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

·12 min read

‘I knew I was being looked after by a master’
Jake Gyllenhaal

During the previews of Sunday in the Park With George on Broadway, I was struggling with the song Color and Light. Steve asked me to come to his home. He was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants and said: “Sorry I didn’t dress up for you!” There had been some discussion about me painting each dot of colour with a different brush. I was confused but he was like: “I don’t care how many fucking brushes you use, just paint on rhythm. Each thought is the colour.”

People 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 was being looked after by a master. He’d done all the work for you. Just shut up and say the words.

Some moments in that show, when George sings, Steve tricks you. I’m still baffled, after doing it hundreds of times, by the order of some of the lyrics. Performing his songs, you don’t just experience something emotional – you walk yourself through a puzzle, you solve the crossword with the audience. By the end, your heart and brain have been exhausted.

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

Steve loves my husband and used to get stoned with him in our barn. We live in the same area of Connecticut and would meet up for afternoon tea. I remember we were once all at a magical full-moon party 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 thought. “I have his life in my hands!”

At some point, we stared up and I said: “Look, the moon is chattering.” And Steve said: “Yes, the moon is talking!” His guard was down, my guard was down. It’s overwhelming to have a human connection like that with someone who is a master of the profession you were born into. I’m intimidated by him, as I am with all the people I admire, but he is incredibly charming. I think he was a little nervous on the paddleboat. We admired the lake, admired the ingenuity of a paddleboat, and I managed to get us back 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 Side Story in 1957. Photograph: AP

I knew him before he was the Stephen Sondheim, back when he was the handsome young man behind the piano in rehearsals for West Side Story. He had written these amazing lyrics and I was busy trying to learn them. His lyrics are like a fabulous piece of steak – there’s no fat, nothing to waste. It all tells a story clearly.

He, Lenny Bernstein and Jerry Robbins taught me how to breathe. You can’t sing America without being able to breathe – as a dancer and as a singer. What a beautiful time. I miss it so desperately. We need that respect for theatre – these people dared to tell a story and not for selfish reasons. Working with great people like Stephen has made me whatever I am today.

‘His wisdom cuts you to the core’
Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald in Sweeney Todd in Concert in 2014.
‘He can invoke incredible emotion’ … Audra McDonald in Sweeney Todd in a New York Philharmonic concert in 2014. Photograph: WENN Rights/Alamy

The wild thing about Steve is that he continues to tweak musicals that I consider masterpieces. You have to stay on your toes to keep up with him. If you forget a Sondheim lyric mid-song, you’re not going to be able to throw just anything in there. You can’t improv because the trains of thought and rhyme schemes are so brilliant and work on such a high intellectual level.

He can also evoke incredible emotion. As a performer with young daughters, the song I sing over again is The Glamorous Life, which explores the feelings of a girl whose mother is a performer and gone most of the time. Steve can inhabit the mind of that girl just as well as the woman who sings The Ladies Who Lunch. I return to Sunday in the Park With George in the way some might a verse from the Bible. So much of what it means to be an artist is explored in that musical, which has my favourite lyric of his, from Move On: “Anything you do / Let it come from you / Then it will be new / Give us more to see.” As an artist, that is wisdom that cuts you to the core.

‘Assassins left me gobsmacked’
Rosalie Craig

I had a drip-feed of Sondheim songs at drama school and when I saw Assassins at Sheffield Crucible I was gobsmacked. Bizarrely my now husband, Hadley Fraser, was in it. I did A Little Night Music, Anyone Can Whistle, Sweeney Todd and then Company. We gender-flipped Company, with me playing Bobbie. Stephen had to give the go ahead for that to the director Marianne Elliott. It took a while to convince him but he did so on the basis that we were working together.

It was a bold step but in the end he couldn’t have been more supportive. We made the cast album with him, and it was incredible hearing his voice come through in the studio. He would give tiny, tiny notes. His humour is super-dry. In a lot of musicals, you have to labour the lyrics or the music – you have to mine it quite hard – to get the kind of results you do with his. We should all know more Sondheim. Sondheim everywhere, please!

‘Wake up! This is it! You don’t get a second ride!’
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 production of Sunday in the Park With George. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

When you suggest something to lesser talents, they put up defences and play dodgeball with you. They’re afraid. But when you work with a genius like Stephen, he wants to hear everything you have to say. When we were workshopping Sunday in the Park With George, he came to watch the scene where George draws his mother while she is singing. George’s part of that song wasn’t written yet and I knew Steve was coming. I was young and nervous. As we did the scene, I just sat there drawing and the tears flowed out of my eyes.

The run-through finished and Stephen said: “I’d like to talk to you.” We spoke about our similar journeys with our mothers – of trying to connect and the pain and darkness of missing that connection. Two or three days later, he presented me with this extraordinary poem set to music: it was my part of the song called Beautiful. Never before or since have I had that degree of collaboration in creating anything of that nature. A little bit of the dust of our conversation got into that song – and that is one of the thrills of my life.

