WRITING BY MELISSA
The first time I sang for Stephen Sondheim I was in the bath. Raul Esparza and I were doing Sunday in The Park with George at the Kennedy Center, and I played Dot, who is a painter’s model to the greatest of dot-makers, Georges Seurat. I had been an art history major in college and, excited to be living in a pointillist painting, I had had an idea: to replace the makeup table (where the character of Dot is getting all primped and prepped for a date night with her busy painter beau) with a bathtub, where I would sing nude in bubbles, on stage. There were a lot more nudes in baths in impressionist painting than there were makeup tables. My concept was that Dot’s nudity would be unashamed and might even accent the rejection when Georges chooses to cancel their date-night in order to finish that damn hat.
At the time, I had no idea that this was… Sondheim and you weren’t supposed to suggest changes quite this freely. I don’t know if he was impressed by my audacity or sympathetic with my naiveté. But he sweetly embraced the idea, to the point that he even ended up obliging with a few new lyrics that suited a bathing Dot better than a primping one.
Since then I like to think that a certain watchful half-smile has always inflected our work together. Not too long ago, I was at the dress rehearsal for the Encores production of Do I Hear a Waltz? and all of us were called to the stage very formally– would cast and crew please go to the stage! And there he was— like Balanchine— surrounded as if by a flock of birds— with 75 people looking his way. I couldn’t see quite, and I climbed onto the set behind him, a Venetian balcony, dressed as my lonely character, Leona, and I saw him there. His profile in front of an eager crowd. All breathing shallowly. I bent over the railing, and said “Hello!” And he looked up and smiled and said “Ah! You were wonderful— most of the time.”
I knew at once what he had done! The quicksilver pause. The legendary Sondheim caesura, the bittersweet comma, the way that in all of his greatest songs an emotion gets expressed… and then gets qualified, made a little rueful, just a touch unsure. One emotion happens— and then its opposite. You’re grateful— and you’re sorry. There ought to be clowns. Well, maybe next year. Marry me, a little. We had a good thing going, going, gone. (You see it on his face. Always turned into a comma, always that space where we stop to reflect on our emotions even while we are having them.) It’s what makes him so wonderful to sing— most of the time.
Having danced around his caesuras for a couple of years in the cabarets and concerts that preceded this album, for the recording itself I decided to choose only the most cosmic of his commas, big songs balanced on major emotions. Move on or stay still? Grow or stop? Even, live or die? But all still balancing-act songs, about choices. (And those interspersed with a few lighter moments, as with “Sooner or Later” where the choice is less live and die and more like love, or sigh.)
By Melissa Errico - May 26, 2017
“I’m going to undertake a Sondheim show.” The first thing you notice when you announce that is how many opinions your friends and colleagues and fans have about his music. “What are you singing that’s rare?” you hear, as well as “Do you know this song that was cut from…?,” and all that sort of stuff. It’s something I love — knowing that really constructing a perfect Sondheim set might take me years. There’s something archaeological about his work. There has been so much work over such a long time that even the discarded songs are often more interesting than anyone else’s more familiar ones. Prepping a Sondheim set is like being a scholar of ancient Egypt: you’re always excavating another Pharaoh, finding another mummified song that you can bring back to life with your breath, discovering another mysterious layer of treasure under the already familiar, mysterious layers of treasure. Honestly, I didn’t think of the great pyramids until just now…but it strikes me as accurate, and a fun idea.
As a performer, I have loved every encounter I have had playing a character given voice by Sondheim, and in every instance, the more complicated my own experience of life has become, the more I discover another detail in his work. The most obvious case for me is the role of Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, which I played at age 33, just prior to becoming a mother. My rich appreciation for my own ancestors colored my feelings about the second act; the song “Children and Art” resonated deeply for me then as now. Songs like “Everybody Loves Louis,” too — on the one hand it makes me laugh so hard, but it’s also a rattling song about the choices life forces us to make.
Next came Clara in Passion — a role and a show that practically enveloped me at the time that I did it. (Its opening lines alone are enough to win over a romantic for life.) Passion is so intense that I even had a conversation with a famous English director who told me that it’s “dangerous” for anyone who goes near it — for who plays it, for who lives within it. You come out of the experienced crushed and glorified.
