Celebrating Sondheim

July 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: A Sondheim celebration, and to our arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown.

MAN SINGING: Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…

JEFFREY BROWN: “Sweeney Todd,” a tale of love and revenge in 19th century London.

GROUP SINGING: The phone rings door chimes in comes company…

JEFFREY BROWN: “Company,” exploring the ups and downs of commitment in 1970s New York. The two plays display the range and influence of Stephen Sondheim, a leading light of American musical theater.

WOMAN SINGING: Skyscrapers bloom in America…

JEFFREY BROWN: Sondheim is widely considered the modern era’s greatest wordsmith, from his lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music in “West Side Story” in 1957…

WOMAN SINGING: Listen ev’rybody I’m afraid you didn’t hear or do you want to see a crazy lady fall apart in front of you it isn’t only Paul who will be ruining his life you know we’ll both of us be losing our identities…

JEFFREY BROWN: …To the verbal pyrotechnics in his own compositions in plays that span four decades. For audiences, there’s delight; for actors, it looks downright daunting.

WOMAN SINGING: Don’t tell Paul but I’m not getting married today…


JEFFREY BROWN: Sondheim’s work is being celebrated this summer in an unusual six-play, museum-like retrospective at Washington’s Kennedy Center.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome all three of you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three leading ladies recently sat down with us to talk about Sondheim and song: Lynn Redgrave, Barbara Cook, and Christine Baranski.

CHRISTINE BARANSKI (singing): If you doubt it take a bite is that just disgusting…

JEFFREY BROWN: Christine Baranski stars in “Sweeney Todd” as theater’s most famous pie-maker: The loopy and love-struck accessory to murder, Mrs. Lovett. Baranski was Cybil Shepherd’s sidekick in the 1990s hit television sitcom, and played Robin Williams ex-wife in the movie “Bird Cage.”

LYNN REDGRAVE (singing): It’s not so hard to be married when two maneuver as one…

JEFFREY BROWN: Lynn Redgrave is Joanne, the seasoned wife, many times married and divorced, in “Company.” Redgrave, of the famous British acting family, has been a leading film and theater star for decades, from “Georgy Girl” in the ’60s to “Shine” in the ’90s. And Broadway veteran Barbara Cook, who’s created numerous roles, including the ingénue Marian the librarian in “The Music Man” in 1957.

BARBARA COOK (singing): Everybody says don’t, everybody says don’t, everybody says don’t — don’t it isn’t right…

JEFFREY BROWN: Cook performs a review called “Mostly Sondheim” accompanied by pianist Wally Harper, who joined our discussion on the stage of the terrace theater. We talked about the challenges and pleasures of performing Sondheim.

BARBARA COOK: The main thing about Stephen’s songs, most of them, is that they’re like little scenes, so that you can approach them from an acting standpoint. They’re almost like dialogue, and they’re so rich in that way, so that it’s as clever as it can be sometimes, and yet there are times when it’s absolutely like dialogue, I think. Don’t you think so?

LYNN REDGRAVE: I think that’s what made it possible for me to do “Company.” I’m really quite inexperienced in musical theater, although a musical theater fan. I fell in love for the first time, of course, Sondheim, “West Side Story,” when I was a kid, the first American musical to come to London, and my dad taking us and saying, “watch Chita Rivera sing ‘A Boy Like That.’” So I wanted desperately and I’ve been working hard.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was the biggest challenge for you to get?

LYNN REDGRAVE: Actually, the biggest challenge was the ensemble things, like “Company,” for example, a huge opening number.

GROUP SINGING: Bobby Bobby , how was your day, Bobby we’ve been thinking of you…

LYNN REDGRAVE: We’re singing, you know, “Bobby, Bobby baby, Bobby booby.” “Robbie, Robbie love, lover.” I’m just, “I’ll never get this.” A nightmare.

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: You have to hold your bloody own or you’re lost.


CHRISTINE BARANSKI: It’s a fast-moving train.


CHRISTINE BARANSKI: That’s why I’m scared every night.

LYNN REDGRAVE: I cried more times in rehearsal because I would just… I’ve miss six Bobby’s, three Robby’s, a lover, a Bobby booby, and a Bobby baby, and I am totally up the creek and I can’t bear it. ( Laughter )

JEFFREY BROWN: You said you’re scared every night?

LYNN REDGRAVE: Oh, every night.

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: Oh, yeah. Definitely.

BARBARA COOK: Me, too. Of course, every night.

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: It’s like a walk… it’s like a high wire act. Your margin for error is very slim.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reporter: Because of the complexity of the songs.

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: Because… well, because it’s very exact. Steve is very exact, and those lyrics come hard and fast in the rhythms, and he’s just utterly precise, and you want to measure up. And I do, I feel scared.


