On the occasion of Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday in 2010, Playbill reached out to six Tony winners associated with the revered composer: Barbara Cook, Patti LuPone, Donna McKechnie, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters, and Elaine Stritch.
Read the interviews—originally published in spring 2010—with these musical theatre greats, who all spoke about their deep admiration for Mr. Sondheim, who passed away November 26 at the age of 91.
No one can deny that Tony-winning Music Man star Barbara Cook has enjoyed an extraordinary career, which began on Broadway in 1951 with the original Sammy Fain-E.Y. Harburg musical Flahooley. What is truly remarkable about Cook's career, however, is that this former ingénue — who, in the first half of her career, was mostly associated with the songs of Rodgers and Hart, Harnick and Bock and Meredith Willson — would become one of the foremost interpreters of the work of Stephen Sondheim, a composer whose songs she had rarely performed until the mid-80s.
It is producer Thomas Z. Shepard who musical theatre fans can thank for kicking off Cook's stellar Sondheim journey, one which has led to her latest outing, the Roundabout Theatre Company's new Broadway revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, now in previews at Studio 54.
"I believe what happened," Cook recently told me, "is Tom Shepard, who produced the record, called my manager [to see if I would play Sally in the 1985 Follies in Concert] . . and I said, 'Well, why not?' I had no idea it would turn out to be such an exciting event. No one did. "Finally, you know, when we got into it," Cook continues, "we put that together in a week — about two days into rehearsal, I thought, 'You know something? I think this is going to be really good!' And I don't think any of us had any idea at the time [how good it would be]." In fact, the concert, which also boasted the likes of Mandy Patinkin, Carol Burnett, George Hearn, Elaine Stritch and the late Lee Remick, provided Cook with two of her signature tunes, "Losing My Mind" and "In Buddy's Eyes." About the latter Cook says in Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Company," "In a way this song is a lie. The character is trying to convince herself that all this idyllic stuff that she's singing about is really true, though she doesn't really believe it. But I decided to perform the song as if she meant every word of it… from the bottom of her heart."
It would be another concert, however, that would solidify her place as a master Sondheim interpreter, the 2001 Mostly Sondheim, which debuted at Carnegie Hall prior to a 2002 Sunday and Monday-night Broadway engagement at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, an outing that would earn Cook a Tony nomination for Best Special Theatrical Event. "Well, that was the idea of [my late musical director] Wally Harper," Cook explains. "We were always looking for a theme or an idea, so I said, 'Let's do a show based on songs that are in shows that I wish I had done.' You know, I wish that I had been in this show and would sing this song. We worked on that for about 20 minutes, and suddenly Wally said, 'You know, what about that article that I think Frank Rich did with Stephen for the Times Magazine section in which [Sondheim] listed 50 songs that he wishes he had written. Why don't we do a show that's half Sondheim songs and half songs that he wishes he had written?' So, I think it was a brilliant idea and I think a very good show, and Wally and I put that together." Writer-critic Rich also thought it was a wonderful outing. In the liner notes for the live Carnegie Hall recording, he writes, "So long typed as the sunniest of Broadway ingénues, Cook finds in Sondheim's songs a whole octave of rue and heartbreak without forsaking any of her ineffable Southern warmth. So long typed as the headiest of Broadway songwriters, Sondheim finds in Cook an interpreter of pure soul as well as the requisite urban wit."
Cook says she can't remember when she and Sondheim first met, but she believes their friendship dates back to the late '50s. When asked what the composer-lyricist is like as a person, Cook laughs, "Oh, God! He's a complex guy. I mean, I think people are complex, but he's complex-er than most! But he's an extraordinary guy and great wit and loves jokes . . . . I feel really so happy to know him, be around him and get to work with him."
Comparing Sondheim's songs to other composers, Cook says with a laugh, "Well, they're just very difficult . . . Many of them are quite difficult, but they pay off. The work pays off. Steve just has an insight into life in general, and he's able to translate those ideas, you know, with his extreme gift, not only musically of course, but with the text. It is very rich material." Among her very favorite Sondheim tunes are "So Many People" (Saturday Night), "Loving You" (Passion) and "Send in the Clowns" (A Little Night Music). And, her favorite Sondheim shows? "Well, I love the score for Follies. I love Passion. I think Passion is his second masterpiece after Sweeney," she says. In Sondheim on Sondheim, which also features Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott — Cook gets the chance to sing several Sondheim tunes she has previously brought to full life: "In Buddy's Eyes," "Loving You" and "Send in the Clowns." She says her interpretations "change as I change, and I hope I'm better at what I used to do in a lot of ways. But there is a constant need to simplify [the work, and] by simplifying it makes it stronger."
The new production, which officially opens April 22, was conceived by James Lapine, who directs. Cook says this production is different from previous Sondheim revues because of the show's use of video, "the interviews that they've done with Stephen. The songs really do come out of these interviews. He talks about his work methods, and he talks about his father and his mother and working out problems with his sexuality, all of that. And all of the music, the things we do with the songs that were chosen come right out of those interviews. So it's totally different in that sense. Nobody's ever done that as far as I know."
Both Sondheim and director Lapine asked Cook to be part of the new production, and Cook jokes her decision to return to an eight-performance-a-week schedule was "madness, total madness." "Well, I love Stephen's work," she says, "and I had worked a little bit with James before, and I just thought, 'You know, why not?' . . . We're all very excited. It looks like we're gonna have a good show."
Cook is particularly enjoying the rehearsal process and working with a cast of actors. "You know, I've worked alone so much over the years," she admits, "and it's wonderful to be with a group of [people] in the trenches together. . . . And, everybody sings very well. My God, wait'll you hear how they sound!" Cook also has nothing but praise for her director. "He's calm and unflappable, I think, and also [makes the performers] feel a great deal of freedom."
Sondheim, Cook says, has written one new song for the show and recently played the tune for the cast. "He has very specific ideas about how he wants it to sound," Cook says. And, what does Cook think Sondheim's legacy to the musical theatre is? "Well, you know, already you see more younger writers [write in his style] — sometimes, not in a good way. I think they try to do what he does without having the skills [but] that's not true of everybody. . . . I think his work will really last, partially because it's complex. He finds ways to say things that are universal that, I think, everybody can come to and understand."
Patti LuPone had already won a Tony Award for her passionate, breakthrough performance in Evita and an Olivier Award for her work in the London productions of The Cradle Will Rock and Les Miserables, but a role in a Stephen Sondheim musical — a lifelong dream — had somehow eluded her grasp.
