Seth Rudetsky Reflects on the Legacy of Stephen Sondheim | Playbill

Special Features Seth Rudetsky Reflects on the Legacy of Stephen Sondheim Stories from A Little Night Music, Into The Woods, Follies, and more.
Glynis Johns and Len Cariou in A Little Night Music. Martha Swope / The New York Public Library

This week’s column is dedicated to the late, great Stephen Sondheim, who passed away November 26 at the age of 91. I collected past interviews I’d done that involved Sondheim from my book Seth’s Broadway Diary. Here are some wonderful remembrances:

JOANNA GLEASON (The Baker’s Wife, Into the Woods)
I asked Joanna if she influenced any of the writing in Into The Woods. First, she said that when the show was out of town, she would finish singing “Moments in the Woods” and an apple would roll onstage. Later on, the audience would find out the apple was poisoned, and she had died. She told James Lapine that the audience was invested in her character and seemed to be disappointed that her death happened offstage. So, she soon got killed onstage… and then came back as a ghost.

Joanna Gleason Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Also, while the show was being created, she told me that "Steve" (Sondheim) phoned and told her he was writing a song for her. He wanted to know if she had any suggestions. First, she turned to her husband and mouthed, “Oh my God!,” then she told Sondheim what she thinks the Baker's Wife is feeling. She said, “What am I doing here? I'm in the wrong story.” That was soon set to music and the rest is history.

Joanna was nominated for a Tony Award but the buzz was that the winner would be Patti LuPone (for Anything Goes). Joanna told me she was so shocked when her name was called that her head snapped backwards and she literally got whiplash. P.S. The whole time she was giving her Tony speech she said that she was thinking, “I wish I had worn a different bra.” Whenever I win an award, that's exactly what I think.

LEN CARIOU (Frederick Egerman, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, Sweeney Todd)
Len Cariou’s history with Sondheim began because of his first Broadway show, Applause. He told me about the so-called gypsy run-through (the dress rehearsal for the Broadway community) that was held in the afternoon. After the bows, he was about to leave and head to dinner, but then he saw everyone from the audience coming onstage to schmooze. One of the cast members came over to him and asked, “What did Hal think?” Len responded, “Who's Hal?” His fellow cast member said, “That guy who was talking to you.” Len asked, “You mean the guy with the glasses on his head?” His friend, annoyed, said, “Yes! Hal Prince” Len is Canadian and this was his first show, so he hadn’t met any Broadway bigwigs yet. He freaked out when he realized that Hal Prince was the guy who came over and told Len that he was one of the best leading men he’d seen in years. He then went on to become the associate artistic director at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and while he was there, the “guy with the glasses on his head” called him and asked him to audition for A Little Night Music for Carl-Magnus, the brutish egoist. Len felt he had played that type of part many times and wasn't interested in doing it again.

Len Cariou and Patricia Elliott Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Even though Len didn’t want that part, he was dying for a chance to sing for Sondheim and Prince. He flew to New York and auditioned, but remembers he had to hold onto the upright piano that was onstage to stop from shaking. Still, it went well, and Hal gave him an updated script to look over and said they'd probably ask him to come back at the beginning of the week before Len went back to Minneapolis. This time, the script still didn't have any music attached, but now it had lyrics. Len thought they were brilliant and dreaded telling Hal he didn’t want the role of Carl-Magnus. Well, Hal called a day later and Len told him how fantastic he thought the lyrics were. Hal said, “Good, we want you to play Frederik,” Len told Hal, “Frederick? I'm 34. The script says that Fredrick is supposed to be 50!” Hal dismissed his concern with, “Meh. It's a period piece.”

Len went back to the Guthrie and told the artistic director the good news. Unfortunately, he reminded Len that he was supposed to star as Oedipus in rep when rehearsals began, and it wouldn't be right for Len to leave to do a Broadway show because he was also the associate artistic director. Shockingly (to me), Len agreed. He called Hal who was vacationing in Majorca (as one does) and told him that he had to pass. Hal was in shock. Not because he was angry, but because he couldn't believe how much integrity Len had. A month later Len’s agent called, asked Len if he was sitting down and said that Night Music had moved all of their dates later so that Len could do the show. Len approached the head of the Guthrie and asked if he could perform his rep shows in a clump each week so he could rehearse in New York but come back to the Guthrie to do Oedipus, and the Guthrie said yes. So, Len would do a matinee on Sunday, fly back to New York to rehearse Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, fly back that night and perform, fly back to NYC Thursday morning, rehearse again Friday and Saturday, and fly back to perform Saturday night and Sunday. Sorry, Elaine Stritch, that trumps your train trips to Connecticut. Len Cariou was truly “at liberty.”

When rehearsals began, the score wasn’t yet complete and Len was very much looking forward to his 11-o'clock number. During rehearsals, Len and Glynis Johns (who played Desirée) felt that their characters would act differently than what was in the original script because the show had evolved, so Hal suggested that they improvise a scene and have Sondheim watch it so he could finally write Len’s big number. Len called “Steve” and he came and watched them do a scene they created. The next day, Sondheim came in and gave good news and bad news: The good news was he finally wrote the big 11-o’clock number. The bad news (for Len) was that the song was now for Glynis. Ouch. Yes, it was “Send in the Clowns,” and became one of Sondheim's most well-known songs. Here's Len and Glynis, ten years later, recreating the whole scene and song.

Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd

He went back to Canada and became the artistic director of the Manitoba Theater Center (the “original MTC,” as he likes to say) and while he was there, Hal told him that Sondheim had written a show for him. Len was thrilled…until he read the script. He thought Sweeney Todd was really bizarre. He read it again, and although he couldn't figure out how they were going to do all the killings, etc., he knew that if the score was very romantic, it could work. He was, to put it mildly, correct. I asked Len if he ever missed a show when he played Sweeney Todd, and he gave an emphatic, “No.” I asked why and he said, “It was my part.” He's old school! My favorite Len story was told to me by his former voice teacher, Paul Gavert. During previews, Hal asked the sound designer to turn down Len’s body mic because he was louder than the other singers on stage. Hal was told that Len was the only one not wearing a body mic. When rehearsals began, he and Angela Lansbury knew that they were walking a fine line in their performance between real and too broad. They made an agreement to monitor each other so they’d never go too far…and it worked. Watch these two be fabulous.

VICTORIA MALLORY (Young Heidi, Follies and Anne Egerman, A Little Night Music) Victoria Mallory auditioned for Follies and after she sang, Hal Prince told her that she was wonderful but there was no role for her. Victoria said that she didn’t need an actual role and would do anything just to be in the show. He took her up on that offer and she was cast as part of the ensemble. P.S. Victoria wasn't just saying that to manipulate getting a role eventually, she really was thrilled just to be in the same room as the creative staff.

She remembered watching in awe as Michael Bennett staged the prologue. After a week and a half, Hal asked her to play a waitress in one of the scenes and she was thrilled. Then, Stephen Sondheim called her into a room and told her that he wrote a song, “One More Kiss,” and she'd be singing it with Justine Johnston. She was even more thrilled. Then, Michael Bennett found out she could dance, so her put her into the Red number and the Loveland number, and she understudied Young Sally and was the swing for “Buddies Blues.” She had the best time ever!

Finally, well into the run, Hal Prince called Victoria into his office. He told her he had a new show he was working on and asked her to read from the script. She remembers reading around one sentence ("Oh, Henrick...") and, just like that, he told her she had the role of Anne in A Little Night Music! Here’s her duet with Patricia Elliot, who played Charlotte.

Victoria Mallory and Mark Lambert Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

During Night Music, Victoria told us she was dating her onstage husband, Len Cariou (who played Fredrik Egerman). She remembers that she and Mark Lambert (who played Henrik, Fredrik’s son) would wait offstage for their entrance, every night, and watch “Send in the Clowns.” Ironically, in the show, there's a line near the end of the show when Fredrik is told, “Have you heard? Henrik and Anne have run off together!” Cut to, in real life, Victoria and Mark ran off together. And they’re daughter, Ramona Mallory wound up playing Anne in the A Little Night Music revival. Here’s my breakdown of that amazing finale from Act One.

Speaking of my Broadway breakdowns, my show Seth’s Broadway Breakdown has to close December 19. After that, I’m pretty much on the road every weekend (spending New Year’s Eve in Provincetown). Get tix for my last three weeks here.

CHIP ZIEN (The Baker, Into the Woods)
Chip Zien was in L.A. doing TV work, and Ira Weitzman (the fabulous producer) called him and said that they were considering him for the role of the Baker but if anyone called and asked him to audition, he should say no. Ira felt that the creative team didn't know what they wanted and if Chip came in they would find a reason why he wasn’t right. But if he didn’t come in, they would just offer it to him. Well, they did ask him to audition, he said he couldn't… and they offered him the role. The trickery worked! While they were rehearsing in San Diego, California, James Lapine said that he was concerned because Chip didn’t look like a baker. He imagined the baker as a big roly-poly guy, and Chip is small and wiry. Chip got incredibly insecure during rehearsal until Joanna Gleason had lunch with him and told him not to freak out because she was sure he was going to keep the part. He calmed down, and they were soon told that the show was going to Broadway—unfortunately, not for another eight months… and Chip has two kids. Hello, money? He didn’t feel he could accept another job knowing he’d have to leave in eight months. Thankfully, his wife was working for the ballet and his family continued eating. The reason the show waited eight months is that the second act was being worked on. Audiences didn't like the fact that the Baker's Wife died, and they never saw her again. So, the creative team decided to bring her back during Act Two… but then they couldn’t decide if Jack’s Mother should also come back.

Chip Zien Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Obviously, they worked it out, and Chip loved doing the show and working with Sondheim. He said he remembers Sondheim coming into a rehearsal room at The Old Globe and performing new music for them. He said it was so moving on the day that Sondheim sat at the piano, got out his sheet music, laid it out so it was neat and then sang “No One Is Alone.” He remembers Paul Gemignani, the music director who's a big, imposing presence, literally having tears streaming down his cheeks. And Chip remembers that when the show was rehearsing in New York, Sondheim presented him the song “No More.” Chip said he couldn't believe that Sondheim was writing songs based on how Chip played the character, what his range was, etc., and that he was going to be able to sing that brilliance onstage. Watch it here.

His fondest memory is about when they filmed Into the Woods for PBS. The audience was filled with Sondheim fanatics who simply loved the show. Chip went back to his dressing room after the curtain call and noticed that it was dark even though he had left the light on. He opened the door and saw someone sitting there. Chip turned on the light, and Sondheim looked up at him with tears in his eyes and said, “When could it ever be this good?” How sweet is that? Isn’t it nice to know that it’s not just the audience that's moved by a genius’ work, but the genius himself can be moved by the piece, the performances, and the love from the audience, as well?

And, finally, how can anyone not be moved by this: The time a giant chorus of singers performed “Sunday” for Sondheim on his 80th birthday. I’m so extremely glad I got to be in it, but devastated that I’m a shorty. Right at 2:06 you see James (my husband) singing next to me and Nancy Opel standing in front of me. Regardless, it’s such a stunning song and to sing with the Philharmonic with Sondheim in the audience was thrilling. Watch, listen, grieve and be thankful.

15 Photos Celebrating Stephen Sondheim

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