‘His songs are like a fabulous steak’: an all-star toast to Stephen Sondheim | Stephen Sondheim

‘I knew I used to be being sorted by a grasp’
Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal in Sunday in the Park with George, on Broadway.
‘Simply shut up and say the phrases’ … Jake Gyllenhaal in Sunday within the Park with George, on Broadway. {Photograph}: Matthew Murphy

Through the previews of Sunday within the Park With George on Broadway, I used to be battling the tune Coloration and Mild. Steve requested me to come to his residence. He was sporting a T-shirt and sweatpants and stated: “Sorry I didn’t gown up for you!” There had been some dialogue about me portray every dot of color with a totally different brush. I used to be confused however he was like: “I don’t care what number of fucking brushes you utilize, simply paint on rhythm. Every thought is the color.”

Folks would ask me: “Aren’t you intimidated by him, his lyrics and his music?” No. What was there to be nervous about? I knew I used to be being sorted by a grasp. He’d performed all of the be just right for you. Simply shut up and say the phrases.

Some moments in that present, when George sings, Steve methods you. I’m nonetheless baffled, after doing it a whole bunch of occasions, by the order of a number of the lyrics. Performing his songs, you don’t simply expertise one thing emotional – you stroll your self via a puzzle, you resolve the crossword with the viewers. By the top, your coronary heart and mind have been exhausted.

‘I had his life in my arms!’
Patti LuPone

He’s incredibly charming’ … Patti LuPone in Company in 2018.
‘He’s extremely charming’ … Patti LuPone in Firm in 2018. {Photograph}: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Steve loves my husband and used to get stoned with him in our barn. We stay in the identical space of Connecticut and would meet up for afternoon tea. I keep in mind we have been as soon as all at a magical full-moon get together that Mia Farrow hosted. Mia has a lake on her property and I invited Steve to come out on the paddleboat with me. “Oh God,” I assumed. “I’ve his life in my arms!”


In some unspecified time in the future, we stared up and I stated: “Look, the moon is chattering.” And Steve stated: “Sure, the moon is speaking!” His guard was down, my guard was down. It’s overwhelming to have a human connection like that with somebody who’s a grasp of the occupation you have been born into. I’m intimidated by him, as I’m with all of the individuals I like, however he’s extremely charming. I believe he was a little nervous on the paddleboat. We admired the lake, admired the ingenuity of a paddleboat, and I managed to get us again to shore.

‘The songs are like a fabulous piece of steak’
Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera in West Side Story in 1957.
‘He taught me how to breathe’ … Chita Rivera in West Facet Story in 1957. {Photograph}: AP

I knew him earlier than he was the Stephen Sondheim, again when he was the good-looking younger man behind the piano in rehearsals for West Facet Story. He had written these wonderful lyrics and I used to be busy making an attempt to study them. His lyrics are like a fabulous piece of steak – there’s no fats, nothing to waste. All of it tells a story clearly.

He, Lenny Bernstein and Jerry Robbins taught me how to breathe. You’ll be able to’t sing America with out having the ability to breathe – as a dancer and as a singer. What a stunning time. I miss it so desperately. We’d like that respect for theatre – these individuals dared to inform a story and never for egocentric causes. Working with nice individuals like Stephen has made me no matter I’m as we speak.

‘His knowledge cuts you to the core’
Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald in Sweeney Todd in Concert in 2014.
‘He can invoke unimaginable emotion’ … Audra McDonald in Sweeney Todd in a New York Philharmonic live performance in 2014. {Photograph}: WENN Rights/Alamy

The wild factor about Steve is that he continues to tweak musicals that I take into account masterpieces. You have got to keep in your toes to sustain with him. For those who neglect a Sondheim lyric mid-song, you’re not going to give you the option to throw simply something in there. You’ll be able to’t improv as a result of the trains of thought and rhyme schemes are so sensible and work on such a excessive mental stage.

He also can evoke unimaginable emotion. As a performer with younger daughters, the tune I sing over once more is The Glamorous Life, which explores the emotions of a lady whose mom is a performer and gone more often than not. Steve can inhabit the thoughts of that lady simply in addition to the lady who sings The Girls Who Lunch. I return to Sunday within the Park With George in the best way some would possibly a verse from the Bible. A lot of what it means to be an artist is explored in that musical, which has my favorite lyric of his, from Transfer On: “Something you do / Let it come from you / Then it will likely be new / Give us extra to see.” As an artist, that’s knowledge that cuts you to the core.

