In the original Broadway cast of Sweeney Todd, a fresh-faced Ken Jennings took his place among seasoned stars and shone as the not-entirely-naive Toby, who becomes entangled with the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and eventually proves his undoing. Bringing him in close contact with the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, and Hal Prince, the part proved a particularly auspicious one in his long career on stage.
Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1947, Jennings attended Saint Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, then received a dramatic scholarship to study at Saint Peter’s College. He made his Broadway debut in 1975 as Shorty in O’Neill’s tragic tale of racial bias, All God’s Chillun Got Wings.
But Jennings’s breakthrough came in 1979, when he played Tobias Ragg in the original cast of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Getting the part was a huge coup for Jennings, for whom Sondheim, as he said, was “on Olympus, one of the great shining stars that cast light on us all.” The musical was a hit, winning a slew of Tonys®, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score; Jennings came away with a Theatre World Award and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical. He can be heard on the original cast recording, which he said was unusual because a stage was set up in the studio, “almost as if it was a performance,” so the listener got a “sense of stage movement.” Jennings also went on the first national tour of Sweeney Todd.
Later Broadway appearances include the role of the bellboy Georg Strunk in Grand Hotel (1989), based on the Vicki Baum novel and play as well as the famous 1932 movie of the same name. The transition of novel-play-movie to musical proved a success, and Grand Hotel won several Tony® and Drama Desk awards.
Jennings also played Adolphus Spanker in Dion Boucicault’s Tony-nominated comedy London Assurance (1997). And in 1997 Jennings played The Boss in the original Broadway production of Side Show, a musical about conjoined twins, starring Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, that was nominated for numerous Tonys®.
Starting in 2001, Jennings began a long stint as Old Man Strong and Hot Blades Harry in the Broadway transplant of Urinetown, the dystopian musical about a world in which people have to pay to urinate or face harsh consequences. Originally produced at the New York International Fringe Festival, Urinetown later played off-Broadway and eventually crept onto the Great White Way. Despite its slow acceptance as Broadway material, the musical won multiple Tonys® and became a bona-fide hit, playing for 965 performances at Henry Miller’s Theatre.
Among Jennings’s regional and off-Broadway credits are The Boys from Syracuse, The Gift of the Magi, Mayor (a Charles Strouse musical that eventually made its way over to Broadway), The Little Rascals, Peter Pan, and Fanny Hill. He also played in a 1994 off-Broadway production of A Christmas Carol, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.