When his words go through my system, they rejuvenate my mind and soul to a point of reminding me what it is I am trying to be alive for. I chose Being Alive as the final song of my concerts because he’s trying to tell us: “Wake up! This is it! Get with her or him, and love them and be loved – because you don’t get a second ride.” Stephen’s songs remain my prayers, my guide posts. They are mantras in our family. Along with my wife and children, he is one of the great gifts of my life.

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

I fell in love with his work instantly. I was drawn to the fact that he wrote the music and the lyrics. It was all coming from one person! And he adapted such different and unusual stories. He could do farce, like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, then the sophistication and great wit of A Little Night Music.

When I came across a copy of The Frogs, written by Burt Shevelove and Stephen, I was very curious. It’s about Dionysus trying to bring a playwright back from the dead to give us hope to go on. Right after 9/11, I wondered if we could fully musicalise it. There were many choral numbers but few individual character songs. We shyly approached Stephen and said: “Perhaps you could write some more songs. He said yes – and so I got to write a musical with Stephen Sondheim!

He wound up writing six new songs. It wasn’t easy because he was writing in a style he didn’t write in any more. The Frogs is his version of a Saturday Night Live political variety show that has low comedy and highbrow stuff that the Greeks loved but contemporary audiences had issues with. It was a noble failure. We were trying to do something political at a very divisive time – that’s not easy in New York musical theatre.

With Stephen, all of the songs come out of the story. He always asks: “Why is the character singing?” It has to be necessary for the character to sing. Some of the songs are like little three-act plays. They are very complicated but once you’ve learned them you never forget them.

‘If he wants me to eat the baby, I’ll eat the baby!’
Vanessa Williams

Stephen Sondheim and Vanessa Williams at an 80th birthday gala.
‘The audience started crying’ … Sondheim and Vanessa Williams at an 80th birthday gala. Photograph: WENN Rights/Alamy

For Stephen’s 80th, I sang Happy Birthday to him at Studio 54. When we were doing the revue Sondheim on Sondheim, Stephen gave James Lapine a wonderful series of interviews about his life. They were shown on screen, and we would come out and sing whatever song was pertinent to that part of his life.

The biggest gasp from the audience was when he was talking about his mother, how she was the one who wanted to be the star and really did not want him as a child. He remembers getting a letter from her saying: “The one regret I have in life is having you.” In that moment, we came out and sang Children Will Listen from Into the Woods. The audience started crying. You realised that amazing song was so laden with pain and truth.

When I played the witch in Into the Woods in 2002, Stephen and James decided to tweak things. One day James was reading the latest fax from Stephen and it said: “The witch picks up the baby and places her bloody hand over the baby’s mouth and suffocates the baby.” It ended by saying I was supposed to eat the baby. I said: “If Stephen Sondheim wants me to eat the baby, I’ll eat the baby!”

‘I didn’t realise lyrics could be so clever’
Neil Patrick Harris

I met him when I was starring in Sweeney Todd in Los Angeles. I wasn’t a classically trained singer and felt very green, but he was encouraging. He has an unbelievable songbook. My favourite is Not While I’m Around from Sweeney. There’s something so eerily beautiful about Mrs Lovett singing a lullaby to a boy knowing that he is probably next to go. The more you study the songs, the more understanding you gain. It’s as if it’s all encoded. I didn’t realise lyrics could be so clever and that their complications could, once solved, become exquisite simplicity.

Doing Assassins was a fantastic experience. It’s a test of alchemy. You’re getting a lot of eccentric musical-theatre performers to co-exist together in a dark, aggressive show. I was the counterpoint to that – the balladeer playing a harmonica and singing about how positive things could and should be. They let me play Lee Harvey Oswald too, which was an interesting social statement. Audiences were polarised about Assassins. Stephen was interested in the idea of making a show that would press different buttons for different people. He was challenging people to have conversations about what assassination means, what striving to make a change means.

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

Elaine Paige in Follies.
‘The audience went absolutely wild’ … Elaine Paige in Follies. Photograph: WENN Rights/Alamy

West Side Story was the reason I wanted to be in theatre. When I was at school, the older girls had the album. His lyrics are edgy, direct and simple. He tackles the big questions and asks us to look at things in a new way. It’s exhilarating meeting him because you’re aware of this big brain – but it is pretty scary as well.

I sang I’m Still Here in Follies in 2011 and he discussed practically every line really thoroughly. He would be very forthright and informative. He told me he wrote it for and about Joan Crawford. I jotted all of this down in a notebook. He was rather impressed and said I was the only person who’d done that.

There’s a line of his that goes, “Hey, lady, aren’t you whoozis?” because the guy can’t remember who she is. He said: “With that line, Elaine, I want you to imagine a cab driver in England looking in his rear-view mirror and saying, ‘Whatever happened to Elaine Paige?’” I said: “Oh great, thanks! Luckily it hasn’t happened yet!”

He told me to think what you’re singing and remember that less is more. Maybe he thought I’d been overselling I’m Still Here. That night, I tried to bring the song down, making it smaller and more simple. The audience went absolutely wild.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting