“He was a god to us”: the actors next to Stephen Sondheim | Stephen Sondheim


Jenna Russell: “The Songs Are Ridiculously Rich”

Much of his work is about love. People say it’s cold, but as a teenager all I could feel was heat. The songs are ridiculously rich. I played the original Company recording over and over again, in the front room. I remember my mom came in with her rubber gloves on and tears were streaming down her face. She said, “Oh my god, I understand!” The song was Being Alive.

Steve understood the human condition like no one else in musical theater. Children and art, from Sunday in the Park With George, sums it up for me. Understanding that children and art are what brings life forward is one of the most beautiful things he has recognized; there is something so tender and sweet about this song.

Jenna Russell with Daniel Evans in Sunday in the Park With George, at Wyndham’s Theater in London, 2006. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / the Guardian

A few of us at school would sing Sondheim stuff and then I first worked with Steve when I was 20 on Follies. Meeting your hero is always a scary thing, but he was wonderful. We had some very interesting discussions on Sweeney Todd. He remembered watching the tech rehearsal when Len Cariou did the big number Epiphany, thinking, “Oh my god, what did I write? Where does it come from? ” The realization that he had unleashed this beast.

His words fall into place with you at certain times in your life. For me, with Sunday, I always thought Act 1 was perfect. I would advance act 2. But the older you get, the more you realize that act 2 is where the truth and the pain are. When it comes to you, it’s devastating.

Some people are very careful with their work, but he encouraged directors to be brave and was always enthusiastic about young directors and their imaginations.

What’s great about his rendition of his works is that they are littered with rhymes that you don’t notice you are doing because the story arc is so character based. A few times he said to me, “Oh, blow up that internal rhyme. And I didn’t even know it was there! It’s so subtle.

Musicals can be crap. They really can be. But because of the work he did and the writers who followed him and were inspired by his courage, we have a really good musical. I am so grateful to have met him and to have had the privilege of doing his job.

Daniel Evans: “He was really strict!”

Daniel Evans as Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George.
Daniel Evans as Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / the Guardian

Since the announcement of his death, I have heard songs from Merrily We Roll Along, the first show composed by Sondheim in which I performed. There is so much to Merrily about time, friendship, and regret. This line: “Charley, why can’t it be like it used to be?” »And all the words of Our Time.

When I did Merrily and Sunday in the Park With George, I had private lessons with him on the piano, which was such a privilege. It was quite intimidating and scary – he was really strict! If you replaced a syllable in a speech with something incorrect, it would hit you hard. But his notes were so practical, insightful and achievable – he writes for actors, he puts himself in an actor’s shoes and asks how this character would express that particular feeling? That’s why actors love his job. When you understood his notes and could make them, then he was so encouraging and it was the best feeling in the world.

Merrily had a mostly young cast and when he arrived, just before the premieres, he walked in front of us and said, “It’s okay everyone, God has arrived! He was laughing at himself but we were so scared we didn’t know if he was serious. He was a type of god for us, so we took him at his word.

His immense generosity to others came, I think, from the way the witness was so generously passed on to him from Oscar Hammerstein. He would always pay homage to what Hammerstein did for him – the way he framed him. Watch the videos where Sondheim talks about teaching: he considered it a sacred profession. The teaching and encouragement was something he had greatly benefited from and I think he wanted to pay off this Hammerstein debt.

He had such fun in the language, even in a casual email. The last one he sent me ended: “So thank you Daniel, you are a prince. No, Hal is a prince. You are a man.

Janie Dee: “Every word was precious”

Janie Dee, left, with Imelda Staunton and Zizi Strallen in Follies at the National Theater, London, in 2017.
Janie Dee, left, with Imelda Staunton and Zizi Strallen in Follies at the National Theater, London, in 2017. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / the Guardian

i just watched Broadway clip coming together to sing her Sunday number during the weekend. All these people who come to sing in Times Square. I was inundated. Every note he writes is perfect for emotion. You can’t sing a better note than the one he wrote.

When I saw Sunday in the park with George it spoke to me – I felt personally addressed. Even though I was sitting among a crowd of people, I felt like I was receiving counseling and healing at the same time. He moved me to tears more than any other writer in my life, left me feeling fresh as a human being. The first show I saw of him was Putting It Together – I laughed so much, but he also appealed to my innermost mind. He recognized how monstrous we can be and how monstrous relationships can be, but somehow made it acceptable, fun, and laughable.

In 1990 Stephen became president of musical theater at the University of Oxford. Cameron Mackintosh brought together some promising actors and writers to take a course with Sondheim and create new musicals. It was very intimate. I was one of the actors. We were working on a song at the theater and suddenly I felt a kind of warmth and looked to my left – he was sitting there, glittering. I didn’t know when he entered. He was very friendly, encouraging, calm. Every word was precious.

Splurging at the National Theater in 2017 was like a huge ship we were riding on. I didn’t know if he would sail. Dominic Cooke, the director, had invested a lot in it and we had rehearsed for weeks and weeks. At the end of the first glimpse we walked over to greet and I looked down and there was this man going crazy clapping and screaming hurray. It was Stephen Sondheim. He was like a fan and had run past us to applaud us and give us his blessing.


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