"I remember I auditioned for Bernadette [Peters]' replacement for Sunday in the Park, and didn't get it," LuPone recently told me by phone, "and I remember [Sondheim] coming down the aisle and saying, 'I don't want any belting.' And I thought, 'Oh, dear!,'" LuPone says with her trademark laugh that seems to burst forth as easily as the magnificent vocals that have been bewitching audiences for years.
She was also almost part of the original cast of Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods. "I was offered the Witch, but I wanted to play Cinderella, and I actually auditioned for Cinderella," LuPone says with a laugh, "[but they said], 'No we still want you to play the Witch.' And then, of course, what happened was negotiations broke down. . . . [even though I had] said, 'Yes, I'll play the Witch.' . . I did Anything Goes instead, but … we were in negotiations." The dynamic talent needn't have worried. LuPone would go on to star in six Sondheim productions at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois as well as two acclaimed Sondheim Broadway revivals, earning a 2006 Tony nomination for her work in the John Doyle-directed Sweeney Todd and a 2008 Tony Award for her role as that indefatigable stage mother Rose in the Sondheim-Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne classic Gypsy, which was directed by librettist Laurents.
LuPone says she first met Sondheim during her run in Evita, but it was in 1989 at a dinner at the home of choreographer Bob Avian "where we really bonded and got to know each other." And, she credits Ravinia Festival president Welz Kauffman, the former artistic administrator of the New York Philharmonic, with starting a Sondheim journey that would culminate in two of the high points of her staggeringly successful stage career.
"When Welz Kauffman was with the New York Phil . . . he wanted to celebrate Sondheim from [ages] 70 to 75," LuPone explains, "so he initiated this celebration with Sweeney Todd with the Phil [in 2000] . . . and it [would star] Bryn Terfel [who would later be replaced by Tony winner George Hearn] and me. And when my agent called, I'll never forget this, I went, 'You're kidding me!' because … I thought it was unlikely casting. It's not a role you would associate me with. I mean, when you think of Nellie Lovett, I don't think you immediately think of Patti LuPone.
"It was Welz's idea and Welz took it to Steve and then to [conductor] Kurt Masur," LuPone continues. "I don't know who thought there should be a Broadway presence, not just opera singers, in this particular celebration. But the Broadway presence was Audra [McDonald] and me and Neil Patrick [Harris] … I had heard that Steve knew I had been offered the role and approved. And then that was the beginning of my association, I would guess, with the roles that I've played at Ravinia."
Those roles include Nellie Lovett in Sweeney, Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, Yvonne in Sunday in the Park With George, Cora Hoover Hooper in Anyone Can Whistle, Fosca in Passion and Rose in Gypsy. Discussing the process of learning a Sondheim score, LuPone says, "Well, each aspect of Steve's writing is equally as difficult — the lyrics are complicated and the melodies are intricate … And, as I've always said, learning the music becomes infinitely easier when there's a marriage between the lyrics and the music, and that is always the case with Steve. So, it's easier to learn his music than it is other people's music. That does not mean it's easy. I've never, and I've said this ad nauseam, sung 'God, That's Good' correctly. There's a section that [Mrs. Lovett] sings with Sweeney — each of the three passages is different and the notes are very close together, and I've never gotten it right!"
LuPone says she has had the pleasure of working directly with Sondheim both at his home in Connecticut as well as at Ravinia. "He's there pretty much for everything that we've done at Ravinia, either at the rehearsal or at the performance . . . and his notes are invaluable. He was the one who told me I was swooping, and of course, I didn't know I was swooping up to the note, not hitting the note dead on. . . It became clear to me that I didn't have the confidence to hit the note head on. I didn't have the confidence to know that I would be on pitch in the interval.
She was certainly on pitch, however, for Sweeney Todd, both at Ravinia (directed by Lonny Price) and later on Broadway (in the Tony-winning John Doyle staging). It was in the latter where LuPone managed to shatter the mold created by Tony winner Angela Lansbury, providing an equally viable Lovett worlds apart from the one audiences had become accustomed to ever since Sondheim's masterpiece debuted in 1979. LuPone's Lovett was not only comical, sinister and touching, but also a sexy, saucy, tuba-toting ensemble player. And, did I mention that she also thrillingly belted out the Sondheim score? "Oh, God! I'd pick it up again and play it tomorrow," LuPone says about the role of Nellie Lovett. "The music is spectacular, and the lyrics. . . There's just something so deeply Greek tragedy about it, and it's deeply theatrical and deeply musical and deeply passionate." She says that the Doyle production has "never left me. It was great, it was frightening — it was wonderful to watch the audience look at us in horror," she laughs. "You know, it was like a horror movie they were watching — it was pretty great."
It would be just a few years later when the Juilliard graduate would tackle the role she seemed destined to play ever since she burst forth on the Broadway scene: Rose in Gypsy at Ravinia. In fact, her performance was so powerful at the Illinois venue that word of mouth sparked demand for a City Center mounting and, soon after, a full Broadway production that would earn LuPone a second Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
It is understandably too difficult for LuPone to single out a favorite Sondheim song, and her favorite Sondheim show may surprise those who have savored her work at Ravinia and later on Broadway: "I love Pacific Overtures! I told Steve that. I saw him last night. I said, 'You and Hal Prince!' I love Pacific Overtures, I love Sweeney, I love them all. . . . I don't know what it is [about Pacific]. It's 'Pretty Lady,' it's 'Chrysanthemum Tea' — it's a visceral reaction. I'm not an intellect, I can't pull apart why he's great. I just know how I react to it. I love them all. Mandy [Patinkin] and I are singing a lot of Steve's songs in [An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin], and I've sung a lot of Steve's songs [elsewhere]. He elevates the singer, he elevates the actor, he elevates the musician."
When asked about Sondheim's legacy, LuPone exclaims, "Oh, my God, will anybody ever achieve what he's achieved? What is his legacy? I don't know — I can't, I don't even want to think about that! I just find him to be a deeply romantic, deeply intellectual man with a tremendous heart."
And, what is the nicest comment Sondheim has made to the actress? LuPone pauses and answers, "He said, 'You can be in my musicals any time.' It was after a Ravinia performance … I cannot remember which one it was, but he said, basically, I got his stamp of approval. . . . And, I thought, 'I have been waiting to hear that for my entire life!'" LuPone said she would love to again tackle the role of Fosca in Passion and wouldn't mind a go at Joanne in Company "because I do sing 'Ladies Who Lunch' [in concert]."
I'll drink to that!
