By Alanna Love and Thomas Baker
Stephen Sondheim is one of the most important figures in 20th-century musical theater and is consistently credited for having reinvented the American musical. From his works brought to mainstream film such as Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Into the Woods, or those enshrined as modern musical theatre classics such as Follies and Company, his work has changed how all of us sing the stories we tell.
And what better way to celebrate his legacy than a vibrantly nontraditional concert full to the brim with music and laughter, and dinner and drinks with iconic local artists Merideth Kaye Clark, Susannah Mars, and Stephanie Lynne Smith at the helm? Hey Old Friends, their tribute concert to Stephen Sondheim, is coming to Wilfs after a sold out premiere in October at Resound NW.
In anticipation of this exciting evening, we were lucky enough to be able to sit down with this terribly talented trio to talk about the impact Stephen Sondheim has had on each of their lives, what made the first performance of Hey Old Friends such a joy, as well as get a sneak peek as to what twists are on the horizon for the expanded encore performance at Wilfs.
Alanna: How did the first performance of Hey Old Friends go? It sounds like it was an amazing time!
Meredith: That first iteration was a magical evening! Everyone in the room felt this love and admiration, not only for the composer, but for music and performance in general.
Everyone cherished the words and music and it was a lovely concert. That’s why we jumped at the opportunity to do it again.
Susannah:. I’m just so enjoying working with Meredith and Stephanie on this particular project. There’s such a puzzle to performance and so many big shifts are happening in the arts currently and in our culture and society. I’m hoping that we’re moving toward a more compassionate world and a place where creativity in all of its guises is celebrated.
This last concert was just a real testament to that. What we do is really special, Stephanie and Meredith, and me. We all have expertise in our field. We’ve all had long careers and we bring to the table a sense of curiosity and play and kind of leave behind some of the old ways of doing things… leaving behind perfectionism and a lack of flexibility and softness. Instead, we see each other on stage for who we are.
We’re given this gift of being with an audience, being able to share moments of emotion. And to have that opportunity with these two people in particular, for me, just really enables me to tap into the beauty of what performance can do for me, for the three of us, and then for the greater good.
Alanna: That’s absolutely lovely.
Stephanie: Yeah. I don’t have too much to add to that. That was really pretty perfect. I’m a chamber musician by trade. I am a performer, and as a chamber musician I like to work with others.
But it’s hard to find that right mix of people. Finding the band that works together, finding the quartet that works together. But with the three of us, rehearsals didn’t even feel like rehearsals. Instead, I just get to hang out with these people.
[After the performance] I did have a couple of friends that were like, “Sondheim is not really my guy because he’s so intense and with all the politics going on in the world and all the stuff that’s going on, I just did not want to go to a heavy, dark show, but I felt like I should support you. But then there were your rep choices. Total surprises! Not the rep that I thought I was going to get. It was much more playful and light than I was expecting, and I just left feeling so much better about humanity because I got to sit there and hear such high-level music at a high-level performance that was so intimate.”
Yes, we absolutely do some songs that are grittier. But the choices are fabulous. I didn’t have too much to do with the choices; I would only say yay or nay to a couple of things. So I said, whatever y’all wanna do, I’ll play for you. That’s the vibe that I took away from that. As a chamber musician, it was so much fun. If I could get together with these gals every night, that would be the life. That would be a good life.
Thomas: As a performer myself too, I feel like the pandemic re-shifted those priorities; realizing the value of sharing what you’re doing with a live audience and also who you’re doing it with. After being separated from people, whether our audience or fellow performers, that distance gave a whole new value to sharing that creative energy.
Meredith: Yeah, we don’t take that for granted. Not anymore.
Stephen Sondheim in 1990. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Thomas: Do you mind sharing a little bit more about curating the song list? What did you all have in mind for that and how did you land on what you have?
Meredith: When Susannah and I sat down at first to decide what we were going to sing, we went through the catalog of Sondheim material that we know and love, and after that selection, our concert was six hours long.
[UPROARIOUS LAUGHTER FROM ALL ZOOM PARTICIPANTS]
Stephanie: Yeah let’s just take a whole Saturday for this concert!
