Singing Sondheim in the Age of Donald Trump

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Sondheim
Photo by Brigette Lacombe.

Two-time Tony nominee Melissa Errico reached out to CFR through her press agent to promote several upcoming gigs but also to write of her association with Stephen Sondheim’s work through the years. We asked her to expand on her idea, presented below.

Errico will appear at Feinstein’s/54 Below on Sat., June 3, 7pm, for the NYC debut of “Melissa Errico Sings Sondheim.” On Tue., June 13, 7pm, she will also perform Sondheim material at Irish Repertory Theatre’s Sondheim at Seven gala at The Town Hall in NYC. On Mon, July 3, 7pm, Errico’s “Broadway Firecracker” will play at NYC’s Birdland Jazz, spotlighting Hollywood and Broadway songs from the ’30s to the ’50s. On July 28 and 29, Errico will offer two concerts in Provincetown, MA, together with another Broadway baby, the indomitable Seth Rudetsky. For more information, visit Errico’s website.

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Melissa Errico

Tony Award-nominee Melissa Errico has established herself as a Broadway star, film/TV actress, recording and concert artist. She starred in the Broadway musicals Anna Karenina, My Fair Lady, High Society, Dracula, White Christmas and Amour, and in the first national tour of Les Misérables. She has also starred in plays by Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Wallace Shawn. TV roles include Darren Star’s Central Park West, recurring roles on Stephen Soderburgh’s The Knick and Showtime’s Billions. This past season, she reprised the role of Sharon in a hit Off-Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow at Irish Rep, which was extended many times and filmed in January 2017 for The New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. Errico served on The National Endowment for the Arts and published essays for various magazines and The New York Times. She is married to tennis player and sports commentator Patrick McEnroe. They have three young daughters and a Yorkie named Pepper.