‘Assassins left me gobsmacked’
Rosalie Craig

‘His humour is super-dry’ … Rosalie Craig, centre, in Company.
‘His humour is super-dry’ … Rosalie Craig, centre, in Firm. {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I had a drip-feed of Sondheim songs at drama college and once I noticed Assassins at Sheffield Crucible I used to be gobsmacked. Bizarrely my now husband, Hadley Fraser, was in it. I did A Little Evening Music, Anybody Can Whistle, Sweeney Todd after which Firm. We gender-flipped Firm, with me taking part in Bobbie. Stephen had to give the go forward for that to the director Marianne Elliott. It took a whereas to persuade him however he did so on the premise that we have been working collectively.

It was a daring step however in the long run he couldn’t have been extra supportive. We made the forged album with him, and it was unimaginable listening to his voice come via within the studio. He would give tiny, tiny notes. His humour is super-dry. In a lot of musicals, you’ve to labour the lyrics or the music – you’ve to mine it fairly laborious – to get the form of outcomes you do along with his. We must always all know extra Sondheim. Sondheim in every single place, please!

‘Get up! That is it! You don’t get a second journey!’
Mandy Patinkin

Mandy Patinkin with Bernadette Peters in a 1986 production of Sunday in the Park With George.
‘A thrill’ … Mandy Patinkin with Bernadette Peters in a 1986 manufacturing of Sunday within the Park With George. {Photograph}: Everett Assortment/Alamy

Whenever you recommend one thing to lesser abilities, they put up defences and play dodgeball with you. They’re afraid. However whenever you work with a genius like Stephen, he desires to hear all the pieces you’ve to say. Once we have been workshopping Sunday within the Park With George, he got here to watch the scene the place George attracts his mom whereas she is singing. George’s a part of that tune wasn’t written but and I knew Steve was coming. I used to be younger and nervous. As we did the scene, I simply sat there drawing and the tears flowed out of my eyes.

The run-through completed and Stephen stated: “I’d like to speak to you.” We spoke about our related journeys with our moms – of making an attempt to join and the ache and darkness of lacking that connection. Two or three days later, he offered me with this extraordinary poem set to music: it was my a part of the tune known as Lovely. By no means earlier than or since have I had that diploma of collaboration in creating something of that nature. A bit little bit of the mud of our dialog bought into that tune – and that is among the thrills of my life.

When his phrases undergo my system, they rejuvenate my thoughts and soul to a level of reminding me what it’s I’m making an attempt to be alive for. I selected Being Alive as the ultimate tune of my live shows as a result of he’s making an attempt to inform us: “Get up! That is it! Get with him or her, and love them and be liked – since you don’t get a second journey.” Stephen’s songs stay my prayers, my information posts. They are mantras in our household. Together with my spouse and youngsters, he is among the nice items of my life.

‘Some songs are like three-act performs’
Nathan Lane

Nathan Lane with Whoopi Goldberg in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
‘All of the songs come out of a story’ … Nathan Lane with Whoopi Goldberg after A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Manner to the Discussion board. {Photograph}: Mitchell Gerber/Corbis/VCG through Getty Pictures

I fell in love along with his work immediately. I used to be drawn to the truth that he wrote the music and the lyrics. It was all coming from one particular person! And he tailored such totally different and strange tales. He might do farce, like A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Manner to the Discussion board, then the sophistication and nice wit of A Little Evening Music.

After I got here throughout a copy of The Frogs, written by Burt Shevelove and Stephen, I used to be very curious. It’s about Dionysus making an attempt to deliver a playwright again from the lifeless to give us hope to go on. Proper after 9/11, I puzzled if we might totally musicalise it. There have been many choral numbers however few particular person character songs. We shyly approached Stephen and stated: “Maybe you can write some extra songs. He stated sure – and so I bought to write a musical with Stephen Sondheim!


He wound up writing six new songs. It wasn’t simple as a result of he was writing in a model he didn’t write in any extra. The Frogs is his model of a Saturday Evening Dwell political selection present that has low comedy and intellectual stuff that the Greeks liked however up to date audiences had points with. It was a noble failure. We have been making an attempt to do one thing political at a very divisive time – that’s not simple in New York musical theatre.

