How Stephen Sondheim Came to Love Liz Callaway’s Voice

Seth Rudetsky   How Stephen Sondheim Came to Love Liz Callaway’s Voice
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares stories from his two Playbill Travel Reunion Weekend concerts with Liz Callaway and Lillias White.
Seth Rudetsky and Liz Callaway Joseph Marzullo/Playbill

I am freezing! Why? Well, this morning James and I went to the gym and then he dropped me off at the house so he could do errands. I’m not quite used to living in our new house and I haven’t yet committed to transferring the new house key to my key ring (that still has the old apartment keys on it. #LivingInThePast).

Usually the house key is in my wallet but when I got to the front door, I didn’t see it. I stayed on my porch with the dogs barking up a storm, looking frantically through my bag for my key. I then had a horrible thought that it might be in a hotel room in Tucson, Arizona… left there after I decided to de-clutter my life and clean out my wallet. Ugh! When will I realize that trying to get your life together always backfires! I then went to open the garage door because maybe it was unlocked. It was locked. I climbed up the hill to the back door…locked. I knew James would be back in a few hours so I just had to go somewhere until he returned. Oh, well, guess I have to hail a taxi. Oh, right, I’m in rural Warwick, New York; taxis don’t parade down the street. I’ll just call the local taxi companies. Yay! Both companies tell me that their tiny fleet of cabs are way too far away to pick me up. Guess I’ll call an Uber. Waiting….waiting….waiting…wowza. The only driver responding is 23 miles away. Excellent. All right, that’s it. I’ll walk to town. It’s just a quick ride when James drives it. What’ll it take me? Ten minutes? Fifteen if I saunter? Well, I shall now tell you that a quick car ride does not translate to a quick walk. I kept my pace brisk and I walked in the freezing cold with no hat or gloves for 45 minutes. I ju-u-u-u-u-ust got to the local bookstore (appropriately named Ye Olde Book Store) and they’re letting me sit here and write this column. And periodically check Craig’s List for an NYC apartment available ASAP.

Anyhoo, this weekend was a Playbill Travel extravaganza. Lots of people who’ve done the cruises came to NYC, stayed at Midtown’s Renaissance Hotel, ate together, and saw fabulous Broadway shows. And on Thursday and Saturday, I put on two private shows for them—each with a fabulous star. The first one was with Liz Callaway, who was on the Playbill Vietnam cruise with me and recently appeared on Broadway on the Rhône River.

When I first heard her in the ’80s, I always associated her with Sondheim because of that wonderful recording she did of “What More Do I Need?” in 1983. Listen:

Still, I didn’t know how he came to like her voice so much. It certainly wasn’t from her solo work in Merrily We Roll Along (Basically just “Yesterday is done….see the pretty countryside…” and cut). Turns out, he did become a fan of hers from Merrily, but not from her ten-second solo.

See, Merrily previewed for a very long time and, because there were many problems, they were constantly rehearsing. Ann Morrison had the female lead and never missed a show, but she did get sick. So, she would come to rehearsal and do all the staging, but her understudy would sit in the front row and sing all of her songs. Who was her understudy? Liz Callaway! And who was at those rehearsals listening? Stephen Sondheim! Hence, he soon asked her to sing “What More Do I Need?” and she then wound up becoming featured in that amazing Follies concert in 1985.

Here’s the wonderful TV special.

Watch the whole thing when you can because it’s so fantastic. And look for Liz with the fabulous Howard McGillin and two Merrily alum (Daisy Prince and Jim Walton starting at 1:06)!

Liz also played Grizabella in Cats on Broadway for years and I asked her how long it took to do her makeup. She told us that first a makeup expert did her whole face and told her how to do it. The next time, they did half of her face and she had to do the other half. Then she was on her own. It would take her around 45 minutes to do her full Grizabella look. One day, after playing the role for a while, she was stuck in traffic and arrived at the show with just 15 minutes until the opening number. She slapped on her makeup and discovered that doing it quickly in 15 minutes actually looked better than meticulously putting it on over 45 minutes! A real-life version of “Don’t overthink it!”

Lillias White
Lillias White Monica Simoes

Speaking of the opening, she had to be one of the dancing cats in the huge production number every performance and loved doing it. Her biggest compliment was when a friend would come to the show and not be able to figure out which one was her. It meant that she blended in with the actual cat dancers and didn’t stick out like a “belter who moves” wearing an awkward unitard.

On Saturday, I did my next show for the Playbill Travel peeps with Tony Award winner Lillias White, who did the Tahiti and Puerto Rico cruises with me and was a surprise ambassador on last year’s Broadway on the High Seas 8 in the Caribbean. She commented that she didn’t recognize the audience because they had so many clothes on! Apparently, she was used to them only in beachwear.

She told great stories about actors supporting other actors, like the time she was understudying Dorothy in the national tour of The Wiz. She went on for the lead role a lot…even on opening nights in other cities and got great reviews. Out of the blue, the woman playing Dorothy got married and quit the show. Lillias went covered the role and then found out that there was a woman in a southern city who had won a talent contest… and one of the prizes was playing Dorothy in The Wiz tour. Yes, this woman was going to get the lead while Lillias remained the understudy…even though Lillias had basically taken over!

Some of the other cast members came to Lillias’ dressing room and told her that she should be playing the role; she had done numerous opening nights for the producers across the country, saving their a**, and her agent should demand she officially take over. Lillias then revealed that she had no agent. Well, right away, one of those actors called their agent, told them to represent Lillias and the agent called the producers. The phone call must have gone well because soon Lillias had the role of Dorothy and the talent show winner was the understudy! Talk about “Strike that, reverse it!”

Lillias ended her whole set by singing her big song from The Life. Cy Coleman, the composer, knew her from her first Broadway show Barnum (which he also composed) and he wrote the role of Sonia for her and she won a Tony Award for it! Here’s amazing footage of Cy actually playing for her. Click here to watch, then peace out!

Did you know many of these stars and more have been performers aboard Playbill Travel’s Broadway on the High Seas cruises? Playbill Travel operates the premiere vacation programs for discerning travelers with a shared love of exotic locales and the theatre. The Broadway on the High Seas series has become a hit with hundreds of theatre-loving travelers since its inaugural voyage in September of 2011. Entertainers aboard Broadway on the High Seas and its sister resort program, Broadway By The Sea, and the latest Broadway River Cruises on the Rhône, Rhine, and Danube have included Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Ebersole,Tommy Tune, Andrea Martin, Ana Gasteyer, Megan Hilty, Lewis Black, Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti and others. Since its inception, over 1,000 Playbill travelers have visited over a dozen countries including Italy, Greece, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Poland, Germany, French Polynesia, Vietnam and beyond! Find out when our next voyage is and who will perform their solo show onboard by visiting for inquiries and booking.

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