Does this kind of fellow really play the demon barber of Fleet Street?

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd.m George Hearn, who is playing the title role in the Stephen Sondheim's-Harold Prince show "Sweeney Todd" here in Boston and on tour, hardly fits the description above, from the show's lyrics, in real life. When we met I had a bit of trouble trying to superimpose the ashen, forbidding, graywigged image of Todd, "the demon barber of Fleet Street," on Hearn's sandy-haired, ruddy-complexioned, kind-eyed face.

Right off I asked him how he liked "Sweeney Todd."

"A lot,m " was his immediate reply. "I love this show -- it's a dazzling piece of theater, and it's a great honor to be in it. I did four months in New York and I've been with it 2 1/2 months on the road. And I have yet to be bored a minute or to feel automatic about it."

Hearn can be excused for being a little prejudiced about his show, but his opinion is backed up by critical raves from virtually every quarter. "Sweeney Todd" has been called one of the most brilliant Broadway musicals in years, even with the comedy gore of its plot line, and it has won a lion's share of major awards.

Being in it has been a big break for Mr. Hearn, who was quietly worked in New York and elsewhere for a number of years, in productions such as "A Wonderful Town" with Lauren Bacall and "An Almost Perfect Person" with Colleen Dewhurst. He was also Papa in "I Remember Mama" with Liv Ullmann, and has done some TV spots for PBS, as well as a couple of films.

"I had a nice role in "Kramer vs. Kramer,' but the whole part got cut out! A bit of a disappointment.'

But the success of "Sweeney Todd" has more than made up for that, and a bit ironically, too, for Hearn has long been ambivalent about his ties to the theater. Describing himself, or at least part of himself, as an introvert, a country lover, and a compulsive fisherman, he commented:

"I was always planning to leave the theater. I was going to make enough money to get out . . . ." He paused, then added, "But I'm not sure that I could now, or that I'd want to."

But there was a time when Hearn didm leave the theater:

"In the '60s I became a hippie," he smiled. "I had long hair and sang country folk music and all. I even bought a farm in northern Maine, and lived there for a year and a half. My then-wife and I had a greenhouse, blueberries, and apples, and I was never happier in my life. I'm a fierce environmentalist. I really love the country, and I miss it, because the theater is hopelessly urban."

But when the '60s were over, Hearn came back to the theater. I wondered how he had ever gotten interested in it in the first place, what with his penchant for a serene life down on the farm. Apparently there was no particular inclination toward the theater in his childhood, but suddenly, when he was around 12 or 13 . . .

"I entered a talent show and won it. Everyone in my family was taken quite aback." He smiled, "I sang 'Stout- Hearted Men' and 'Ol' Man River.'"

So there is part of George Hearn, perhaps a secret part in those boyhood days , that really did incline toward performing.

"Yes. I realize how fortunate it is that I am in the theater. It made me extrovert myself, mix it up, scrap around with people, and that's probably very healthy for the likes of us introverts."

Actor, singer, environmentalist, and fisherman, Hearn is a writer, too. He has written several plays and a "novel and a half," as well as poetry and a number of short stories.

"It's the same thing that everybody that goes to school does, but I kept it up. I find out what I think by writing."

Hearn, who has a degree in philosophy from Southwestern University, spent his college years studying voice and opera. Later on he was drafted, and after a two-year stint in the Army, returned to Memphis, where he got involved in local theater.

"Then I went to New York for the first time. I was aghast at the size and power of it and ran back home!"

But a little later he tried it again and gradually eased his way into the New York theater scene, doing 16 plays for producer-director Joe Papp, as well as some things for the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn.

"I arrived with my voice in New York the same year the Beatles did. There weren't many shows around for my kind of voice when the rock musicals came in. I had to make a living whistling after that! But I went on acting, and later the taste for my sort of voice came back and I began to work again."

"Sweeney Todd" came as a natural step, at a time when Hearn was very visible around New York, and he couldn't be happier about it.

"The music is astounding. There's a crushed romanticism in Stephen Sondheim's music. He never quite lets the lid off. He doesn't want the song to take away from the story he's telling. Just about the time it's really going to burst he presses it down. And Stephen agonizes over the lyrics, like Flaubert searching for the mot juste.m He'll work forever, forever . . . he'll sit up for nights thinking of one word."

"The part takes a lot of stamina. I remember years ago reading about Mary Martin saying she would stay in bed until 3 or 4 in the afternoon and then go do the play. I thought, 'That's the silliest thing I ever heard! It's just a play ,m after all.' But now I sleep until 1 or 2 p.m. every day, if I can. The energy has to be larger than life. We did 15 shows in a row when we first arrived in Philadephia, and I said to Angela, 'I'm reaching down into my socks for this.' She said, 'Baby, we're pumpin' iron!'"

"Sweeney Todd" tours across the United States, first to Chicago, then San Francisco, and finally Los Angeles. What plans does Mr. Hearn have after that?

"I'd like to do a film or two. I hope something will come in L.A." But then he pauses and the country boy in him adds, "This tour is buying me a farm. Every month I think, well, just bought another 10 acres . . . even one sweet acre would be nice!"

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