For Christine Baranski and a generation of musical theater stars, Stephen Sondheim, the legendary Broadway composer who died on Friday at 91, was nothing less than a father figure, a musical giant and an inspiration.
“Even though he was 91 we are blindsided by the loss. We all feel like orphans,” Baranski told Variety as she paid tribute to the creative force behind such landmark theater productions as “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 got to know Sondheim well during the last decade or so of his life. For one, the two lived near each other in Connecticut. Baranski and Meryl Streep, who also lives nearby, took Sondheim to dinner over the summer. The music master was sharp and in good spirits at that time, Baranski said.
“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 recalls.
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 the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s film musical take on “West Side Story.” And an Off Broadway production of “Assassins” bowed Nov. 14 at Classic Stage Company.
With his passing, Baranski is all the more grateful that the Broadway community convened, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, to assemble the concert tribute “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration” as a streaming event in April 2020.
“Steve knew how well he was loved and appreciated. That’s a wonderful thing,” she said.
Here, Baranski expands on her friendship and professional experiences with Sondheim, offering her insights on what made him such a distinctive composer and pillar of American musical theater
Sondheim could be famously intimidating to work for but by many accounts he was also generous and nurturing with those he admired?
He had a precision and exactitude about what was required in a song. He was very forthright. You could be intimidated by how honest and declarative he was. He was a master of details. When we say genius is in the details, that’s why he was considered a genius. He was the most meticulous and concise craftsman and artist. If he came to see a performance people would be terrified. When I was in rehearsal with him, I felt those things. I’ve been with him on 9 or 10 different things. But I found him to be a remarkably accessible colleague. You always felt that he was addressing very specific issues.
What is it about Sondheim’s work that makes it so distinctive? Why is his work so challenging to perform?
Steve could express emotionality, he could express irony, he could express doubt in his music. You could be singing a song with such an undercurrent of anxiety, of melancholy. It came in those complicated intervals and those exquisitely articulated phrases. To do “Sweeney Todd” I started months out. I don’t read music. I learned the score by listening and working with my voice teacher and simple interpretation until I had it opened up and the music lived deep inside of me.
He was a craftsman and a lover of the English language. If you were in his presence you saw how exacting he was with the English language. We live in an age of sloppy grammar, no punctuation. 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 that with his extraordinary gifts as a composer to convey those shadows of human emotion, those deeper complex ambiguities. I mean, “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 response to “Sweeney Todd,” if you can pull it off, it’s like you’re an opera singer.
How did Sondheim feel about the state of theater these days?
He supported young playwrights. He nurtured people. He went to the (Nov. 14) opening night of (the off Broadway revival of) “Assassins” and talked to all the young actors. He cared about the future of theater. It wasn’t, “Well I’ve done it and now nobody else knows how to do it.” He really cared.
He was turning 91 and [there’s] a major film revival — Steven Spielberg doing “West Side Story,” conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. He has “Company” opening on Broadway. Now those openings will take on such incredible poignancy.
What was he like when he was not working?
Really affable. A great conversationalist and a great listener and not nearly as intimidating as you would think. He had a marvelous sense of humor. He appreciated an intelligent or witty comment. He always got it faster than anyone else. I came to enjoy his friendship near the end of his life. In the same way that I did with Mike Nichols. Both of them were giants in my estimation. To get to know him personally as he aged, as with Mike, he became less intimidating. He was more grateful for friends and more willing to just have a good time.
Did you talk to him about his creative process?
I remember I was about to do the concert version of “Follies” at City Center. He saw a play I was in and I asked if he’d have dinner with me. I asked him about the famous song “I’m Still Here.” He was so insightful if you wanted to talk about the work or what something meant. If you wanted to zero in on a moment or the real meaning of a lyric — that was his thing. He was such a perfectionist. And so when you were in a Sondheim piece, any performer will tell you, you really wanted to rise to the occasion. You wanted his opprobrium. You wanted his respect, if not his admiration.
Do you remember the first time you met?
The first time Steve saw me I was playing April in “Company.” I was a few years out of Julliard. He came backstage at a  Playwrights Horizon production at a time when they had a theater in Queens near the World’s Fair location. He came backstage. He was always kind to performers. He had a love and appreciation of performers. And he said something kind to me. He said he thought it was a very original way to play the role. I was just walking on air that I met him and that he singled [me out] and said something admiring of my work. It just blew me away.
I dipped my toe in a lot into 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 my colleagues took me to a seafood restaurant. Steve appeared after dinner and said ‘I never miss a 50th birthday.’ He sat, and we drank glass after glass of wine while he told tales of working on “West Side Story.” I walked home arm and arm with Steve and thought, ‘Who gets a 50th birthday like this?’
Have you talk to others in the theater community who knew Sondheim well?
I talked to Audra McDonald. 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 do you prize most about your personal memories of Sondheim?
Years and years ago I had my theater nightmare dream — the actor’s nightmare dream. He was 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. So this [past]summer in his living room, when we were having a cocktail just before dinner, I told him. It felt so good. In that way I got to tell Steve what he meant to me and how much I loved him and what it meant to me to be part of his career and part of his world. That means the world to me that I got to do that.