It's a Sondheim summer, as American Theatre recently dubbed it, what with the six-play Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Into the Woods on Broadway, to name only a few.
Performing Sondheim is both a challenge and a joy: Stephen Sondheim's music, lyrics, and characters are often complex, but when you nail them you're richly rewarded. As Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. (and also of the Sondheim Celebration) told me, "Sometimes a musical is a hill. With Sondheim, you're guaranteed it's a mountain."
Explained TV/film/stage actor Harry Groener, a three-time Tony Award nominee who appeared recently in Reprise! Broadway's Best's production of Follies in Los Angeles, "His music and lyrics and what you go through as an actor are more complex and difficult [than with other composer/lyricists] because of what's happening to you emotionally. Usually Sondheim is writing about a relationship of some kind. There's a longing in the music, a passion for something or someone or somewhere, that's incredible to sing. For those of us who are middle-aged or over, it pushes buttons about the past, the longing for youth. So many issues and subjects are touched upon, dealt with, torn down, and rebuilt."
He added, "It's going to require you to go places emotionally and pull things out of your experience that might be difficult, to think about things that might be painful. So be prepared."
Raul Esparza, currently appearing in Merrily We Roll Along at the Sondheim Celebration, has said that learning how to dissect classical dramatic texts and poetry is helpful preparation for Sondheim; like Shakespeare, Sondheim provides guideposts for actors.
Groener agreed: "The songs are like monologues. They come with all the problems a good monologue has in a play. You have to figure out beats, builds, stresses. That's part of the joy of working on a difficult and complex piece." John Rubinstein and Jane Lanier, discussing A Little Night Music with Back Stage West editor in chief Rob Kendt last year, emphasized that the songs lay out the beats of the material and basically do the acting for you—but only after you master their technical complexity, which we'll discuss below.
Sondheim connects his songs smoothly to the action, which helps actors enormously in making organic transitions. San Francisco actor/cabaret singer Lisa Peers said, "All Sondheim's songs comment on who the character is. It's not like in Cole Porter, where suddenly a number pops up that could theoretically go into any show." Conversely in Sondheim none of the songs is expendable.
"This is material you work on like a monologue or dialogue without music," said Peers. Indeed, Schaeffer's casts often act the song rather than sing it, then go back and add the music. That way actors can see what it should feel like. For Groener the lyrics are like regular speech except that there are notes underneath them.
In approaching a Sondheim script, Peers asks herself why her character is singing this right now, what place does it have in the overall story? For example, to play Petra, who has the last really big, full song, "The Miller's Son," at the end of Night Music, she wondered, Why is this character singing this song all by herself apart from the main characters at the end of the play? She concluded that Petra is summing up the "life energy of this whole batch of mismatched lovers."
Clearly you'll need to call upon all your acting skills in creating a Sondheim character. To play the nurse in Sunday in the Park With George, Peers had to read silently onstage for about 20 minutes, so her challenge was to create an active inner life that would keep her connected to the play's action. She chose to read sappy romances that fed into her character, a girl who dreams of messing around with the butler. "I would love to play Fosca in Passion," sighed Peers, "and it would be the biggest risk I could take because it's written on such a fine line between deep sorrow and deep melancholy." The character is truly hysterical. "You've got to make it extreme but real enough to generate compassion for her," said Peers.
Such are the acting challenges that Sondheim presents, but, as Peers said, "The great thing about Sondheim is that everyone recognizes you need to be an actor as well as a singer to effectively do this."
Take the Note
Sondheim offers plenty of musical challenges, as well.
For example, in the same way that you wouldn't paraphrase Shakespeare's words, you must adhere to Sondheim's music. You don't want to improvise, Groener corroborated, or change a note here and there. Schaeffer elaborated: "Sondheim is very specific. He'll say, 'I want it in 1/16th rhythm, don't stretch the rhythm, I want it a specific rhythm for this reason.' When actors are learning a song, they may say, 'Can I take a beat here?' and a lot of times, I encourage that, but not with Sondheim. He's already worked it all out. The chord underneath the note you're holding may be a progression. He's doing it for a reason."
"The singer has to be accurate, no matter what—pitch, especially," Kay Cameron, music supervisor for the Sondheim Celebration, has been quoted as saying. "There's no room for wavering of tone, because quite often the chords are so lush."
"What's hard about the music is he may have a motif he uses, then he uses it later in the show but changes just one note," Schaeffer continued. "The audience may not hear it. It's those little technicalities that drive actors crazy—is this the b flat or the b natural? The flat makes it more angular; the texture is rougher. The natural is a softer sound. He does things like that for a specific reason."
For an actor to be so precise is hard work. "People come in excited and scared, wondering, How can I ever learn this?" said Schaeffer. "Once you start working on it, the connections he makes and the musical motifs he uses make sense, and it isn't as daunting." When I spoke to Schaeffer, his Sondheim Celebration cast was in the second week of rehearsals for Passion. They'd spent the whole first week learning the score. About a week and a half into rehearsal everything suddenly clicked for them. "There are so many layers to Sondheim," said Schaeffer. "You need two or three weeks of performing to get to all the layers."
Groener pointed out that sometimes you have to hold a note "forever," but he also added—and others have said this, too—that you don't have to have the voice of God to do Sondheim. Sondheim himself often casts actors who have interesting but not necessarily powerful voices. Some say that acting ability is more important than singing ability in performing Sondheim.
Still, you do need those musical chops. "A lot of people feel Sondheim doesn't write for a singer," observed Peers. "He considers a voice to be a piano, where it should be no problem jumping around from note to note. So the songs can be very rangy, from the bottom of your range to the top—or they're placed in the wrong place for anyone to sing them."
She cited Domina's only song in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, "That Dirty Old Man." "It's planted right where most mezzos' voices break, right between their low and high voice, so technically it's tough. You've been sitting around for an entire act doing nothing, and then you come out at the beginning of Act Two and have to do this."
She also noted Sondheim's intricate harmony. "A Weekend in the Country" from Night Music, she pointed out, it sounds thrilling, but it is so complicated that it takes days and days of rehearsal to learn it." In Sunday's "Art Isn't Easy," "it's all different vocal lines with different lyrics on top of very dense orchestration."
Hard as the musical demands are, when it's working, said Groener, you're not thinking, Am I singing this song right? You're just thinking about your intention.
A few bons mots: Never audition with a Sondheim song. "What seems straightforward to sing is hard for the accompanist, which makes your job hard, too," said Peers.
Once you've familiarized yourself with the album, put it aside, advised Schaeffer. As Peers, who's memorized many Sondheim soundtracks, realized, you don't want to imitate someone who's been in the production for maybe three months and has gotten fast and loose with the rhythms; you need to start fresh with the score.
You may be following in the footsteps of famous actors for whom Sondheim wrote the role—Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin—but take heart. Schaeffer said, "It's a great challenge to see how you can reinvent and rediscover things that the original actor didn't discover."
Concluded Groener, "You grow [in Sondheim]. You mature as an actor. You can't articulate how. It's a gift."