‘He was a god for us’: actors on being side by side with Stephen Sondheim

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<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Musical theatre stars Jenna Russell, Daniel Evans and Janie Dee remember working with their hero, and the unique demands and rewards of his songs

Jenna Russell: ‘The songs are ridiculously rich’

So much of his work is about love. People talk about it being cold but as a teenage girl all I could feel from it was warmth. The songs are ridiculously rich. I’d play the original cast recording of Company again and again, in the front room. I remember my mum came in with her rubber gloves on and tears streaming down her face. She said: “Oh my god, I get it!” The song was Being Alive.

Steve understood the human condition like no one else in musical theatre. Children and Art, from Sunday in the Park With George, encapsulates that for me. To understand that children and art are what push life forward is one of the most beautiful things that he recognised; there is something so tender and gentle in that song.

Jenna Russell with Daniel Evans in Sunday in the Park With George at Wyndhams theatre in London, 2006.
Jenna Russell with Daniel Evans in Sunday in the Park With George, at Wyndham’s theatre in London, 2006. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

A few of us at school would sing Sondheim stuff and then I first worked with Steve when I was 20 on Follies. Meeting your hero is always a scary thing but he was wonderful. We had some really interesting chats about Sweeney Todd. He remembered watching the tech rehearsal for it when Len Cariou did the big number Epiphany, thinking: “Oh my god what have I written? Where has this come from?” The realisation that he had unleashed this beast.

His lyrics fall into place with you at certain points in your life. For me, with Sunday, I always thought Act 1 was perfect. I’d fast-forward Act 2. But the older you get, the more you realise that Act 2 is where the truth and the ache are. When that reveals itself to you, it’s devastating.

Some people are very guarded about their work but he encouraged directors to be brave and was always excited about young directors and their imagination.

The brilliant thing about performing his works is that they are littered with rhymes that you don’t notice you’re doing, because the arc of the story is so character-based. A couple of times he said to me: “Oh, just pump up that internal rhyme.” And I didn’t even realise it was there! It’s so subtle.

Musicals can be crap. They really can be. But because of the work that he did, and writers who have come after him and been inspired by how brave he was, we have some really good musical theatre. I’m so grateful to have met him and had the privilege of doing his work.

Daniel Evans: ‘He was really strict!’

Daniel Evans as Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park With George.
Daniel Evans as Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park With George. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Since the news of his death, I’ve been hearing the songs from Merrily We Roll Along, the first Sondheim-composed show that I acted in. There is so much in Merrily about time, friendship and regret. That line: “Charley, why can’t it be like it was?” And the whole lyric of Our Time.

When I did Merrily and Sunday in the Park With George, I had one-to-one tutorials with him at the piano, which was such a privilege. It was pretty intimidating and scary – he was really strict! If you replaced a syllable of a lyric with something that was inaccurate he would come down on you hard. But his notes were so practical, insightful and implementable – he writes for actors, he puts himself in the place of an actor and asks how would this character express this particular sentiment? That’s why actors love his work. When you understood his notes, and were able to do them, he was then so encouraging and that was the best feeling in the world.

Merrily had a predominantly young cast and when he arrived, just before previews, he came in front of us and said: “It’s OK everyone, God has arrived!” He was being self-deprecating but we were so scared, we didn’t know if he was serious. He was a type of god for us, so we took him at his word.

His immense generosity to others came, I think, from the way the baton was passed so generously to him from Oscar Hammerstein. He would always pay tribute to what Hammerstein did for him – how he mentored him. Watch the videos where Sondheim talks about teaching: he saw it as a sacred profession. Teaching and encouragement were something he’d benefited deeply from and I think he wanted to repay that debt from Hammerstein.

He had such a delight in language, even in a casual email. The last one he sent to me ended: “So thank you Daniel, you are a prince. No, Hal is a Prince. You’re a gent.”

Janie Dee: ‘Every word was precious’

Janie Dee, left, with Imelda Staunton and Zizi Strallen in Follies at the National Theatre, London, in 2017.
Janie Dee, left, with Imelda Staunton and Zizi Strallen in Follies at the National Theatre, London, in 2017. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

I just watched the clip of Broadway gathering to sing his number Sunday over the weekend. All those people turning up in Times Square to sing. I was awash. Every note he writes is perfect for the emotion. You can’t sing a better note than the one he’s written.

When I saw Sunday in the Park With George it spoke to me – I felt addressed personally. Even though I was sitting in a crowd of people, I felt like I was receiving guidance and healing at the same time. He has moved me to tears more than any other writer in my lifetime, left me feeling refreshed as a human being. The first show I saw by him was Putting It Together – I laughed so much but he also summoned my innermost spirit. He recognised how monstrous we can be and how monstrous relationships can be, but made it somehow OK and fun and laughable.

Related: Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpieces on stage and screen – in pictures

In 1990, Stephen became chair of musical theatre at Oxford University. Cameron Mackintosh pulled together a few actors and some up-and-coming writers to take a course with Sondheim and create new musicals. It was very intimate. I was one of the actors. We were working on a song in the theatre and I suddenly felt a sort of warmth and looked to my left – he was sitting there, twinkling. I didn’t know when he’d come in. He was very friendly, encouraging, quiet. Every word was precious.

Doing Follies at the National Theatre in 2017, it felt like a huge ship that we were getting on. I didn’t know if it would sail. Dominic Cooke, the director, had put so much into it and we had rehearsed for weeks and weeks. At the end of the first preview, we walked on to take our bows and I looked down and there was this man going crazy, clapping and shouting hooray. It was Stephen Sondheim. He was like a fan, and had run down the front to clap at us and give us his blessing.

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