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company was a landmark musical in 1970, but it also was a turning point in a different way for one of its stars, Tony winner Donna McKechnie, who played the role of Kathy and garnered much buzz for her "Tick Tock" dance.
"I went to [director] Hal Prince's office — I was invited to come up there," McKechnie recently told me by phone. "I thought I was going to audition and went into his office, and it was gorgeous, and I was very nervous. He showed me the set, the Boris Aronson [model] that was on his desk. And, I was so nervous, I said, 'Hal, can I read now?' And he goes, 'Read? No, I'm offering you the role.' So that was the first time I got a job without an audition, and I just thought, 'This is the way it should be!'"
McKechnie, who would eventually win her Tony for her acclaimed performance as Cassie in the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Chorus Line, said she first met Sondheim during an audition for the national tour of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in 1963 (she would play the role of Philia in that tour). "When I did Company," she recalls, "he was very delightful in making a joke, because everyone was making a big deal about the ['Tick Tock'] dance, and he said, [referencing her Forum stint], 'I met her first when she was a singer.'"
But it was Company, which featured direction by Prince and musical staging by the late Michael Bennett, that marked a significant change for McKechnie. "I was coming out of shows where they had singing boys, dancing boys, singing girls, dancing girls," she explains, "and this was an ensemble piece, and I felt like a grown-up for the first time on stage, because we were adults and we were talking about adult themes and relationships. This was the first adult-themed musical about contemporary relationships in New York City." And, McKechnie says she and the cast knew they were involved in something special even if some critics were somewhat tepid in their initial response to the marriage-themed musical. "When we heard [Sondheim's] score for the first time, we all just knew that it was this rare thing, this kind of cutting-edge [work]. I mean, everything was there. Everything was in place for the most part, and very exciting. . . . Is there anything more beautiful than 'Being Alive' or melodic as 'Someone Is Waiting' or 'Sorry-Grateful?' These gorgeous, heartbreaking melodies fit so perfectly to the character… "The criticisms were things that, even then, we knew were kind of ridiculous. They would say, 'Where are the melodies? ' … because in the early days, [composers] would have their stock songs [that] they would try to make hits. I'm not talking about Rodgers [and] Hammerstein as much [but] … even Frank Loesser had his stock songs. If it didn't work for one musical, he'd put it into another. And, Jerome Kern would have a song in this show, a song in that show. Well, Sondheim was the complete artist in that he didn't have the stock songs. They were so specifically written for the character, for the story, for the emotional condition of that moment. It was so exciting as an actor and a singer to do his material because you knew that he would be writing it from the point of view of the character.
"There's a general feeling that in acting you're as good as your choices," McKechnie adds, "meaning that that's where your talent is — [in] the choices and how specific you make them. And for him to be able to get into each character that completely and make the most important and very specific and clear choices, I think that's what makes his music really define the art form of musical theatre because that's what it all about." If some New York critics were a bit slow to see the genius of Sondheim, McKechnie says the London critics embraced Company with open arms, and "Clive Barnes came back and re-reviewed it a year later because it was such a hit in London. You know, [marriage] is a touchy subject, and maybe people writing about it got involved in it a little bit too much, but [Barnes] re-wrote a great review a year later."
As wonderful an experience as Company was, McKechnie says it's another Sondheim musical that was the highlight of her life: the 1998 production of Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. "That I was able to work with Sondheim on that particular musical in the way that we did [was thrilling]. He came in to approve it, but then, because he loves the work so much and it matters to him that it works, he stayed and worked with us. That was a highlight for me because he and James Goldman got together for the first time, I think, in . . . 20 years or so. And that show, that Follies at Paper Mill, brought them together to work on the piece. That was as exciting as anything to me, to have the original writers together and contributing to our rehearsals and reshaping the script at the end." McKechnie says that it was actually Sondheim who helped her open a door into the character of former Follies girl Sally Durant Plummer. "In rehearsal," she says, "I was making my entrance as Sally when she comes on and she sees the place where, when she was young, all of her passions and her dreams were. . . . All of these years later, she walks in, and she's trying to find something. And, the reaction to that moment – I wasn't quite getting it — I was afraid, unconsciously, I was holding back. I was afraid to go to that discovery moment. And he whispered in my ear, 'This is your moment. You've come back.' And hearing him say, kind of, 'It's okay. You know, really see it. Really be there. Really be in this place' — it was like a little key unlocked, and, you know, everything followed that."
Although she would end up offering a performance that this writer felt was as vocally powerful as it was emotionally riveting, McKechnie says she was intimidated by the material at first. "It's not always fair to put people on a pedestal when you're working with them," McKechnie says. "It kind of can be frustrating, I mean, for the person put on the pedestal," she laughs. "And [Sondheim] was very generous with me and very kind and maybe felt I was feeling out of my comfort zone. He just was very generous and said, 'You know, this is not easy. It's not easy, and it's difficult to sing.' And in that way, I was able to relax and find my voice . . . and to receive the highest compliment from him. One night he said, 'Tonight I saw the actress and the character come together.' And that's the highest compliment coming from him.
"I admire him, of course, because of his artistry and the wealth of material and work that he's given us, but also because he respects the work so much and the process. Those little private, behind-the-scenes or rehearsal interactions are very meaningful for me. I will take them with me through everything I do. But that was hard — I had to find a way to relax. . . . I really do think this is true, that because of the way he writes for the character and for the singer, you really can improve as a singer. Some material you do, you have to vocalize and reach the beat prepared for that particular song or material, and it's just hard-hitting. And with his material, you grow in it, and it makes you better. It makes you a better singer and a better actor."
McKechnie is equally fond of Sondheim, the person: "I think he's a great person. I really do. The thing I respect about him as an artist, the respect he has for the work, he has that respect for other people, and he's very warm. He may be shy. I like the fact that he would come into rehearsal and make no bones about the way he felt, if he wanted to be there or didn't want to be there," she laughs. "You know, he's honest. I experienced him, especially at that time, day after day, that he's a very generous, deep-feeling person and very warm."
And, what does McKechnie think Sondheim's legacy will be? "Well, he brought the art form [of] musical theatre, which is our American, unique art form to another level, to a level that everyone works for," she answers. "You're not going to work that hard if it's something that is easily accomplished. But to be so thorough as an artist... He understands the human condition in such a way that we all relate to it, whether we're in the audience or on stage, we relate to the dilemma and the frailty of the human ego and the need and the yearnings and the passions of people. He understands this, and not only that, he's able to write in such a way that it takes us to another level. He just takes us to a higher place." McKechnie, too, has been taking audiences to higher places for years. She is the epitome of the triple-threat, and this admirer hopes she returns to the Broadway stage soon. When asked what other Sondheim roles she would like to tackle, McKechnie says, "Well, I've done Little Night Music a couple times, and I loved it. I keep thinking that eventually I'll be doing all the adult females in Follies. Some day I'll be singing 'One More Kiss'," she laughs.