Meredith: We then made a playlist of some of the favorites and that was probably between 50 and 60 songs at that point. From there we kept paring it down and we really took into consideration what we were interested in performing. Either because of the lyrical content or the vocal quality or the message. Equally important was, what does this audience want to hear and need to hear right now?
Sondheim’s catalog is so rich and varied that we really could be careful and thoughtful about those choices. Try to do things that delight, things that make you curious, things that challenge your thinking, and things that support how we feel as a culture right now. Making sure that we are taking care of ourselves and the audience through this really high-level language and music.
For our concert at Wilfs, we’ll probably expand a little bit from our last concert. We’ll take a look at what’s happening in our lives and in society, and come February, see how the program might change a little bit.That way every time someone comes and sees the show, they might have a different experience. Especially in this new, very different venue that we’re going to be doing the show in.
Susannah: Itt was really fun to look back at the ways in which Sondheim’s music could be presented in a new way. Meredith plays guitar quite a bit – some acoustic stuff. Stephanie plays the viola, which is super beautiful. And that’s something we’re exploring how to expand – those kinds of non-traditional innovations. Taking the music and seeing what we can do with it.
I’m going to have to learn an instrument I guess, because I’m the only one who doesn’t play one. I tried to pick up the ukulele. I think maybe that’s a good goal for this – something with the ukulele.
Alanna: Are there any particular songs in the curation that the listener would be really surprised by, or maybe hasn’t heard before and will absolutely love?
Stephanie: So, you know what I’ll say is Sondheim – everybody knows his name.
You either know him or you know something like West Side Story. I was raised thinking that was done by just Leonard Bernstein, right?
But when you’re in the theater world, you know Sondheim really, really well. And if you’re not, you really only know Send in the Clowns. So hearing Assassins, I’m like, what is this, what is the show? There were a lot of songs in the show that I did not know.
I’m a classically trained pianist. I work with community members and I only know the songs that are coming into my studio. And Sondheim really is for advanced performers, so I didn’t really get a lot of him until I started working with a handful of people.
So with this show, honestly, there were several songs I had never heard in my entire life. The trio from Company is pretty spectacular, I have to say.
Meredith: Looking at [even the familiar] songs in a different way is part of our vision.
We do a lot of gender-swapping songs that are usually sung by men or sung by different ages. We sing like anything is possible. We didn’t restrict ourselves to characters we would play. I think half of the songs I sing are usually sung by male-identifying characters.
It’s really fun to explore that and say those words that you usually you sit off stage and listen to a guy sing. So this is an opportunity to change the key, change the perspective and say these words through my body. That’s really a gift.
It sheds new light on some things we’ve heard a certain way over and over again. That’s really fun. And we sing things that are for us, things that challenge us, things for the audience.
Susannah: We always knew we were going to start the show with this song called Invocation. Sondheim wrote it in college and it’s funny as can be. We knew we wanted to bust it out and we knew we wanted to add audience participation. And then when we were in this new space, which was smaller, we thought that we should have some sort of Sondheim shrine! While we can’t share too much more about that, what we did was delightful and fun, because we took it into our own hearts about how we could honor this human who wrote this incredible music that has lit all three of our lives in many, many ways.
We celebrated that with lightheartedness. It was a great way to set the tone for me personally. We are here to party people!
Alanna: One thing I’m curious about now, can you tell us a little bit about each of your personal experiences with Sondheim’s music, what was one of your first interactions or experiences with his work, how has it changed you as an artist?
Meredith: In high school we did a production of Into the Woods and, to involve as many kids as possible, I was cast as a wood nymph. So many of the scenes that happened in the forest, we would be watching what happened. I remember in high school how the backstage is the place to be!
Oh my gosh, the two princes were so cute and I remember reading the lyrics and thinking, oh, this is good. This is really fun. And wanting to be one of the characters so bad. I could tell stories like this forever. I’m actually flashing back to the very first Sondheim production I saw when I was a kid, which was Into the Woods in elementary school. I think that made that high school production even more intense. And then I had a best friend in college who was a Sondheim fanatic. For our student productions, we always did Sondheim shows, Company and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
His shows have come into my life at important turning points. I’ve done a lot of studying of his music throughout my entire life from seeing that first Broadway show. And I remember seeing the show and as I was leaving, singing Little Red’s music as loud as I could, hoping that an usher would hear me and then put me on Broadway.