JEFFREY BROWN: Christine Baranski’s first song in “Sweeney Todd” takes place in her pie shop where she’s desperately trying to sell her less than edible fare. It’s called “The Worst Pies in London.”

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: It’s a brilliant piece of exposition. I’ll give you the song if I can croak it out, but actually croaking is kind of good in this.

(Singing) What what’s your rush, what’s your hurry you’re getting me such a,I thought you was a ghost stop a minute, can’t you sit sit you down. Sit! All I meant is that I haven’t seen a customer for weeks. Did you come here for a pie, sir? Do forgive me if me head’s a little vague. Ugh! What is that? But you’d think we had the plague.

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: Actually, the song is great because you get to be… establish that character so indelibly in that first song.

BARBARA COOK: I think the most difficult one that I do in my show is a song called “Happiness” from “Passion.” Even when Wally and I started working on it for this show, I was surprised at how much I didn’t even retain. It’s just for me, it’s complicated.

BARBARA COOK: Do you want to do a little bit?

SPOKESMAN: It is a complicated song. ( Piano playing )

BARBARA COOK: (singing) I’m so happy I’m afraid I’ll die here in your arms, what would you do if I die like this, right now here in your arms, that we ever should have met is a miracle…

JEFFREY BROWN: You make it sound pretty easy. But what’s so hard about that?

BARBARA COOK: Because there are uneven bars, and it’s… you know, he writes it more as you would speak it, I think, rather than you would sing it. And it makes it far more interesting, but sometimes more difficult to learn.

BARBARA COOK (singing): That we ever should have met is a miracle, no, inevitable inevitable yes, well, I confess…

BARBARA COOK: It took me ages to learn that.

LYNN REDGRAVE (singing): Here’s to the ladies who lunch, everybody laughs…

JEFFREY BROWN: Lynn Redgrave’s big number in “Company” is called “The Ladies Who Lunch”; a bitter song by a woman who is no longer the life of the party.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me about this character in “Ladies Who Lunch.”

LYNN REDGRAVE: Joanne. Joanne is on her third husband. She’s… she’s kind of a fabulous woman, I think. I think she… I think she drinks to escape. In the third verse, she finally, after sort of berating the ladies who sit and, you know, go to the gym and go to Pinter plays and enjoy a piece of Mahler’s, and play wife and all of that, she says, “Here’s to the girls who just watch.” And that, of course, is herself.

LYNN REDGRAVE (singing): When they get depressed it’s a bottle of scotch plus a little jest, another chance to disapprove another brilliant zinger, another reason not to move another vodka stinger– (screams) I’ll drink to that.

LYNN REDGRAVE: Steve said to me it’s a primal scream, and whatever you do, it must… it must surprise us. So it is complicated. It is… it is absolutely acted. It has to be thought. I… I’m not an alcoholic, I’m glad to say, but I sure know what it feels like to possibly venture into that land.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps the cleverest of clever songs is “A Little Priest” from “Sweeney Todd” in which Baranski’s character and Sweeney, played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, consider the relative merits of various occupations as human fillings for their pies.

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: Hot from the oven


CHRISTINE BARANSKI: It’s priest. Have a little priest

BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL: Is it really good?

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: Sir, it’s too good at least. Then again they don’t commit sins of the flesh, so it’s pretty fresh …


CHRISTINE BARANSKI: Near the end of “Little Priest” he says, “What is that?” And I go “It’s fop, finest in the shop.” And we have some shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top. (Laughter) Steve writes consonants, and I love consonants as an actress, but he’s just… you can sink your lips and tongue and teeth into all these delightful consonants, and that’s just filled with those delicious P’s, which I just chose to emphasize because I think they’re so delicious.

BARBARA COOK (singing): Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair? Me here at last on the ground, you in midair, Send in the clowns –

BARBARA COOK: One thing that’s happened for me as I have gotten older is that I am so constantly grateful to still be singing, and to still be doing. See, I’m 74, so it’s unusual to be singing, you know, at this age. And when I was younger, I didn’t think of my ability to sing so much as a gift. Now I just always try to remember to say, “Help me give it back.”


BARBARA COOK: And then if I can get into that mode, than I get out of ego.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean, get “out of ego”?

BARBARA COOK: Well, ego makes you worry about how you sound. Ego makes you worry about how you look, makes you worry about what people are thinking about you. And if you start thinking about what people are thinking about you when you’re performing, you are finished. Finished.

BARBARA COOK (singing): Anyone can whistle

JEFFREY BROWN: Barbara Cook closes her performances with a simple, affecting Sondheim song called “Anyone Can Whistle.” It seemed an appropriate way to end our conversation, as well.

BARBARA COOK(singing): What’s hard is simple, what’s natural comes hard, maybe you could show me how to let go, lower my guard, learn to be free, maybe if you whistle, whistle for me …

JEFFREY BROWN: Thank you so much for that. And thank all three of you.