They’ve come to Signature Theatre to sing side by side with two-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Sherri L. Edelen in the just opened Side by Side by Sondheim. They are two of my favorite performers, so I asked Matthew Scott and Nancy Anderson to talk about the songs they will be performing, and to tell us about the man who penned them, Stephen Sondheim.
Joel: Why did you want to be part of this production?
Matthew: Matt Gardiner wrote me an e-mail in early December asking me if I was interested in doing this piece. He said he knew I had just come off of doing Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54, but Side by Side was going to be treated as a companion piece to the Kennedy Center’s upcoming production of Follies. I know Matt from college (where he directed my wife in a production of Hello Again) and I’ve worked at Signature twice now, but I still hemmed and hawed over doing a second Sondheim review less than a year a part. I quickly realized I was being ridiculous, and that this would be an opportunity to really challenge myself and tackle some material I was very anxious to get my hands on. The deal was sealed when my wife, Kirsten, was offered to come to do DC to play Young Phyllis in Follies at the Kennedy Center. We started rehearsal the same day and now we get to live and work in one our favorite places in the country.
Nancy: I’ve always wanted to sing Sondheim, and Signature is KNOWN for their Sondheim productions. I also wanted to be working in Washington DC, at the same time as my boyfriend, director Ethan McSweeny. He’s currently in tech at the Arena with A Time to Kill and is starting rehearsals for The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare Theatre Company in a couple of weeks.
You get to work with Sherri Edelen in this show. You must be having a blast performing with her.
Matthew: Sherri is wonderful. This is our second time working together. We did The Light in the Piazza together in 2009. I was in awe of her work ethic back then. She will refine a moment and make it entirely her own. She’s also one of the funniest people I’ve ever worked with. Mostly, she is just a hard worker and a great energy to play off of. And the same is true of Nancy.
Nancy: She is fantastic. So down to earth and completely off her rocker. She’s hilarious!
Have you done the show before?
Matthew: Actually, yes I have. I did a production at the St. Louis MUNY between my Sophomore and Junior years of college. It was drastically different from our production at Signature. First off, we did not use the book, it was simply the songs. Secondly, we had an orchestra of 28 pieces onstage playing the original orchestrations from each show. And it wasn’t a cast of three, but rather a cast of twelve that included Barbara Walsh, Michael McGrath, Lewis Cleale, Karen Morrow, Ashley Brown, and Betsy Wolfe to name a few. It was a great group.
Nancy: No. Never. The only other Sondheim show I’ve done is Sweeney Todd at the Goodspeed Opera house 15 years ago. I played Johanna.
The songs in the show are from the ‘early’ Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musicals, when he wrote the music and lyrics, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, and Anyone Can Whistle, and from the movie “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution”, a television special – “Evening Primrose” – and from shows where Sondheim wrote only the lyrics – West Side Story, Do I Hear A Waltz? and Gypsy.
How would you describe Sondheim’s music and lyrics from these early years compared to the next musicals he wrote Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion, and Bounce (later known as Road Show)?
Matthew: I think you know a Sondheim song when you hear it regardless of when it was written. You may not feel that way in the case of West Side or Gypsy for which he only wrote the lyrics. But, I think it’s mostly true. I will say, as a 10 year-old kid, I dragged my mom to see Sweeney Todd at the local high school. I loved it so much, I made her take me back to see it three more times. However, a few years later when A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was revived on Broadway and we went, I was shocked to find out that the same person had written the score. I think even at a young age, I was aware of how completely different both shows were, solely from a musical perspective.
Nancy: I would say that in many of the early shows he seems to be learning. He’s trying on different styles, and seeing how he fits into the medium – how his emotional insights can be communicated through an art form that until he arrived, did not express life and love and loss quite so acutely and accurately. He did what I think all good artists should do – they learn the rules before they break them.
Which two Sondheim shows are your favorites?
Matthew: Of the above, I love A Little Night Music, and West Side Story. A Little Night Music is just perfectly balanced. It’s funny, absurd, and passionate. The book is so well structured and the score has such range; “In Praise of Women” and “Every Day a Little Death” are real standouts in my mind. And West Side Story, well come on. It’s just a great American musical.
Nancy: That’s easy- Sweeney and Sunday– with Night Music a very close third.
Which Sondheim roles have you already played , and which roles would you love to play?
Matthew: I played Tony in West Side Story at the MUNY in 2005. That was a lot of fun and a lot of work. I played Frank Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along in high school and I would love to do it again. Bobby in Company is another one. Oh, and I’d like to play John Wilkes Booth in Assassins, and of course I’d love to play Sweeney Todd one day. It would be very cool to play Georgio in Passion. And also Frederick in A Little Night Music. I think I would make a good Ben Stone one day. And of course, for me, the penultimate would be playing Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park With George. I may have left some out.
