"They wanted to give us a week off, because Boston can be a tough crowd." Oops, just kidding, says David Hess.

"They wanted to give us a week off, because Boston can be a tough crowd." Oops, just kidding, says David Hess.


Hess is playing the title role in "Sweeney Todd" which finished a successful run in San Francisco and opens at the Colonial Theater Tuesday. Yes, the producers did give the cast a week off, but not to brace for a critical Boston audience.


For Hess, this will be his second fling at the Colonial. He was cast in the first national tour of "Ragtime," which played the historic theater. "I can't wait to get to Boston," says Hess. "I love that theater. It's so intimate."


That Hess wound up singing on stage for a living still produces a bit of irony. He came from a musical family. His father, Jake, sang in gospel quartets. "That was the underpinning of my singing." But there was a problem. "I was afraid to sing. I was terribly shy." He felt he could somewhat hide behind an instrument, so he took up the trumpet.


"I played the trumpet so my dad wouldn't push me to sing too much," says Hess.


He went off to the University of Florida intent on getting a degree in music. His goal was modest: to become a college bandleader. When that notion faded, he moved to Las Vegas and found gigs as a trumpet player. He played for singer B.J. ("Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head") Thomas.


In the mid-'80s, he gave acting a whirl. But he remained the reluctant singer. Then he auditioned for a show. They were impressed by his singing. "But they said 'we don't know about your acting.' I said, 'I'm a better actor than a singer.' "


Hess wound up in New York and in 1985 got a standby role for "Sweeney Todd" on Broadway. He was cast as Sweeney and Judge Turpin. He got to play the judge. Michael Cerveris never missed a performance in the lead role.


When the show went on tour, Hess got the lead. San Francisco was the first stop. It lasted six weeks, which is a long run for a touring production. "There's a huge (Stephen) Sondheim following in San Francisco," says Hess.


The show will hit the road again after Boston, but there will be a Christmas break, and not because it's the holiday season. "Because it's not a Christmas show," says Hess. True, a demon barber who slits throats isn't exactly "The Nutcracker."


How does Hess play Sweeney? "Very carefully," he laughs. "A lot of actors play him dark and evil from start to finish. I see him as a regular guy. ... He's been in prison for 15 years. He's tired. He's afraid. He's uncertain about his wife and daughter. He goes through every possible emotion. By the end of the show I'm exhausted. But the most important thing to me is to make him accessible."


To pay the rent in his early New York days, Hess did a litany of small roles in television soap operas ("General Hospital," "Guiding Light," "The Young and the Restless") as well as the series "Dynasty" and "Dallas."


"John Forsythe and Linda Evans were two of the nicest people I've met in the business," says Hess, who was also cast on Broadway in "Annie Get Your Gun" starring Reba McIntyre. "She's an incredible talent and very humble. That show was my big break, and to work with her."


Hess's wife, Joan, is an actress, which can make it a long-distance marriage at times. "It was difficult early," says Hess, "then we decided to never be apart for more than three weeks." Once, when he was doing a show in Minneapolis and she in Denver, they flew to Las Vegas and had dinner, then returned to their shows.


They met doing a commercial. Joan Hess recently did "Mama Mia!" in New York. The couple often discusses their theatrical roles at home. "We bounce things off each other," says Hess. "It's like having an acting coach at home, and a lot cheaper."


Hess grew up in Lakeland, Fla., where the Detroit Tigers held spring training. He became a Tigers fan. "Al Kaline, Willie Horton, it was a blast." He remains a big baseball fan.


"Sweeney Todd" opened in 1979 and is considered a classic. From the show: "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd/ His skin was pale and his eye was odd/ He shaved the faces of gentlemen/ Who never thereafter were heard of again."


He's no Mr. Nice Guy. "I'm surprised I like him as much as a do," says Hess.


Sweeney Todd runs Oct. 23 to Nov. 4 at the Colonial Theater, Boston. For tickets call 617-931-2787 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.