With Stephen, all the songs come out of the story. He all the time asks: “Why is the character singing?” It has to be obligatory for the character to sing. Among the songs are like little three-act performs. They are very difficult however when you’ve discovered them you always remember them.

‘If he desires me to eat the newborn, I’ll eat the newborn!’
Vanessa Williams

Stephen Sondheim and Vanessa Williams at an 80th birthday gala.
‘The viewers began crying’ … Sondheim and Vanessa Williams at an eightieth birthday gala. {Photograph}: WENN Rights/Alamy

For Stephen’s eightieth, I sang Joyful Birthday to him at Studio 54. Once we have been doing the revue Sondheim on Sondheim, Stephen gave James Lapine a fantastic collection of interviews about his life. They have been proven on display screen, and we’d come out and sing no matter tune was pertinent to that a part of his life.

The largest gasp from the viewers was when he was speaking about his mom, how she was the one who wished to be the star and actually didn’t need him as a youngster. He remembers getting a letter from her saying: “The one remorse I’ve in life is having you.” In that second, we got here out and sang Kids Will Hear from Into the Woods. The viewers began crying. You realised that tremendous tune was so laden with ache and fact.

After I performed the witch in Into the Woods in 2002, Stephen and James determined to tweak issues. Sooner or later James was studying the newest fax from Stephen and it stated: “The witch picks up the newborn and locations her bloody hand over the newborn’s mouth and suffocates the newborn.” It ended by saying I used to be supposed to eat the newborn. I stated: “If Stephen Sondheim desires me to eat the newborn, I’ll eat the newborn!”

‘I didn’t realise lyrics may very well be so intelligent’
Neil Patrick Harris

Neil Patrick Harris, centre, with Michael Cerveris and Mario Cantone in Assassins.
‘He challenged us’ … Neil Patrick Harris, centre, with Michael Cerveris and Mario Cantone in Assassins. {Photograph}: Frank Micelotta

I met him once I was starring in Sweeney Todd in Los Angeles. I wasn’t a classically skilled singer and felt very inexperienced, however he was encouraging. He has an unbelievable songbook. My favorite is Not Whereas I’m Round from Sweeney. There’s one thing so eerily stunning about Mrs Lovett singing a lullaby to a boy figuring out that he’s in all probability subsequent to go. The extra you research the songs, the extra understanding you achieve. It’s as if it’s all encoded. I didn’t realise lyrics may very well be so intelligent and that their problems might, as soon as solved, change into beautiful simplicity.

Doing Assassins was a implausible expertise. It’s a check of alchemy. You’re getting a lot of eccentric musical-theatre performers to co-exist collectively in a darkish, aggressive present. I used to be the counterpoint to that – the balladeer taking part in a harmonica and singing about how optimistic issues might and ought to be. They let me play Lee Harvey Oswald too, which was an attention-grabbing social assertion. Audiences have been polarised about Assassins. Stephen was within the thought of creating a present that will press totally different buttons for various individuals. He was difficult individuals to have conversations about what assassination means, what striving to make a change means.

‘Hey girl, aren’t you whoozis?’
Elaine Paige

Elaine Paige in Follies.
‘The viewers went completely wild’ … Elaine Paige in Follies. {Photograph}: WENN Rights/Alamy

West Facet Story was the rationale I wished to be in theatre. After I was in school, the older women had the album. His lyrics are edgy, direct and easy. He tackles the large questions and asks us to have a look at issues in a new manner. It’s exhilarating assembly him since you’re conscious of this large mind – however it’s fairly scary as effectively.

I sang I’m Nonetheless Right here in Follies in 2011 and he mentioned virtually each line actually totally. He can be very forthright and informative. He advised me he wrote it for and about Joan Crawford. I jotted all of this down in a pocket book. He was quite impressed and stated I used to be the one one that’d performed that.

There’s a line of his that goes, “Hey, girl, aren’t you whoozis?” as a result of the man can’t keep in mind who she is. He stated: “With that line, Elaine, I would like you to think about a cab driver in England trying in his rear-view mirror and saying, ‘No matter occurred to Elaine Paige?’” I stated: “Oh nice, thanks! Fortunately it hasn’t occurred but!”

He advised me to suppose what you’re singing and do not forget that much less is extra. Possibly he thought I’d been overselling I’m Nonetheless Right here. That evening, I attempted to deliver the tune down, making it smaller and extra easy. The viewers went completely wild.

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