Q & A
Sondheim Sublime. An Interview with Melissa Errico
Q: How did the project of doing an all-Sondheim recording begin? We know you have a passion for encyclopedic coverage of the songwriters you admire-- you’ve preceded this album with an all-Legrand one.
Melissa Errico: The roots of this project were deeply personal, even private. In the summer of 2017, I received a phone call from the New York nightclub 54 Below, asking if I could help them out. They had had a last-minute cancellation for a Saturday night show and wanted to know if I could organize a solo concert –quickly, with 3 weeks’ notice. It was curious that I didn’t pause a moment before saying “Well, I could do a Sondheim concert. That is something I can do.” Curious because I had never said these words before -- and I said them now instinctively, without pre-meditation.
Why Sondheim? How did I know that this was something I could do? Well, to be honest, I answered the phone at the time as someone who was not really imagining a club act at one of New York’s most stylish venues. Not long before, the doctors had discovered a peculiar, interesting and relatively rare kind of tumor inside me -- what’s called a neuro-endocrinal tumor, on the same ovary that had, eight years before, produced my twin daughters. The medical situation became something like an emotionally (and physically) painful treasure hunt -- a systematic process, over many months, of ruling things out and checking the next box, a process which grew eventually into five surgeries.
Q: How awful! But why Sondheim?
ME: Well, I realized during that phone call that not only did I enjoy and admire his music-- I needed his music. I knew instinctively at that moment that the meanings of his music hold the meanings of my life. If I was to leave a legacy for my three daughters – and, not to hold you in suspense, as it turned out all eventually was well, I’ve never been healthier, but I’m grateful that I was forced to think of this -- I wanted to use Sondheim’s words and his music to speak for me. After I hung up the telephone, I was certain that my show would highlight the wisdoms that flow out of his music and right into the deepest corners of my mind. My loves, my losses, my life caring for children, even my love for my dog, my awareness of my parents and what lessons and hurts they leave behind and within me… all of this is, for me, in his songs. Memories of nature and of youth in the reminiscent poetry of a song like “I Remember,” or the desperate fight for stability in “Losing My Mind.” Falling in love and falling out of love, falling too hard, feeling too much, sometimes, as in “Loving You”—all this, in his songs. I wanted to offer words like those of the aged Dot in Sunday In the Park saying “It’s not so much do as you like/ as it is that you like what you do,” or, from Into The Woods, “running away, let’s do it/ free from the ties that bind/ have to take care unless there’s a where/ you’ll only be wandering blind. / Just more questions, different kind.”
Q: You obviously have a deep personal connection to this music. When and how did it begin?
ME: In a sense, everything in my theatrical life has been encased in his songs. I had modeled my own work while watching others -- Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Angela Lansbury, Elaine Stritch – give his music life, and the most profound experiences I have ever had as a stage actress were in three of his musicals. Playing Dot, in “Sunday In the Park with George”, Clara in “Passion” and Leona in the little known “Do I Hear a Waltz?” were the times that I most felt the intensely alive in my job as an actor-- where I felt torn apart by my character’s contradictions, where beauty and anguish seemed at war in every turn of the Sondheim weather. It’s a miracle I survived my passion for being in his plays. As an actor and audience, I had been, as his admirer, a witness to ecstasy.
Being an actor is a hard life, and a strange life. But most musical theater actors cannot imagine their lives, cannot imagine the experience of being an actor at all, without the influence of Sondheim. Yes, I wanted to connect to the songs I felt emotionally tied to, or the words that rocked my world. But also, express somehow an overwhelming reverence for the man’s work, for what it’s meant to all of us – reverence for a river I feel flows through it all.
Q: How did that first cabaret-concert turn out? You must have been pleased with the results, given what it’s inspired now.
ME: Well, I sang with my hair falling over my shoulders on a hot June day, and I remember being carried by tears and laughter, every song catching my soul and being the favorite song of the night. It went well enough that I was asked to do it then again and again- on Long Island, and then yet again for a triumphant weekend in Manhattan later that fall, and then on to happy audiences in London, New Orleans and Chicago, all leading to the decision to make this album.
