeney” is a whole other thing.

Did you have to audition?

Tommy Kail [who directed the revival] and I go way back. We did “Grease Live” like seven or eight years ago and we’ve remained friends since. He hit up my team via email late last summer. This was pretty late in the process. I got the email as well, like “Hey, we’re doing this thing. I love the idea of you as Anthony. The Sondheim camp doesn’t know you, so would you be down to put yourself on a tape?” And so that’s what we did. It didn’t require much deliberation. It was very much, “I can’t believe this revival is happening, and at this capacity and with these people, that I’m even in the thought process.” It’s mind blowing.

Your last three Broadway shows have been very well-known musicals. Is there more pressure when audiences are familiar with the material?

Yeah, it is a different experience. I’ve met a handful of people at the stage door who saw the original production with Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou and Victor Garber, and then they see this show and it’s turned on its head for them, even though it’s the same piece. We’re giving them something they’ve never experienced before — even if they know the show like the back of their hands. As an audience member, I’m thinking about it from Joe Schmoe’s perspective. Maybe they saw the Johnny Depp film. I know with confidence they’re not going to experience what they think they’re going to. And there’s power in that. We all thought we knew “Sweeney” going into that first music rehearsal. And then it was a lot of “Holy shit, really? It’s that?”

Is there a specific process to memorizing and performing Sondheim lyrics?

Yes, good luck. It tests your belief in yourself. Sondheim is capable of getting so much information to an audience in the matter of a three and a half minutes. The whole “Kiss Me” sequence of Anthony and Joanna figuring out what they’re going to do, how they’re going to get out, their relationship, falling in love, devising their plan to go to Todd, getting cleaned up and getting married, blah, blah, blah… without Sondheim, that would take probably six scenes and 45 minutes to course through. We get all of that done in a five-to-six minute song.

With that comes a lot of lyrics and information. So the challenge for the actor is not just the physicality and feat doing the song and getting all of the words out, but making the story clear. Sondheim writes from an actor’s perspective. That’s why we love him so much. You don’t have to search for what to do. It’s all in the text. My process, to answer your question, is to say the words over and over again. Maria [Bilbao] and I would just talk the lyrics back and forth at the same cadence and same tempo constantly.

“Sweeney Todd” is a long show. What are you doing when you’re not on stage?

I spent a lot of time in the orchestra pit. I’ve got a chair in the brass section and a chair on the string section. I’m an orchestra kid. I played French horn in school. That’s my comfort zone.

You recently shared on “The Drew Barrymore Show” that you were diagnosed with an eating disorder. What was it like to talk about it on such a big platform?

I was ready to talk about it. I’ve been in recovery for a year and almost five months now. And it’s been the best year and five months of my life. There are people who know me well, and I didn’t talk about any of it. Anybody who has followed me on social media is seeing awesome things. They’ve seen my company go public, my return to Broadway in this beautiful, massive Sondheim revival. They’ve seen me have a kid, move to Florida, all these really great and wonderful things, and not know that it has also been one of the most challenging, tumultuous times in my life. To shed light on that is a reminder that people are on their own journeys, and to remind people to be gentle.

How did you realize you were struggling with an eating disorder?

I have a history with anxiety and depression, and it was a combination of things. It was a super stressful time. My wife was in her first trimester, which was hard on her body. We were in the hospital pretty frequently. I had developed walking pneumonia between taking care of her, remounting “Dear Evan Hansen” and producing a film that was 2,000 miles away from me. I was selling my house and buying a new one in a different state that I had never even seen. We were cooped up in a little hotel room while I was in rehearsals for “Evan Hansen” because our apartment wasn’t ready.

The way that manifested in me was physically not being able to eat. It had happened before, but not at this level. I would go days without food. I would try so desperately to eat. I love food, which is why I never thought what I was dealing with could be considered an eating disorder. It was just out of the realm of my knowledge. You hear “eating disorder,” and you think of two or three different versions of it. That’s not the case. Eating disorders manifest in so many different ways. Somebody on my team has a daughter that has dealt with something very similar. She spoke up and, with tears in her eyes, said, “Jordan, I think you might have an eating disorder.” I went to a couple of doctors, and it took no time for the diagnosis. I started working with an eating disorder specialist and a therapist who specializes in this. I would have meals with her on calls so I could learn to control my appetite and my ability to break past the walls that my body had to build, where I would try to swallow food and immediately regurgitate it. My body would reject it.

How are you feeling these days?

Thankfully, I’m eating. I’ve gained all my weight back, and I’m 30 pounds heavier — and happier for it. I got a little dad bod and gut, and I couldn’t feel sexier.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I’ve been off and on learning Japanese since I was a kid, but I started about a month ago really diving in seriously with it again. I have Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, and I’ve got a tutor in L.A. that I’m, like, three months away from starting with. My plan is to be fully bilingual by the time I’m 50.

Back to “Sweeney Todd,” are there plans to release a cast album?

Yeah, there are plans. It’s very exciting. It’s already recorded, and it’s amazing. I think it’s going to be the definitive cast, which I’m excited about. I don’t know when they’re announcing it. They’ve been so tight-lipped, but I’m telling you all this shit because I just had espresso.

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