Susannah: And they would’ve been so right on to do that in that moment!
Holy mother. Okay. I’m going to go kind of a different place. My parents are both artists and we lived in LA and saw Follies and Company. My dad got a job. He couldn’t take my sister and me to the show. So he sent us with a babysitter. And I remember how I connected so deeply with all of the characters, both in Company and Folies with their longing and their loneliness. And even when I think about that now, it was beautiful.
One of the most wonderful pieces of his work is the beauty. When you’re seeing a Broadway show or hearing a concert of his music and the voice and the words just come together in that perfect moment, that moment where you’re getting the meaning with the note and the soaring.
It’s a contradiction almost. It’s this beauty and then this yearning which feels lonely and vulnerable. Seeing these adults wanting things, not getting them, and angsting over it. I really related to that at that time in my young life as a little girl with my babysitter. My parents did the very best they knew how, and I loved them with all my heart, but I was a lonely kid and I didn’t know where I fit in. So I could really relate to many of those characters.
My parents took us to a lot of theater that was, well… I’m sure the neighbors were like, really? You’re gonna take them to Hair? Those nude bodies? My parents didn’t care. It was that yearning. And it’s funny in a way, I wonder if seeing those shows and those characters helped me to normalize loneliness or ways of being in the world that were so dramatic. My parents were very dramatic, but to see more adults behaving in those ways, all those characters and those two shows in particular. Adults who had lived a life in show business in Follies. Living in show business was my life through my parents at that time.
I saw that there are other people who do that. This is a normal way of being. I’m sure people would say, well, God, I hope you don’t think the Sondheim characters are all the normal way of being. Some are, but they run the gamut of experience.
It’s interesting. Stephanie and I talked about this recently, about that high level of energy that artists are so good at harnessing. It feels as though we are finding comfort in living at a high frequency. And so these characters are living at a very high frequency because they’re in a pivotal moment in their lives on stage, and that’s why they’re on stage in the first place.
To see these humans living these lives that were fraught and hurting and wanting and not getting and loving with their whole heart and then heartbroken…that’s just my language.
Meredith: Beautifully said, Susanna. And the complexity of the characters. A character is not only happy, or only excited, they’re excited and scared, or they’re nice, but nice doesn’t necessarily mean good. And that complexity of emotions is really in these songs.
Thomas: I thought that was so beautiful what you said, Susannah, about seeing theater and coming from a place of loneliness, but going to a show and seeing something that you relate to. I think that for a lot of performers that’s something that draws us to it. It’s like being able to go to a fantasy place and sort of an escapism and the joy of leaning into that.
It’s so nice to hear your story of seeing that and then eventually becoming that person for yourself and for other people.
Susannah: Oh, thank you. I see you over there, Stephanie, like taking notes and things, and you haven’t told us yet about your Sondheim writing.
Stephanie: You’re just so thought provoking. You made me think of a few things.
I was raised in conservative Texas, so the stuff that we got was feel-good, family-friendly. My Fair Lady… you can take the whole family. Never really got challenged on anything. I remember the Methodists were doing Bye Bye Birdie, and we were all like, oh, boycott it!I literally didn’t know this Sondheim guy.
When I moved to California, I was hired by a theater, it was probably 2000 or 2001, to play Into the Woods and I didn’t know the work.
Since thenI have encountered Sondheim more. I am a performance coach, so I work with performers to authentically present. So now I understand why Sondheim is almost avoided. He’s deep. He’s dangerous and I think he’s incredibly difficult. He’s talking about real people. Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to look at a marriage. Nobody wants to look at your crappy relationship with your mother. You may have gotten over it 30 years ago, but nobody wants to go back there and look at that.
His upbringing was just awful. He had so many choices with what he could have done. With that kind of personal pain and he put it into his art.
Alanna: I love what you are saying about how this is how he chose to express his own experiences and this painful journey and turning it into music, into narratives that can find children who feel lonely and people who are looking for their own stories. Is there any greater calling for an artist than to be able to embody that?
