Stephen Sondheim remembered by Imelda Staunton | Stephen Sondheim

If I shut my eyes and consider Stephen Sondheim, I keep in mind him sitting in my kitchen in north London. It wasn’t a showbiz fest. It was simply speaking about nothing, about life, about canines. He was this superb, mellow man, so personable and heat. Even on the time, I assumed, blimey, right here is that this legend, having a beer in my kitchen. That’s one for the ebook!

He was so extraordinary, the final of the massive boys, the ultimate hyperlink with the nice American songbook, a person with private connections to Oscar Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein. He modified musicals, made sad musicals occur. He set down such an excellent path that led in so many various instructions.

We first met in 1990 in my dressing room on the Phoenix theatre once I was enjoying the Baker’s Spouse in Richard Jones’s manufacturing of Into the Woods. He stated he’d prefer to thank me for what I used to be doing with the character. And since I used to be nervous, I simply kind of blurted out: “Nicely, you don’t write a straightforward tune, do you Stephen?”

There was a selected word I couldn’t get, and I informed him. He stated: “Change it. Simply change it.” That was such a shock to me as a result of I wasn’t actually a Sondheim aficionado at that time, and individuals who had been stated you couldn’t contact something in his work. After that, after all, I made a decision I’d actually attempt to do it as he’d written it. However that was Stephen throughout. He by no means made you’re feeling insufficient. He solely ever needed all of us to be our best.

I didn’t see him once more till I took on Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd in 2011. We had been in Chichester, which is beautiful as a result of you possibly can collect within the bar after the present, and all of the youthful actors had been beside themselves with pleasure. He knew that and sat with them; he was by no means somebody who simply needed to take a seat with the director or the producer. He knew how a lot he meant to individuals.

What struck me was his pleasure at seeing a manufacturing of his work. He would by no means say, nicely you realize, we did it like this at such and such a time, or indicate that he wished we had been doing it otherwise. I assumed: gosh, it is a lesson, isn’t it? To be so current and so very encouraging about what was occurring now. I’m certain he gave the director and the music director a great deal of issues to consider, however he created an environment the place it was simple to be inventive, to not be stifled by another person’s view. He was by no means locked right into a imaginative and prescient of how one thing must be completed.

A 12 months later, once I knew I used to be going to be enjoying Momma Rose in Gypsy, my husband, Jim, and I went to Stephen’s home in New York for dinner. We went into this pretty room stuffed with what I assumed had been awards, however they turned out to be essentially the most extraordinary metallic puzzles. There have been additionally all these fantastic issues to do with magic and circus. Jim is de facto into that as nicely, so the entire night time I didn’t get a phrase in edgeways.

For me, his work shouldn’t be about how the songs sound. It’s how they really feel. In a single respect, he’s completed a lot of the be just right for you. You don’t have to fret about how you’ll make the songs work; you simply should learn them. He wrote monologues after which, within the music, he gave you the rhythm and the heartbeat of every one. They’re difficult and complex however that makes them extra satisfying to do.

Imelda Staunton with Kevin Whateley and Lara Pulver in Gypsy at Chichester Festival theatre, 2014.
Imelda Staunton with Kevin Whately and Lara Pulver in Gypsy at Chichester Pageant theatre, 2014. {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

After I was singing Gypsy, we talked loads about motherhood, and unhealthy parenting. We mentioned the lyrics and the way a lot his personal journey along with his mom knowledgeable this explicit mom. He writes so nicely about ache. And pleasure. He’s Shakespearean in that method. He’s like Shakespeare too as a result of, like all the very best writing, there’s nobody option to do him. His work is simply so wealthy.

I’d stored in contact with him, by means of emails, till he died. However the final time I really noticed him was at Follies on the Nationwide Theatre in 2017, once I performed Sally. He gave me the one particular word I keep in mind him giving me, about Dropping My Thoughts. He stated: “Don’t even attempt to make it sound something apart from a nervous breakdown. Don’t fear the way it sounds. It is a lady simply tumbling down.”

Anyhow, on the finish of the primary preview, I stepped ahead and stated: “Look girls and gents, Mr Sondheim is within the constructing, and we simply should recognise this man.” He was standing on the staircase, and all of us clapped for what appeared like 5 hours. I assumed: I don’t know when this may occur once more. I needed to try this for him. I’m actually glad I did.

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