"I got a musical my sophomore year [of college]," Donna Murphy recently recollected. "I went to an open call, and it was for They're Playing Our Song. I was hired as an understudy and while I was doing that show, I saw [Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's] Evita, and I saw [Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's] Sweeney Todd. I saw other shows, too, but [after] those two shows I practically had whiplash because I was so blown away by the power of them. And I remember thinking, with all due respect to how lucky I [was] that my first professional job [was] a Broadway job, 'This is what I aspire to — a work of this kind of power and depth.'"
Flash forward to March 2010, and Murphy, the winner of two Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Musical, is among the select group of women (Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie and Elaine Stritch) — all wearing specially designed red dresses — chosen to honor birthday boy Stephen Sondheim in an evening with the New York Philharmonic. "Ultimately, I think the whole idea of it was so vibrant and rich," says Murphy. "And, most importantly, the idea of getting to sit on stage with women who are both icons to me and colleagues. I mean, Audra and Marin, in probably an even more active way in my own career, because I've worked with them. And, in the case of Patti and Bernadette and Elaine, early in the career, I kind of idolized [them]. Elaine was a slightly different world, but Patti and Bernadette, it was like, 'Well, when I grow up, boy, that's…' And not that they were that much older than me, but … when I came to school, to NYU and saw Patti in Evita, I thought, 'Dear God! That's a force.'"
Murphy would prove to be another force, eventually winning her first Tony Award for her layered performance as Fosca in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion. But the road to Sondheim, Murphy explains, was not an easy one; in fact, if anyone exemplifies the benefit of listening to the old adage, "If at first you don't succeed…," it just might be Murphy.
"I first met [Sondheim] from afar when I auditioned for Into the Woods," Murphy says. "I auditioned for the Witch, before they asked Bernadette, after they had done workshops and they were auditioning people for the Witch. And, I had several callbacks, and I was asked to work with James [Lapine] and I was asked to work with Paul Gemignani. And so, he was in the house and I met him, but I didn't get to work with Steve. And, obviously, I didn't get that job," Murphy laughs. "It wasn't my time. And then I auditioned for him again when I was called back to replace Joanna Gleason as the Baker's Wife in Into the Woods, and had what I thought was a really great audition. I thought, 'Oh, this could maybe…,' and Chip Zien actually read with me, and he was really supportive and very encouraging, and that one wasn't mine, either. I've subsequently been asked to play the role a number of times and haven't been able to do it. I hope I'll get to do it before I'm too old! And I think I had a little interaction, like, across the footlights with him. "Then, I auditioned for a production of Merrily … in DC . . . . I was auditioning for that production, and they were going back and forth about [casting] me for Mary and me for Gussie, and I said, 'I will happily [audition for both], but you have to give me appointment times with at least three hours in between.'"
Murphy didn't end up with either role, but she did get some encouragement when she spoke with the casting director, Natalie Hart, shortly after the audition process. "'You know, Stephen Sondheim talked a lot about you after that audition.' I said, 'Really? What did he say?' And he said something like, 'I hope she sticks around in the theatre because she's the kind of gal who they're gonna scoop up, and she's gonna get a television pilot or something.' And, well, that didn't happen," Murphy laughs, "or I did, and it didn't work out – pilots didn't get picked up or whatever, and I hung around the theatre."
Thankfully — for Murphy and for audiences — the gifted artist did hang around the theatre: Her next audition for Sondheim — for the workshop of Passion — would prove especially rewarding. Interestingly, it was an earlier Sondheim/Lapine musical, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, that would give Murphy the inspiration to continue in the business. "My dream was to work with Steve and James," Murphy says. "It was a real turning point when I saw Sunday in the Park — [it] was a moment when I was questioning whether I wanted to continue. I've had several of those moments," she says with a laugh, "sometimes weekly, but that was, I think, the first big [one]. I wasn't getting cast as frequently, I wasn't working as much as I would have liked to have been working. I was broke. My husband came home — I don't know what strings he pulled to pull together the money to buy tickets for my birthday to see what was supposed to be Mandy [Patinkin]'s last performance of Sunday in the Park. And, I just remember standing up at the end of that show, and I was bathed in tears. I mean, I'd been crying throughout but [I was] standing up and literally looking up to Heaven and saying, 'Thank you, God, for letting me be here, for this show existing and for letting me be open to hearing what it says. Because I don't know how, but I know why and I know what — what I have to do and why I have to do it, because I just have to.' And that show has remained my touchstone. When I would waver about continuing in this crazy business, I would put that album on. I can put on almost any cut, but certainly 'Move On' and 'Finishing the Hat' and 'Sunday.'"
Given her dream to work with Sondheim and Lapine, Murphy — who was at the time busy with the workshop of Hello Again — made a surprisingly brave decision when she told her agents that two days was not enough time to prepare for the Passion audition.
"I got the call to audition, and the audition was for two days later, and I was in rehearsals learning new music on a new show. And I had rehearsals, and I took a look at what they'd given me, and it was 'I Read.' . . . I got the call and I said, 'I can't do it. I can't do it in two days.' I can't because I want to go in there and not give them the finished product, but I want to give them a taste of what I think I could really bring to the table. That's not me just singing the music nicely. This is a character in an extreme condition, in extreme circumstances. And I've always said, there will always be somebody who can sing it better than me. I mean, I've got a rangy voice and, I think, an expressive voice and I work hard . . . but I do kind of lead with the acting. . . . But as I said, I always know that someone is going to sing it better. There's going to be a better voice, there's going to be a prettier girl or there'll be an uglier girl, in this case! So what I have to bring is the combo. And I do feel my strength is in my acting. Not that I always feel completely confident about that, I have my vulnerabilities and my doubts there, too, because I'm human and I'm hard on myself, but it's where I feel most grounded."
Although the producers could not guarantee Murphy more time, fate was on her side. "I got three subsequent days off from work," she says. "It just happened to work out that way, and so I went into my little Fosca cave. And my husband would be like, 'Jesus, you don't even have the job. Do I have to have breakfast with Fosca?' [Laughs.] Because I wasn't bathing, and I didn't wash my hair for three days and I was just going into this kind of zone and immersing myself in the music and also trying to, through my imagination, imagine this woman's circumstances. . . . I had such strong instincts about it, and later on, Steve said that I could have played it the next night or something like that. I was in touch with the character. . . . I hadn't been some sickly, obsessed woman chasing a man who didn't love her. It was kind of subtler than that, but I was able to use those seeds, and I just felt for her. I felt great sympathy and empathy for her, and I appreciated her love of beauty, you know, given that she had been labeled something other than that."