Q: We’ve heard that Sondheim himself cast an eye, or ear, on the album. How did that happen?
ME: Well, I was lucky enough to get an appreciative review of the show from Jesse Green in the New York Times, and it seems Sondheim reads the paper – for early on as the show developed, he sent an e-mail of congratulation… and so began months of emails and advice, which grew in momentum to a correspondence that gave my days a thrill and an appreciation I can hardly describe.
Q: As a Sondheim devotee, that must have been thrilling.
ME: More than I can tell you. The first time he wrote back, I screamed and ran to my children saying “OMG!! OMG!! Guess who sent me an email??” One of my 8-year-old daughters shot back: “DADDY??” … “No, I said, STEPHEN SONDHEIM.” They jumped for my joy. It has become more normal to hear from him and I have learned to not scream, but honestly my heart always skips a beat when I see an email with an obscure song suggestion or a response to a discussion about a certain lyric. Sondheim watched my concert videos and gave me notes and encouragements, and a few chastisements.
Q: The encouragements we can imagine – but what were the chastisements?
ME: One was “Good grief, stop the self-deprecation! I am the champ and I don’t want competition.” I tend to be a bit of an excessive-perfectionist. I always want it better. And another was to make an adjustment to my live performances of “I Remember,”. He said, “You sound great, but frankly, I wish you wouldn’t “act” the song so much. It’s a memory piece, and your individual reactions to certain words and phrases makes it too present. The past is always one tone unless one is reliving an action. It’s a mood piece, not an active one.”
Q: Is the album a reproduction of the stage show, the cabaret set?
ME: No, not really. In the show I sing some upbeat, satiric numbers, but for the album I decided not to attempt all of Sondheim’s palette but instead to tap into a special vein of sympathy, tenderness and passion that he offers -- that river of emotion I mentioned. I included flirtation and mischief in this river, with “Sooner or Later” and “Miller’s Son” and the vibrant “Isn’t He Something?” from Roadshow, a favorite of Mr. Sondheim’s, in part about a mother’s over-identification with a child’s seeming success. But most of it, I hope, is intense and even spiritual and well, sublime.
Q: Tell us something about the album’s recording history.
ME: We recorded the album in only two days, with Tedd Firth on solo piano, and a few songs with bass and percussion—all with musicians who have known me a decade or more. Often, we kept my first takes, treating this project much like one would a live album, with the focus and control of a studio but minimal editing. My inspired producer and friend Rob Mathes wanted it to feel like a moment in time—poems lived and felt with a small group of friends working in a little studio in Fleetwood New York-- not something engineered to be perfectly manicured.
Q: Melissa, what’s the final ‘take away’ you hope to provide with the album? What do you want people to fish for in this ‘river’ of music?
ME: Well, I hope it still resonates a bit, maybe subliminally, with my own life crisis, now so thankfully resolved. I wanted to shine a light on Sondheim’s sincerity-- Sondheim can provide us actors with plenty of pizzazz, this we know, but that wasn’t the kind of light I wanted to shine onto Sondheim’s own light. A river, I said? Yes, a river of empathy—the incomparable richness of his music approaches a spiritual level for me, a sanctity, a call to care for other human beings, to share in jubilation with people we love, to love, to touch, to vote, to marry, to empathize with struggles and most of all, to move forward. To move on. I chose the songs on this album to take you, I hope, down one river where the water is sometimes incredibly clear and lucid, and other times beautifully, complexly muddy. But maybe it is as much light as it is a river that I wanted to explore with this recording. Maybe to capture the way the light touches the water.
Q: Did Mr. Sondheim approve the title?
ME: I fear he finds it, well, how did he put it...”campy.” (His word.) We discussed variations, and I never quite convinced him. But I was a super-serious art history major in college – there's a part of me that still wants to be handing out test papers on Caravaggio instead of singing on stage – and I mean sublime in the sense that art historians use it, as something distinct from our general sense of ‘beauty’, which can be mostly wholesome or pleasing or just pretty. Sublime is the tingling, spine-chilling, above-and-beyond intimation of emotion that you get in a romantic landscape, or in this kind of Sondheim song. That’s why I like it, and why I’m sticking with it.