Stephanie: I also think if he wanted to, he could have been nastier. But his presentation is palatable. Actually I can sit here with these people and watch this and find what this resolution is.
With all of this pain, you have a choice. With all of this anger, all of these emotions and grief and everything that you’re going through, what are you gonna do with it? Put it into your art. Use it for singing, use it as your vehicle. Use it as your emotional fuel. That’s really the gift that I got from Sondheim.
Thomas: I think it’s so interesting too, what you said about some of the topics or the emotions or the places that Sondheim takes you are places that we don’t always want to go, and then also talking about curating the set list for the evening. Trying to reflect what our culture is going through. That’s also representative of what we’ve all been through in recent years. Pre-pandemic, through the pandemic, this is a difficult time as a society. I feel like people are ready to process, what have we gone through. Personally, my head is still spinning from everything but also ready to go there and talk.
Susannah: This quote I read this morning really inspired me.
“Every experience I have makes me a greater being.” That’s a Stephen Singer quote.
It’s so interesting because what you say is so right on Thomas, that we’ve been through so much. I just love how Sondheim puts out these things that ordinarily you’d say are awkward.
And like you said, looking at a marriage and all the myriad ways that relationships sour, what if we could look at every experience just as that experience that you’re being offered? Bring yourself to the table and you’re like, well, this is my situation right now, and how can I lift it up into love?
He gives us these incredible opportunities to look at these ordinarily or often kind of tumultuous circumstances.
Meredith: There’s room for laughter in that too. Really heavy things and really tumultuous circumstances, but with this rise and clever sense of humor that looks at humanity and we can all be together and experience it and talk about it and process it and laugh. Laugh at ourselves and cry at ourselves and laugh again. There is the capacity to hold all of those emotions in this music is there. So whatever you need to take from it in any given moment in your life, it’s there for you to choose.
Alanna: So with the show coming up in February, you mentioned there might be some shifts to the lineup and adjustments to the evening. What can the audience expect to be different? What shifts we can look forward to in the show?
Susannah: There’s a full bar!
Stephanie: This time the audience gets to drink and eat!
Meredith: It’s an expanded program too. We’ll be singing some new songs, and in the next couple months we’ll be taking the temperature of the world and deciding what we want to explore and what an audience might appreciate in his canon, especially in this particular environment, which is this lush, cozy, warm, with, food, alcohol. What in this situation does that set the tone for? Understanding the space that we’re in. Trying to curate the concert or shift it slightly to accommodate that environment. That’s my reaction to that. I don’t know specifically,
Stephanie: But there are so many amazing moments, and if you go to see a certain artist, you wanna hear some of the the top hits, right? Some of these greatest songs that we did will absolutely come again. If you missed it, catch it now. As Meredith was saying, it’ll be expanded. Since this is longer, there’s more of a possibility we may do an intermission. Let people get up, get some more booze, you know, that kind of thing.
We would have the ability to walk around the room, sit on people’s laps, not me, of course.
Susannah: If I’m playing the ukulele, I can sit on laps. Stephanie, that is… now I’m fired.. You’re gonna ditch that fricking piano. I’ll be like playing along on the simplest song that exists in the Sondheim canon, which there are none.
And Stephanie will be sitting, it’s gonna be called the Stephanie Sits on Lap Song. That’s what it’s gonna be. Baby.
Stephanie: Do you see what rehearsal is like? How can we even call it a rehearsal? It’s fun!
You can catch the next performance of Hey Old Friends! The Music of Stephen Sondheim Starring Merideth Kaye Clark and Susannah Mars with Stephanie Lynne Smith Friday, February 24, 2023 at Wilfs Restaurant and Jazz Bar at Union Station. Tickets and more information here.
Alanna and Thomas are the resident content managers for Artslandia and En Face Magazine. Alanna Love is a writer based out of Boise, Idaho. She revels in tracing the thread of beauty woven throughout daily life, especially when it is found in ballet, literature, or historical wardrobing. Thomas Baker is a retired dancer living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He loves all things performance, art, and design.