Murphy experienced the gamut of emotions during the Passion workshop and was thrilled to watch two masters of their craft in action. "James, who was directing it and had written the libretto, had written these scenes that he would stage where Steve had not yet written the music or had only started to write the music," Murphy explains. "He would come and he would watch the scenes as they were staged as a scene. He would go away, and he may have started writing the music to that, or in some cases, nothing was written, and he would go away and he would start to musicalize it. And, a lot of it came from the words that James had written. . . . Some of the poetry came from James' poetry, at least when they write together. I don't know what it was like with other collaborators. And that was a beautiful discovery to make. And … sometimes [a song] came through my little fax machine at home, a new song. I always wanted to be there to watch it come through because I thought it was like a spinning wheel spinning gold as it came through, and I couldn't wait. It was the old days where you had to rip each page off, and I just remember crying, thinking, 'I'm the first person seeing this music!' And it just was an unbelievable experience."
Murphy also recalls the first time Sondheim gave notes to the workshop cast, which also featured Marin Mazzie as Clara and Peter Gallagher as Giorgio. "I got to listen to him give notes to Marin and Peter," says Murphy. "I was practically weeping because his notes were unlike any composer's notes I'd ever heard in my life. They were so specific, they were so vivid and rich with character and circumstance. I mean, I already had a wonderful director, but then I had the composer telling me what he envisioned and what was in his head, and I just [thought], 'Oh, my God! I can't wait until he gets to me!' And then he got to me, and it's not that he berated me in any way, but there were some [concerns]. And what we would do is he'd give the note, and then you would try it. You would do it. You would try it on for size, sitting in your chair, with [Paul] Gemignani and Paul Ford. And some of the stuff, I thought, 'Okay, I can do this, but I don't know that it's the right fit.' Even though I was in no place to make that decision that quickly, but there was something in my gut saying, 'Hmm, I'm afraid maybe I'm not the right interpreter.' Because he was wanting some things to be a little bit bigger and a little bit more extreme, the contrast in what I was doing to be bigger, and I was just afraid that I was just the wrong instrument for it. I meant as an actress and as a singer. I knew I could do it, but I thought, 'There might be somebody who could do this better than me.' . . . So that started some intimidation for me. . . . and not that Steve had said I wasn't doing well. What he'd done was given me what had been in his head. And that night I listened back [to the tapes] and I listened to me doing it and I thought, 'I don't think that's right.' I don't mean for me, like, 'I only do my thing,' because I'm mostly interested in doing something different than what I did before and interested in serving [the piece]. I was like, 'Oh, crap, maybe I'm on the wrong wavelength here. But, you know, I'm gonna keep working.'"
Murphy was convinced she was going to be fired from the workshop, and when director Lapine requested a meeting, her fears were even stronger. She couldn't have been more wrong: Lapine and Sondheim were thrilled that she had her own ideas about the character. "It's wonderful that you can go take [Steve's] direction but also be an active voice," Lapine told Murphy, "so just keep doing what you're doing. It's great."
"And from that moment on," Murphy says, "I felt like I could work without a net, because there was the net of [being] surrounded by genius, and while nothing can be perfect from any of us, it all felt perfect to me.
"It wasn't until I started previews," Murphy laughs, "[when] it was like a rude awakening – 'Oh! You hate her? You hate it?' [When] people would say that, I was like, 'How could you possibly?' I could not understand how people could not get it, but I was inside of it. It wasn't my job to be outside of it. And so then it became this huge challenge of, 'How do you play a really difficult woman, a character who is not necessarily likeable, and yet at least get a portion of the audience to care enough about what happens that they don't want to throttle her by the middle of the first act?'
"Steve was incredibly generous [through] the process," Murphy continues. "Not gratuitously so. It's not like he was telling you you were great all the time . . . . but mostly he was talking about the work, and we were just working. We were all working very, very hard."
Murphy recalls one particular interaction with Sondheim during previews for Passion that was life-changing. "I came offstage after a show, starting to go upstairs and Steve said, 'Are you having fun?' I kind of spun around. I probably looked like Fosca with the intensity of it," she laughs, "and I said, 'What? What?' And he said, 'Are you having fun?' And I said, 'Fun. Um… oh, my God, Steve, it means so much. It's so intense, and it's so beautiful, I've just never had an experience like this, nothing will ever be this meaningful.' And he said, 'Donna, you've got to find the joy. You have to experience the joy in this.' Here was this man that nobody, to my mind, is harder on himself, more demanding of himself than Steve. He asks a lot of himself, and he works so hard. And I don't mean to parallel myself or equate myself with him, but I am somebody who also works hard and is hard on myself, and I feel like the work is never done. And part of that makes me so happy because it gives me things to work towards every night, it stops me from getting bored. But he reminded me — certainly when I started doing this, when I was in elementary school, junior high, high school, it was a blast! I was serious about it, I was dead serious about it, and I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life, but I also had so much fun. I knew how to be silly in the moments, to break the tension… But I was in this zone, and he said, 'You have got to experience the joy because it's not always like this, and these particular kinds of experiences, they don't come along all the time.' However he said it, it wasn't about him, it was about me. And he gave me the greatest gift. . . And, I wasn't beating myself up. I wasn't going, 'You're not good enough, you're not good enough.' That wasn't happening. I just was in this very intense zone. I was loving it, and he wasn't saying, 'Go out! Party! Have a laugh riot every night!' He was just checking in as another artist, this is what I felt like, as a more experienced artist to say, 'Make sure you allow yourself joy in this.' And that was the greatest gift coming from that person who I so respected, and if I was going to let it in from anyone, it was going to be from Steve."