My most recent encounter was exactly a year ago with, and as, Leona in Do I Hear a Waltz?, a musical whose roots were as much in Arthur Laurents’ play The Time of the Cuckoo as in that one and only collaboration of Sondheim writing lyrics to Richard Rodgers’ music. You can feel the friction between Rodgers’ genuineness and Sondheim’s attraction to conflict and ambivalence. I think one of my career highlights was on stage, in a chair in a Venice café, being Leona and talking to the empty chair beside her, singing through verse after lilting yet aggravated verse in “Here We Are Again.” I believe Leona completely knew who she was talking to, even as she had a wonderful, even fabulous, conversation with no one.
Without giving away my set list for June 3, I can promise that I will build on the ways I have accessed Sondheim. If I am like Ariadne going through a labyrinth, then I have a few threads that I can hold onto, and tenderly I will proceed. When I sing a song from Sweeney Todd like “Not While I’m Around,” I will remember how dangerous is its London setting: a place of deep lies, dark deceits, the scent of murder; I will remember how vulnerable young Tobias is and how certain and deeply loving are his intentions. When I feel love, I feel so much love in Sondheim’s songs. And so many great performers have put their mark on his work — or have had his mark put on them. Mandy Patinkin, Angela Lansbury, my own heroine Bernadette Peters — if I have something that I hope to contribute to singing Sondheim, it’s to bring my own life as a woman and mother to his art, not just to refresh the sheen of sophistication that his music already possesses. I’m hardly the first to express this thought (I know), but deep inside his work, just below its shimmering surface, are marvels of emotional meaning.
Again, it’s archaeology: the idea not just to find the buried treasure, the metaphor I used earlier, but to polish each artifact as its brought to light; to evoke a whole, very personal world.
Additionally, but hardly secondarily, we obviously live in a world in turmoil. With so much unsettled and discordant in the nation, there are ways in which Sondheim is more than a musician, he’s almost a life philosopher. I stop almost every day while rehearsing and think, Wow, those are words to live by! I believe there are challenges and values hidden in his songs that can and will strengthen us if we hear his words. This is from “No More,” from Into the Woods:
Running away, go to it.
Where did you have in mind?
Have to take care…
Unless there’s a “where”
You’ll only be wandering blind.
Just more questions…different kind.
Sondheim warns us in various ways against small-mindedness, selfishness, excessive belief in fame, narcissism and greed. His characters may be neurotic, and often; they are also torn by their choices — or perceived lack of choices. As an actor, it’s amazing to study people who are panicking, and fascinating to pay attention to panicked people’s decisions. All Sondheim shows unfold in fascinating ways as these people make their choices and face their outcomes. Where the lyrics are most extraordinary is in the level of detail he gives to an actor: the observations he makes, the way he packs and unpacks the mind of each character. (It must always be said how much of this is also really funny.) Sondheim’s work is a challenge to each one of us in real life to watch what we actually do. To watch how we survive.
I do revere his musical world — his melodies, the essences of his songs without even the words in mind. His melodies alone are moving, complex, almost spiritual to me; when they are romantic or sexy, they are deeply so. In turbulent times, it’s pretty fabulous to have music that expresses struggle and a longing for pleasure and peace. What better metaphor is there for community than the mournful yet hopeful chorale at the end of the first act of Sunday in Park with George?
I can’t hide how highly I esteem him: There is an essential goodness in Sondheim’s worldview — a deep, deep goodness; a nobility, even; a humanity that fills the air. There are life lessons on every page. I don’t read a lot of what people generally say or write about him. All I know is that in a complex and unstable world, I want to look up.
— Melissa Errico
October 13, 2018
1. What are your three favourite Sondheim songs and why?
Unfair question! It’s been hard enough getting my concert down to 16 songs. I’ll answer this but I will be changing my mind by the time I get to the end of my reply.
I love “I Remember” from Evening Primrose because it's a sublime song, a mood song, a trance-like poem in a sense, about memory and what we choose to remember.
