To any Broadway performer or fan, the musicals of Stephen Sondheim represent a kind of apex of modern musical theater.
The composer and lyricist is known for tackling stories that, even if set in imagined realms (see: Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) feel closer to real life and the struggles and triumphs of ordinary people than most of the shows that came before. That means Sondheim is most often celebrated for his acerbic wit, brilliant wordplay, and darkly humorous approach to even the most gruesome of topics (see: turning murder victims into meat pies, in his masterpiece Sweeney Todd).
Yet it’s reductive to focus only on these aspects of Sondheim’s work: he’s also notable for the passion and soul underlying the music and words in all of his work. It’s that soulful Sondheim that actress Melissa Errico, one of Broadway’s favorite leading ladies, focuses on for her new album Sondheim Sublime (out now on Ghostlight Records), as she discusses on the new episode of the Billboard on Broadway podcast.
Assembling the track list for Sondheim Sublime, Errico says, was about “looking for the songs that ask the biggest questions,” like “No More” from Into the Woods: “The idea that ‘you die but you don’t’? That occurs in so much of his work.” She discovered, in preparing the album, that even looking at Sondheim as “a clever guy, and as a piece of New York City” reveals the compassion in his music. “The cosmopolitanism of Sondheim himself is a kind of activism,” she says. “I tried to bring out the Sondheim I think we need now.”
Errico herself has starred in Sondheim musicals including Sunday, Anyone Can Whistle, and Passion, and she shares what she’s learned from those diverse experiences. “He writes for extremely weird and specific circumstances, and then they become so universal,” she says — pointing to the song “I Remember” on her album, from the lesser-known Sondheim musical Evening Primrose written for television in the mid-1960s.
She also revisits two well-received op-eds she wrote in recent years for the New York Times exploring the uncomfortable gender politics of many of classic musical theater’s female roles, and the difficulties women in middle age find in the middle ground between ingenue and wise-older-woman parts. “Having the opportunity to write really did help me organize my emotions about where I was in my career with aging and where women are in general,” Errico says.
Earlier in her career, Errico recalls a time when, if actresses shared their opinions on interpretation of their roles, “they used to just get shut down. A lot of people, including women, go into show business very scared, very powerless, feeling afraid to have ideas. I do think it’s changing.
In her chat with host Rebecca Milzoff, Errico also shares memories of her first-ever Sondheim show, her pen-pal-ship with the composer, and her current dream Sondheim role. Hear all that and more on this week’s episode.