Murphy says Sondheim was also involved in the recent City Center Encores! production of Follies, which cast the gifted artist as the wry Phyllis Stone opposite the Sally Durant Plummer of Tony winner Victoria Clark. "I remember the sitzprobe [for Follies] because I sang '[Could I] Leave You,' and [Sondheim] came up to me afterwards and he gave me this great, great big hug. . . . But then I screwed up the lyrics in 'Lucy and Jessie' so many nights – the 'coulds' and the 'woulds' – and he always let me know that I didn't get it yet," Murphy laughs. "I remember the last night I said, 'I got it, Steve! I got it!' And he said, "'You didn't, honey, but it doesn't matter. It was great!' And I was like, 'Sh*t!'" When asked to pick a favorite Sondheim song, Murphy says, "It's too hard. I mean there are the songs that meant the most to me before I ever worked with him. But even that, I couldn't choose one. 'Move On' just kills me. I've never sung it, except in my apartment alone with the album, singing along with Bernadette and Mandy. . . .So much from Into the Woods, just as a daughter, as somebody who was a stepmother and now a mother and aspired to be a mother, that whole score just wipes me out. But then, you know, forget it – 'I Read.' I was the first person that he heard sing it. . . . The entire character was in that song, or the opportunity to find every dimension and cell of that woman and … breathing moment of her life was in that song. If you can call it a song – I mean, if anybody had called it an aria, that would have been too intimidating. Now I see why people do refer to it in that way. But to me it was just this incredible monologue with this rhapsodic music that so fitted like a glove, and the music just told me more and more about her than the lyrics already did. Who has ever written anything like that in the musical theatre? But then I go, 'Loving You,' 'I Wish I Could Forget You,' and then just listening to the songs the other night. I've sung 'Losing My Mind' several times and I just, I can't believe it when I'm doing it. Even the moments when you're not singing, you're alive in a world that you can't believe."
Murphy is now getting ready to tackle her latest Sondheim role, Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper in the upcoming Encores! production of the short-lived Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical Anyone Can Whistle, which co-stars Tony winner Sutton Foster and Tony nominee Raul Esparza. It was another multiple Tony winner, however, who Murphy says helped get her the gig: Angela Lansbury, who starred in the original production of Whistle.
"This year [the Drama League was] lucky enough to be honoring [Lansbury], and I was asked by Michael Mayer to learn and sing [Anyone Can Whistle's] 'Me and My Town.' I'd only heard that song once before, and I thought, 'Oh, what a great song!,' and I said, 'Yeah! Yeah!' . . . I had such a good time, and that night [Lansbury] came up to me afterwards and kind of took me by the shoulders and she said, 'Have they called you?' And I said, 'Who?' And she said, 'Encores! Have they called you?' And I said, 'No.' And she said, 'Why aren't you doing it?' And I said, 'Well, I haven't been asked.' She said, 'I'm calling them! I'm calling them!' And, it was incredibly flattering, but it was also one of those situations where I [didn't] know what's going on [with the casting]. It certainly was on my radar that they were doing this show because any time that there's a Sondheim show happening, my ears prick up and I'm like, 'Is there something in it for me?,'" she laughs.
Murphy says she believes that Whistle "is the show that kind of introduces the beginnings, the seeds of what people think of as a Sondheim style of writing. Ironically, as short-lived as its initial run was. . . . there's stuff in here that has the beginnings of that man who, nobody [had] ever written anything like this before." And, what does Murphy believe Sondheim's legacy to musical theatre will be? "God, I think he changed the sound and the whole . . . world of musical theatre, or he built upon it. He was the next chapter. I mean, there was so much significant, gorgeous, funny, clever writing that preceded him, but he just [wrote with] this new sensibility and new musical vocabulary.
"And you just want it to go on and on. [Backstage at the Philharmonic event] I said, 'The most bittersweet piece of it is that line from Sunday in the Park.' I never want to stop saying, just please, 'Give us more to see.' I never want to think that whatever was the last show that he wrote was the last show that he wrote. And, I'm not saying he's written his last show, I hope to God he hasn't. You hear the range of it, the breadth of it and just the music, again, it's not just the words, it's both. And, it's character and it's story and it's the human condition. And, I've been lucky to work with some amazing new composers and to work on some of the work of the best of the best, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Comden and Green. I said to Mandy Patinkin at one point, 'I want him to give us more to see, even though I'll take what we got, too.' And he said, 'You know what, the thing is, we've been in the room with Shakespeare, because that's what this is. This is Shakespeare of the musical theatre, it really is.'"
"The way I first became really familiar with [Stephen Sondheim's] music," Bernadette Peters recently said, "was when I was in London, and I saw Side by Side by Sondheim. People would often say at that time, 'Oh, his music is unapproachable.' What was so weird is I came away from the show, and the melodies and the songs, I couldn't get them out of my head. I was humming 'Side by side. Isn't it rich? Isn't it cozy…' They were like big show tunes in my head."
"That was also the first time I heard 'Broadway Baby' slowed down," adds Peters, referring to the Follies tune that would become one of her signatures. That song was the first Sondheim Peters would record, on her 1981 solo album "Now Playing." Years later, the song would again find its way to disc on Peters' 1997 recording, "Sondheim, Etc.: Bernadette Peters Live at Carnegie Hall."
"I started doing that song . . . in one of my first concerts when I was in Vegas, [and] it kept evolving. I don't do it much anymore," Peters says. "It's funny, but you start to do other things. The last time I did it, it was with Steve playing the piano. He asked me to join him at a benefit, I believe for the Young Playwrights, in somebody's home. He played, and I sang 'Broadway Baby,' and I sang 'Children and Art.' But to have him play 'Broadway Baby,' with his original chords and song stylings, as they say, is just thrilling and amazing. I have this big arrangement, but just to hear him, with the purity of what he had written, is so great." Peters recalls that she first met Sondheim in 1971. "I was in Joe Allen's, and I was with some people, and he knew someone I was with, and he sat down at the table, and I was dumbstruck," she laughs. It would be 13 years after that initial meeting when the two-time Tony-winning actress would get the chance to star in her first Sondheim musical on Broadway, Sunday in the Park with George. Peters became attached to the project prior to its developmental run at Playwrights Horizons. "[Sunday director and librettist] James [Lapine] called," Peters says, "and they sent this synopsis, this outline, of what the show was. They explained to me there's a painting, and the show is about the people in the painting and an artist, and Steve's writing the music, and it was just a tryout, and I thought, 'This is great!'" Prior to Sunday, Peters had not been on Broadway since the short-lived but tuneful Jerry Herman musical Mack & Mabel a decade earlier. She spent those ten intervening years carving out a name for herself in Hollywood with appearances on "The Carol Burnett Show," "Maude," "All in the Family," and her own series "All's Fair," as well as memorable turns in the films "The Jerk," "Silent Movie," "Annie" and "Pennies from Heaven." When asked about her decision to take the role of model Dot in the then-unknown Sunday property, Peters says, "Well, it was all pluses. It was a Steve Sondheim score. It was a great story that James wrote. I didn't know how great he was going to be — but I knew the outline — as the director. It wasn't a full commitment — no one said it was going to Broadway yet. It was just a tryout, so it just seemed like all pluses."
