How to Audition With Sondheim

Photo Source: Stephanie Berger

“I think it’s always good to be a little scared of the unknown. It’s always great to walk in and say, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,’ and then we’re all in that process of discovery together,” Sarna Lapine tells Backstage. The acclaimed stage director is reflecting on her latest endeavor: the Broadway revival of James Lapine (who just happens to be her uncle) and the legendary Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize–winning musical “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Sondheim, for one, has a knack for dampening even the most experienced stage actor’s collar. Sonically complex, intricately layered, and challenging for any singer, tackling one of Sondheim’s many timeless characters is no easy feat. But Lapine believes that a dedication to the text—which she describes as “so beautifully inventive and so reflective of the human experience”—should quell the prepared actor’s apprehensions.

“What’s so wonderful about Sondheim’s work is how carefully constructed it is so that you can trust that you’re well taken care of inside of it,” she says. “He’s an excellent architect. The blueprint has been laid out for you. So if you really follow what’s on the page, [and] if you really follow the language and the rhythm and adhere to the exact structure of the notes, that’s when the work really opens itself up to you. [Succeeding] is about being rigorous with Sondheim.”

Rigorous, yes, but not restricted. Lapine should know: She’s previously worked on the American musical maestro’s songbook with concerts for the Boston Pops as well as a Columbus, Ohio, regional production of “Sunday in the Park.”

Lapine’s Broadway incarnation of the tuner began as a one-off fundraiser concert held in October at New York City Center. Popular demand led to a five-show expansion, and now the show will receive the full Broadway treatment with stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford reprising their roles of George and Dot, respectively. Performances began Feb. 11 for a 10-week engagement at the historic Hudson Theatre.

READ: 35 Questions to Determine the Perfect Audition Song

When it comes to casting for a Sondheim show, Lapine is looking for someone in the audition room with strong choices and good ideas.

“There’s no guessing as to what the director’s take is, but you should have your own take. You should come in with your own ideas about your own version of that character,” she says. “Hopefully you come in with a better idea than the one I had. That’s the actor that I’m going to hire.”

Lapine further advises, however, that while she loves a surprise, actors should make sure it’s the right surprise, not just a bold one. Song choice in Sondheim shouldn’t necessarily be the hardest one in the book; it should be one that reflects your talents confidently and persuasively and it should reflect the character that you believe best fits your type.

“What I love is when an actor knows which character they are, they pick a song from a musical that they deeply understand, [and] they can reflect something of that character’s inner life in the song,” she says. “I think being an artist is sort of about being the most you you can possibly be. You can’t try to be somebody else’s version of it. So picking the audition songs that best reflect what’s in your wheelhouse is the way to go. There’s a danger in overreaching.”

So whether you’re going out for George or Dot, the Baker’s Wife or Cinderella, Sweeney Todd or Mrs. Lovett, you want to know the musical and the character inside and out, come in as prepared as possible, and play to your strengths as a performer. Who knows? You may be the next Broadway-bound Gyllenhaal or Ashford.

Ready for Sondheim? Check out our theater audition listings!