Christine Baranski, Stephen Sondheim: “He Was a Master Of Details”

Stephen Sondheim, the iconic Broadway composer, died on Friday, at 91. Christine Baranski and many other musical theater stars considered him a father figure and inspiration.

“Even though he was 91 we are blindsided by the loss. We all feel like orphans,”  Baranski told VarietyAs she paid tribute, she praised the creative force behind these landmark theatre productions. “West Side Story,” “Company,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Into the Woods”And “Assassins.”

Baranski was fortunate to have known Sondheim for the past ten years of his life. One reason is that they lived in Connecticut together. Baranski and Meryl Sreep, both from Connecticut, took Sondheim out for dinner last summer. Baranski said that the music maestro was sharp and in good spirits at the time.

“Mentally he was so in shape. He had a sense of humor and an ebullience. He was happy to be there and we all said ‘Let’s do it again,’” Baranski recalled.

On Thursday, Sondheim took part in a small Thanksgiving dinner with friends in Connecticut that included veteran stage director Jack O’Brien, Baranski said. Baranski stated that Sondheim died peacefully based on the first-hand accounts she had heard.

“He had a great Thanksgiving meal, and the next morning he checked out of the hotel,”With great affection, she said.

The resonance of Sondheim’s work over more than a half-century is reflected in the volume of activity: Next month will see a Broadway revival of “Company” with Patti LuPone and Katrina Lenk, and the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s film musical take on “West Side Story.” What’s more, an Off Broadway production of “Assassins”Classic Stage Company, Nov. 14, bowed

Baranski is more than ever grateful that the Broadway community gathered despite the COVID-19 pandemic to put together the concert tribute in his memory. “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration”A streaming event for April 2020.

“Steve knew how well he was loved and appreciated. That’s a wonderful thing,”She said.

Baranski shares her friendship with Sondheim and offers her insight on why he is such a unique composer and pillar in American musical theatre.

Sondheim can be a famously intimidating person to work with, but many reports indicate that he was generous and nurturing with those whom he admires.

He knew exactly what was needed in a song. He was very direct. He was very honest and forthright. He was a master of the details. When we say genius is in the details, that’s why he was considered a genius. He was both the most detailed and concise artist and craftsman. People would be scared if he went to see a performance. These things were what I felt when I was in rehearsals with him. I’ve been with him on 9 or 10 different things. He is a great colleague and was very easy to reach. He always seemed to be addressing specific issues.

What is it about Sondheim’s work that makes it so distinctive? Is it because his work is so difficult?

Steve could express emotions, he might express irony, or he could express doubt in the music. It is possible to sing a song that has a strong undercurrent of anxiety or melancholy. It came in those intricate intervals and those beautifully articulated phrases. To do “Sweeney Todd”I was a beginner for months. I don’t read music. I learned the score by listening to my voice teacher, and then simple interpretation until the music became part of me.

He was both a craftsman, and a lover for the English language. You could see how meticulous he was with English language. In this age of poor grammar and no punctuation, we live in a world that is not consistent. Steve used the English language — only maybe Tom Stoppard has such a command and respect for the power of language and the power of what a simple turn of phrase can do. Combine this with his exceptional gifts as a composer to communicate those shadows and deeper ambiguities of human emotion. You get the idea. “Sorry-Grateful” (from “Company”) – think about what that song says about the ambivalence of married life. We’ll not see the likes of that again because we don’t revere language that way.

I’ve heard you say there is nothing like the feeling of doing a Sondheim show.

It’s so exacting on so many levels. It’s the most thrilling thing I’ve done in the theater. The reaction was amazing. “Sweeney Todd,” if you can pull it off, it’s like you’re an opera singer.

What was Sondheim’s opinion of the current state theater? 

He supported young playwrights. He cared for people. He attended the (Nov. 14,) opening night of the off Broadway revival of “Assassins”and spoke with all the young actors. He cared about theater’s future. It wasn’t, “Well I’ve done it and now nobody else knows how to do it.”He was truly concerned.

He was turning the 91st birthday. [there’s] a major film revival — Steven Spielberg doing “West Side Story,”Gustavo Dudamel. He has “Company”Broadway opening. These openings will now be so poignant.

Was he happy when he wasn’t working?

Very friendly. He is a wonderful conversationalist, a great listener, and not as intimidating as one might think. He was a great comedian. He was a fan of intelligent and witty comments. He got it quicker than anyone else. I enjoyed his friendship until the end. Similar to Mike Nichols. Both were huge in my eyes. He became less intimidating as he got older. He was grateful for his friends and more open to having a good time.

You talked to him about the creative process.

I can recall that I was just about to perform the concert version. “Follies”City Center. He saw a play I was in and I asked if he’d have dinner with me. I asked him about his famous song. “I’m Still Here.”His insight was amazing if you were looking for the meaning of something or a work. If you wanted to zero in on a moment or the real meaning of a lyric — that was his thing. He was a perfectionist. You wanted to perform well in any Sondheim performance. His acclaim was what you wanted. You wanted his respect and admiration.

Do you still remember the first time that you met?

Steve saw me for the first time when I was April in “Company.”I was only a few years away from Julliard. He came backstage at a [1980] Playwrights Horizon production at a time when they had a theater in Queens near the World’s Fair location. He returned to the stage. He was kind to performers. He was a lover and admirer of performers. He was kind and empathetic to me. He said that he thought it was an original way to perform the role. He met me while I was walking on air. [me out]He was very kind and admired my work. It was amazing.

I was very interested in the Sondheim oeuvre. (In 2002) for the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim tribute, he came to see our first run-through rehearsal. It was my 50th Birthday. (Brian Stokes Mitchell and I were accompanied by our colleagues to a seafood restaurant. Steve appeared at the table after dinner and stated: ‘I never miss a 50th birthday.’He sat and we drank glass upon glass of wine as he told us stories of his work. “West Side Story.”I walked back arm in arm with Steve, and thought. ‘Who gets a 50th birthday like this?’

Do you know anyone in the theatre community who was familiar with Sondheim?

Audra McDonald spoke with me. We realized that we’re not sad for Steve. He was 91. We should be happy he didn’t suffer, he didn’t decline or wind up in a hospital with a long-term illness.

What are your most treasured memories of Sondheim?

Years and years ago I had my theater nightmare dream — the actor’s nightmare dream. He was a part of it. I always wanted to tell him that he was part of my actor’s nightmare dream. I didn’t want to not tell him. This is what I did. [past]When we were having a drink in his living-room just before dinner, it was summer, I told him. It felt so good. It was a great way to express my gratitude to Steve and tell him how much I love him. I also got to share what it meant for me to be a part of his life and his career. It meant the world to me to be able to do this.

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