Peters says the development of Sunday at Playwrights "was just a thrill after thrill every day, because [Sondheim] was writing the score as we were doing it. And we really, basically, just had the first act. We did the second act, I think, maybe three performances, the two on Saturday and the Sunday matinee. He kept writing the first act and adding songs. Every time a song would come in, we'd all be sitting in the audience at Playwrights, listening to this amazing music, and these amazing songs. I mean, they were amazing!" Peters' performance in the eventual Broadway production of Sunday, it should be noted, was pretty amazing, too. For this writer, no one has ever matched the warmth, humor (and voice) that she brought to the roles of Dot and Marie; Peters received both Tony and Drama Desk nominations for her work.
Following Sunday, Peters would star in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song & Dance as British hat designer Emma, a tour de force that brought the actress her first Tony Award. In 1987 the chance to star as a wise, but crooked-fingered witch in another Stephen Sondheim musical, the fairy-tale-themed Into the Woods, presented itself: "I was in Sunday in the Park, and I loved the show so much, and I learned so much from being in a Lapine/Sondheim show. With Into the Woods, when the role was available, I said to James, 'Okay, I'll do it!" Although Peters had not taken part in the musical's workshop, she says, "I was so focused on learning the role, it wasn't like I felt like I was so far behind everyone. I think it was being reblocked anyway, but no one made me feel that [I was behind], so that was nice."
And, what does it mean to the actress to have created roles in two of Sondheim's Broadway musicals? "It's pretty nice, isn't it, when you think about it," she says with a laugh. "I feel so fortunate to get the chance to sing his music. So if I'm in something new, that's great. I don't care if it's new or not new. I just like to sing his music." Peters, of course, would bring new dimension to the role of Rose years later in the 2003 Broadway revival of one of Sondheim's early musicals, Gypsy, which features lyrics by Sondheim, music by the late Jule Styne and a book by Arthur Laurents.
"You know, I mentioned that at [my fall benefit concert, Bernadette Peters: A Special Concert for Broadway Barks Because Broadway Cares]. I was saying to Arthur Laurents, 'Gypsy and West Side Story are competing as the best musical ever written, but what do you care? You wrote them both! And so did you, Steve!' Two blockbusters, right? Two of the very best musicals ever written." There was another especially notable Peters concert, a 1996 evening that marked the singing actress' solo Carnegie Hall debut and featured a second act devoted solely to the music of Stephen Sondheim. When asked about the process of learning so many new tunes for that sold-out evening, Peters says, "Basically, I'm learning [the songs] technically, but it's wonderful because you can figure out what's going on with the character at the same time, which helps you to learn the song, because he really writes for character. A quarter note is a quarter note for a reason, and it's usually what the character is feeling. The character's angry, or passionate, or upset — there's a reason why you're holding the note, or a reason why it's a short note. It's actually easier to learn because of that, because everything makes sense."
Working on new material with Sondheim, Peters says, is "also great [because] he explains it to you. He plays it for you, and he sings it for you. The most wonderful thing is to have the author there to ask questions. Imagine if we had Shakespeare there, and we could ask questions of Shakespeare. Well, we have Steve right there. And when you ask him questions, he really thinks it through and decides why it was written, and what his reasoning was, and what it means."
Peters says that Sondheim's songs are different from other composers "because he writes the music and the lyrics. It's combined. They're about very deep and interesting things. I'm always learning about life singing his songs. And I'm bringing myself to experiences that I like experiencing. The positive ones, anyway," she laughs, "over and over." Among her very favorites are "No One Is Alone" and "With so Little to Be Sure Of." "And every time I do a [concert]," Peters adds, "I always throw in more Sondheim. 'I want to sing that one! I want to sing that one!'" In fact, in her November concert at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre, Peters included two songs from Follies. Her performances of "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind" were so revelatory that someone needs to mount a production of Follies so that Peters can work her unique brand of magic in the role of the former follies star, Sally Durant Plummer. And, what does Peters think Sondheim's legacy to the musical theatre is? "Oh my God," she says. "Everything. I mean, he's someone that really changed the face of musical theatre. And at first, his shows seemed odd to people, but as we evolved, they make so much sense now. They were just so ahead of people's perception, I think . . . When we did the ten-year reunion of Into the Woods, my thrill was to sit in the middle of all that music, and listen to everyone sing that score. That's the thing about his music: When you have a great song, with great lyrics, great ideas, thoughts, feelings, it gets deeper and deeper — especially as you go through life and learn more about yourself."
In the recent Stephen Sondheim celebration with the New York Philharmonic, Tony and Emmy Award winner Elaine Stritch was one of six women (Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy and Marin Mazzie were the others) all dressed in red, who delivered Sondheim tunes onstage while each of the other five watched her colleague's performance. Stritch recently told me by phone that she had no idea Tony winner LuPone would be singing Stritch's signature tune from Company, "The Ladies Who Lunch." "I totally did not know!" Stritch exclaimed. "I had no idea, because when you only have one day rehearsal, and you've got a 9:30 AM run-through with the Philharmonic and you're working your tail off – you don't look at who's doin' what. I knew nothing about this . . . and my costume wasn't ready until the actual show, so [Patti] never saw the hat [that I would be wearing], and I never realized she was gonna sing my song, so it was a total, total, improvisational, honest-to-God miracle that when she said, 'Does anyone still wear a hat?,' she suddenly looked at me, [and] it was the greatest take I've ever seen in my life. 'Cause I had one on, and it was just totally real."
Stritch says there was a real sense of camaraderie that March 15 evening at Avery Fisher Hall. "Everybody [was] helping everybody as much as they could to get around backstage," says Stritch. "We didn't know what we were doing. You know, 'Everybody wear a coat, walk onstage, it's the beginning of a party, blah blah blah.' It's getting direction on your way to your entrance," she laughs. "It was madness, but I'll tell you, it was worth every single bit of it, because that show was a smash, I thought. . . . It was one of those thrown-together [events] – and this Lonny Price is an extremely talented man. . . He's got a great sense of the stage, and I got along fine with him."
