PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Sondheim on Sondheim — All About Steve

By Harry Haun
23 Apr 2010

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The glamorous Vanessa Williams is the only member of the company who can claim a Tony nomination for a Sondheim part — the Witch in Lapine's last go-around of Into the Woods. "When James called back in the fall, I knew it was going to be a very important project," she said. "It was kind of a no-brainer. I knew it was going to be something that was unique and original — plus I get to work with James and Stephen again. Stephen is very shy but full of life. What I like best about working with him is making him smile or cracking him up with a line or a song."

"He is the actor's composer and lyricist," Norm Lewis said of Sondheim. "He gave us notes and things to think about and to look for while we're singing certain parts of the song — and he gave us the reasons why. He is what I call — and I've been saying this a lot — the Shakespeare of musical theatre. Every night we find new meaning in phrases that we've been singing — or The Meaning, where we say, 'Oh, I get it now.'"

The most unexpected — and, perhaps, most effective — member of the ensemble is Euan Morton, who made his Tony-nominated Broadway debut as Boy George in Taboo. "I'm very lucky: I'm challenged," he declared happily. "I think 'Franklin Shepard, Inc.' is a great chance to show off some acting chops, and then I get to sing 'Beautiful' with Barbara Cook. I get to run the gamut of emotions in this piece. The whole thing's extraordinary — to be part of this celebration for him.

"That was one of the really exciting reasons to take this show — apart from the obvious one of working with these people. It's a chance to say that I'm not just Boy George in spirit and it's not just pop music for me — but also I can sing the legit stuff and I really love doing it. I wanted to be able to show that there are other facets to me — even though it's not about me. Of course, it isn't. It's about Steve. It's about Barbara. But I'm very lucky that I get to say, 'There are other things I can do.'"

The young twosome in the show — Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott — have Broadway credits but have never had a new show to work on before this one.

"It's been really exciting to work with James," Mackey admitted. "I have obviously been a fan of his shows for a long time. He gave us a lot of freedom to try different things. We all kinda created it together, which was a really neat process.

"I just made my Broadway debut in Wicked in August, but this is the first time I've originated a role. It was a thrill, too. You're working with the best of the best. It's challenging. It makes you better. It's been so exciting, all the way through."

A former Jersey Boy who, as an understudy, sometimes showed up as Kritzer's groom-to-be in A Catered Affair, Scott felt more than slightly déjà vu about being in this show. "This is a dream come true for me," he confessed. "I played Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along when I was a sophomore in high school. My director and best friend, John Housley, is sitting right over there. He is largely the reason that I'm here now, 12 years later, up there on a Broadway stage, performing those same songs in that same track."

Working with Sondheim was a special joy for him. "He's very hands on. He gives notes. He shapes the scenes. He's very accessible. When you get a note from Steve, you take it. Then, you go out on stage, and you see how much better it works now that you've taken his note. He lays out the lyric. He lays out the text. He lays out the music. So everything is in place. Then he comes in and says, 'You're about a quarter of an inch off the mark' and tweaks you, and, all of a sudden, you're square on it — there's a big difference. To originate a role in a Sondheim show has always been a goal of mine. In fact, I think that it must be a goal for every single person on stage."

Scott's wife, Kirsten, is in that number. She was recently seen in the Los Angeles launching of the Broadway-bound Minsky's — "I was Flame, the one who popped out of the banana," she cheerfully volunteered — so she understandably asked that show's composer, Charles Strouse (present for the Sondheim opening) about its scheduled date of arrival. "It's going to be soon," Strouse promised. "I have two more songs to write."

Lewis Cleale, who stands by for Morton and Lewis, is somewhat overqualified for that assignment but took it on willingly — for a reason. "I got a call a few months ago from James, and he said, 'I don't have a part for you, but would you do this? I trust you, and I want you to do it.'" Cleale relayed. "It's Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, and I moved to New York to work with them. I was a business major in Miami when I took an acting class, and my teacher said 'I don't think you should be a lawyer. I think you should do this [act] with your life.' He gave me the cast album of Into the Woods, and I became obsessed with it. I remember going to my final exam in the spring of '89. It was seven in the morning, and I had a tape deck in my car, and I had this tape playing. It was Robert Westenberg singing, and I got fixated on the lyrics. I'm supposed to be thinking about statistics, and all I could think about was lyrics. So it was, in fact, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. They came to see me in Passion in Washington, and that's when I met them. It's a very full circle with these guys. You don't usually get to meet your heroes and work with them. It's an odd thing. I've never understudied before, and I'll never do it again, but, for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, I'd gladly do it."

A herd of Roundabout directors — Walter Bobbie, Michael Greif, Mark Brokaw and Gordon Edelstein — headed the first-night guest-list, which included the illustrious likes of Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormick; Amy Irving; playwrights Terrence McNally and Paul Rudnick; Philip Bosco and Tovah Feldshuh from the original Lend Me a Tenor; John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey; lawyer Mark Sendroff and cabaret queen Marilyn Maye; Phyllis Newman; Victoria Clark ("I was supposed to be in Denmark this whole week teaching at a conservatory, but my flight was canceled because of the volcanic ash from Iceland"); Dana Ivey; Roundabout founder Gene Feist; uber agent Biff Liff; Anne Kaufman Schneider, whose dad, George S. Kaufman, wrote the original 1934 play version of Merrily We Roll Along with Moss Hart); Ana Gasteyer; Margaret Colin; Speech and Debate's Gideon Glick; Dee Hoty (who's going to recreate her role in Footloose this season at the MUNY in St. Louis); Jefferson Mays; F. Murray Abraham; composers Stephen Flaherty and Larry Grossman; lyricists Lynn Ahrens and Sheldon Harnick; Blythe Danner, nixing the rumor that she and her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, would be replacing Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music ("Tantalizing, isn't it? But she won't leave London"); John Scherer; Jane Summerhays; the post-Temperamentals Michael Urie, who's going to do a master class for Red Bull ("TV was just a fluke — I was doing Shakespeare in the regions long before 'Ugly Betty'"); Penny Fuller; Das Barbecu wordsmith Jim Luigs; and the dancer-singer-actor with the longest Sondheim track record on the Planet Hollywood, Harvey Evans ("I go back to 1957 with Mr. S: West Side Story. Then, Gypsy, Anyone Can Whistle and Follies").