I adore “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd because there is pure love in it – it is perfect proof that Sondheim teaches us to protect the most helpless ones we find. I love the Act One finale to Sunday in the Park with George because it represents everything I believe in – radically unlike people coming together in harmony, people of all kinds in a beautiful ensemble. Ok, now can i start my answer again, with three more!?
2. What is your favourite Sondheim song to perform and why?
Dot in Sunday in The Park With George.
I loved portraying her because she has so many wonderful songs – and moments – about making choices. She struggles to talk herself into loving Louis (everyone else loves him!!), and she holds some good debates with George and inside herself. The role is full of learning to choose, and the cost of certain choices, and the fact that we have to keep making choices in life, in order to survive.
3. What Sondheim role would you most like to play and why?
I’m going to skip over the ones that could possibly happen in the short term. I would hate to jinx myself! Actresses all have dreams. Maybe it’s best to keep them to your prayers. In the event that anyone reads this and the proverbial lightbulb might go off, I am ready to sing “Send in The Clowns” eight shows a week. Down the road, I sure would like a shot at Mrs Lovett!! I must get to sing “A Little Priest!” Angela Lansbury is everything.
4. What Sondheim lyric do you carry with you in your life?
"Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell."
["Children Will Listen", Into The Woods]
5. What has Sondheim brought to your life and career, so far?
Sondheim himself? As a teacher, both directly and from studying him (listening to interviews and reading about him), he has brought me the ability to take criticism (to want it) and to trust myself, all at the same time. Strive and correct – but also take charge. The little I know of him outside of work, Sondheim seems to not like self-deprecation – I think he feels some of us waste a good deal of energy pulling ourselves down. Self-deprecation isn’t cute – it isn’t good for ourselves and it isn’t good for the human community.
A musical meditation from Melissa Errico, who finds light and wisdom in the Sondheim songbook.
Being an actor is a hard life, and a strange life. But those of us who are musical theater actors cannot imagine our lives, cannot imagine the experience of being an actor at all, without the influence of Stephen Sondheim. I’m blessed to have just completed the passion project of my life—made more passionate by my having once appeared in his great musical play Passion—and that’s a recording of Sondheim’s sublime songs.
Why “sublime”? Well, by sublime I mean what the poet Wordsworth meant by it:
That blessed mood
In which the burden of the mystery,
In which the heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
I began thinking of recording a Sondheim album at a mysteriously unintelligible moment in my own life.
I was juggling three daughters, a marriage, a career, aging parents and all the rush and worries of maturity. The need to unburden my world and make it intelligible again led me directly to Sondheim. He lightens us not by false distractions but by real wisdoms. He writes truths for us to live by: “It’s not so much do as you like/As it is that you like what you do” and “Careful the tale you tell/ That is the spell/ Children will listen.” Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the musicals Hamilton and In The Heights, in his first Tony Award acceptance speech, proudly announced “Mr. Sondheim! Look, I made a hat! Where there never was a hat! It’s a Latin hat, at that!”
A recording is a chance to capture a passion and its contradictions, to preserve the intimacy of connecting to music. When a singer meditates and sings, live on stage, it’s an act designed to happen and be gone in an instant. How do you capture a musical meditation? You search for a theme—and a central theme in all of Sondheim’s work is light. (I sometimes tell my singing students that “light” is the key word in Sondheim, the way “love” is in Sinatra.)
Light! And I don’t mean the spotlight of the theater, that “look at me” light of center stage. I mean the light of experience honestly observed, the light that happens when a window long shut comes open, the light that lets us see the world as it is. “Understand the light/Concentrate on now.” The power of now—that’s Sondheim’s light.
In my new album, I wanted to shine my own light on Sondheim’s, light on light—Sondheim can provide us actors with plenty of pizzazz, but that wasn’t the light I hoped to cast. I wanted to let my own experience as a woman shine over his experience as a man.
His work may seem super-cool and super-smart, but just beneath the shimmering surface is a deep 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.
Now that the music’s done and out in the world, I hope it leads others down that river, a river where the water is sometimes incredibly clear and lucid, and other times beautifully, complexly muddy. As performers, all we do is to try to cast our own light so that another artist’s work can be seen—the way the light touches the water. Then comes the next mystery.