That said, Stritch admits she was "more frightened that night than I have been almost ever on the stage, because I was under-rehearsed, and nothing is worse for me than not to be rehearsed. I have to know my material backwards – and I hadn't done 'I'm Still Here' since my [first engagement at the Carlyle ended]. And all of Sondheim's stuff, as I well know . . . is more difficult than the last one." Stritch said she did modify her "I'm Still Here," so her performance can eventually be aired on PBS' "Great Performances" series. "[Lonny Price] made me cut my one 'fu*k' for Channel 13, and I did it with the greatest of pleasure. In my show, I said, 'I'm still heeeerrree … Fu*k!' That's the way I ended the show, and it was great in the show, but I . . . changed it to the teenager's great expression, 'Yuk!' So it worked, it worked, it worked. You have to give in some time, and probably I can give in to one or two 'fu*ks' in my lifetime," she laughs.
Stritch says she met Sondheim years ago at a party of a mutual friend. "He was interested in me – not in the boy and girl [way] . . . . but he found me an interesting woman, and he stayed and said, 'I'll take you home.' And then he asked me to sing, and then I asked him to accompany me, and then we discovered that both of our favorite Rodgers and Hart love songs was 'He Was Too Good to Me,' so I sang that with Steve. And as a result I put it in my show, the first cabaret I did at the Carlyle."
Her professional collaboration with the composer-lyricist began four decades ago with the original, Tony-winning production of the fragmented marriage musical Company, which featured a score by Sondheim, a book by George Furth, direction by Hal Prince and musical staging by Michael Bennett. Stritch says she became involved with the groundbreaking musical because "Hal Prince wanted me desperately, and George Furth had written a series of one-act plays and had asked me to do it. He [also] asked Kim Stanley to do it . . . and it would have been wonderful, but he couldn't get it off the ground. And then he got the idea of doing it as a musical, and he took it to Hal and Steve, and they got it on."
"Everything stands out in my mind about the rehearsal period," Stritch adds. "It was an extraordinarily exciting [time]. Nobody really quite knew what we had, but I did. I knew that this was going to be a first of its kind. I knew it was gonna be a big switch, you know, from the norm, and something new and inventive and exciting and spirited, and it was all those things. And it went through a lot of periods of change and disagreements and it was an exciting show. I moved out of my apartment, which was way up on the East Side, and I moved around the corner from where we rehearsed down on 18th Street. . . . I moved out of my apartment because I couldn't stand the wait and traveling back and forth to rehearsal. That's how exciting the rehearsals were."
Stritch also had the chance to preserve her recording of "The Ladies Who Lunch" in the famed D A Pennebaker documentary "Company: Original Cast Album," which recounted the grueling cast recording session and spotlighted Stritch's vocal trouble. "A couple of things have forced me to watch [the documentary recently]," Stritch says. "I think it's wonderful, the best documentary I've ever seen. And, of course, some cynical people in the theatre said, 'Oh, that was all a set-up.' Jesus, aren't people adorable? It was about as much a set-up as my hat two weeks ago [with the Philharmonic]." Stritch says watching herself in the documentary has been beneficial because "it's helped me to understand myself. . . . I'm not disappointed, I'm not ashamed, I'm not, 'Oh, I can't stand to watch that!' No. I like to watch everything that I do, because I find me interesting, and I surprise myself. And that's good. It isn't bad, it's good. I [do] get surprised that I had to go through as much as I had to go through to get through what I had to get through. That kind of saddens me because I did everything the hard way. But having things on film, you look back and it helps you to understand yourself. I certainly [would] like to continue to understand myself more and more, every day until I die. Because I think self-awareness is a great big gift – if you can accomplish that in your lifetime, and find out what you really are like and are okay with it, that's a good life."
Stritch's good times with Sondheim continued with the 1985 Follies in Concert, which also featured Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin, Carol Burnett, George Hearn and the late Lee Remick. Stritch wanted to perform "Broadway Baby" in what turned out to be a legendary event, so she called Sondheim to get his approval. "He said no at first, and then eventually, he let me do it. He thought I was too young," Stritch says with a laugh, "which is ridiculous. I told him, 'There's all different kinds of Broadway babies runnin' around loose, and I think they're ageless.' You know, there can be an 89-year-old Broadway baby, and there can be a 16-year-old Broadway baby. Age has nothing to do with it, but he thought so for a few minutes, and I changed his mind — because with my enthusiasm, I really wanted to do that song. And it was nice, because I made it my own. I admired the song and the way it was done in Follies. I loved Ethel Shutta – she was 80 when she sang it. That was why [Sondheim] had it in his mind that I was too young. Then he asked me to do 'I'm Still Here,' and I said, 'I am too young for that!' This is 25, 30 years ago! Steve and I have good times together. I think we're on the same page."
And, Stritch will soon offer a complete evening of Sondheim tunes in an encore engagement of her critically acclaimed At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim…One Song at a Time, which plays the Carlyle April 20-29. About her new act, Stritch says, "A lot of his songs you have to work on extra, extra, extra hard. Especially being a woman who doesn't depend on a great voice – I depend on my understanding of the material and how the material hits me emotionally and physically and psychologically and then I build on it. And I love the way he thinks, [but] he's very difficult. I'm exhausted after the show that I do on him.
When asked to pick a favorite Sondheim tune, Stritch pauses and says, "I think 'Too Many Mornings' is one of my favorite romantic songs of Sondheim's. And 'Nothing's Gonna Harm You,' I love that, and I love 'Everybody Says Don't.' I start saying what my [favorite Sondheim song is] and half an hour later I've named 'em all. You know, it's just that way."
Musing on her decades-long relationship with Sondheim, Stritch says his kindest gesture was not something he said but something he did: "We were doing a concert at Drury Lane for him in London . . . and I did two numbers that night, and I brought the house down. It was a major success, and I came offstage, and he passed me and took my hand and squeezed it. And I think I had three or four years in the bag in sobriety – and he squeezed my hand that many times. It was mind-boggling. I mean, he's an extremely romantic guy, and all of his things that he says are really outstandingly witty, or downright fall-down funny, or beautiful and warm and romantic. He's got both extremes going at all times. I don't know how he handles it . . . but I recognize it in him." And, what does Stritch think Sondheim's legacy to the musical theatre is? "Oh, I think he gave it his individual gifts, and in doing that he did change [it]," she answers. "I think the American musical comedy theatre became more intelligent, more sophisticated . . .and more dramatic, more risk-taking. I mean, what an outrageous risk for him to do Sweeney Todd! I mean, God, that takes courage. Courage! Real, real courage. And, he brought discipline to the theatre. You work for Sondheim, and you work your backside off, and you enjoy it because you can't wait to get to rehearsal. You've got the opportunity to do that kind of material. To be able to work in a show on Broadway and believe every word that you're saying is outrageous! God, I spent most of my time in the producer's office fighting for my lines … and you go to work with Hal and Steve and your shoulders go down and you don't need a drink."