Nancy: As I mentioned, I played Johanna in Sweeney Todd at the Goodspeed Opera House, directed by Gabe Barre. It was the opportunity of a lifetime in my opinion, and I received a very lovely compliment from Sondheim himself for that performance. I most want to play Dot In Sunday… It was actually the first show I ever saw on Broadway. I was OBSESSED with the record and the video in High School. I want to play that part more than any other part in all of Musical Theater… and I want Ethan to direct it.
How would you describe a Sondheim song?
Matthew: Perfectly structured. Each song is laid out so you can hear the information being put forth and have an emotional response at the same time. Not an easy thing to do, but something that is necessary in good writing.
Nancy: I would say that Sondheim songs always take into account the pain or fear that is inherent in every human transaction, regardless of whether the occasion of the song is joyful or awful.
My all-time favorite Sondheim song is “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd. What’s yours?
Matthew: “Finishing the Hat” always hits home with me. It’s about the creative process, but it’s also about sacrifice, love and loss. Real things that resonate with me.
Nancy: “Move On” from Sunday… and “Losing My Mind” – which I get to sing in Side By Side. I think that was ultimately the reason I accepted this job – to get a chance to sing “Losing My Mind”.
Which song from the show do you wish you were singing?
Matthew: Well, our show only includes the musicals Sondheim wrote up until and including Follies. That eliminates half of the canon. If we were to delve into the next half of Sondheim’s career then, I think I would love to duet with Nancy on something from Sunday In the Park with George. Heck, what I’d really like is to do that show with her.
Nancy: Awww, come on!!!! That’s not fair – but, I would say the answer is “Anyone Can Whistle”, or “Send in the Clowns”.
What makes director Matthew Gardiner’s take on this show so unique?
Matthew: Well, Matt is very smart, very savvy. He has tailored this production to fit not only the Signature’s Max, but he’s also re-conceived the book to appeal to a modern audience and more specifically to the Signature patrons who have come to know Sondheim’s works intimately. Matt’s also a wonderful choreographer, it is my assumption that this production has more dance in it.
Nancy: Well, for one, he re-wrote the book!!! And for that, I think all Sondheim fans should not only thank him, but perhaps canonize him.
You get to sing solos of “Something’s Coming” (West Side Story), “I Remember”(Evening Primrose), “Marry Me a Little” (a song cut from Company), “Anyone Can Whistle”, (from the show of the same title), and “Being Alive” (Company). These are not easy songs to sing and they are ‘showstoppers”. What’s the hardest song to sing vocally?
Matthew: I am afraid that if I answer this honestly, you will sit in the house listening for the faintest crack or waver in my voice. Therefore, I plead the fifth. But I will say this, no Sondheim song is easy to sing. My voice ranges a couple of octaves over the course of the evening, and that’s not an exaggeration. If you think I’m kidding, just stick around for the last song of the first act.
Nancy: The selection from West Side Story – “A Boy Like That” and “I Have a Love”, which I sing with Sherri.
Which song or songs speak of experiences that you have personally gone through in your own life?
Matthew: Well, I try to relate in some way to each and every song I sing. It’s especially crucial to do so in a musical revue where many of the numbers are taken out of context. For example, I sing four or five songs (solos, duets, trios) in the show that are actually performed by women in their original contexts. It’s my job to bring something personal to each number. Having said that: I feel a deep connection to songs like “Something’s Coming”, “Marry Me A Little”, and “Being Alive”. They may have something more to do with who I am today, and what I’ve experienced in my life. But, I hope I bring something unique to every number.
Nancy: “Losing My Mind” is drawn from my direct experience with loss, rejection, and depression.
You both get to sing some wonderful duets: “Barcelona” and “We’re Gonna Be All Right”. What are these songs about from the point of view of your characters in these songs?
Matthew: Well, this is a hard thing to explain. Nancy and I have had extensive conversations with Matt about this issue. It’s true we are playing characters in these moments, but they may not be exactly like the characters from their shows. We are again making them personal. Part of the fun of working with a person like Nancy is you know you can bounce ideas off her, or just try things in rehearsal. I think we’ve discovered humor in little moments where you wouldn’t expect it. Again, the audience is watching Nancy, Sherri, and Matt. Not Bobby or April.
Nancy: “Barcelona” is a “morning after” song involving Bobby’s need to disguise his ambivalence toward the woman (April) he’s just slept with, and April’s inability to disguise her awareness of this, as well as her need for his approval.
“We’re Gonna Be Alright” is about a couple who is searching for ways to “keep up appearances” while dealing with the reality of a bad marriage.
Matthew, you were at Signature in the Kander and Ebb revue First You Dream in 2009, and then I interviewed you when you and Sherri appeared in The Light in the Piazza at Philadelphia Theatre Company. You both won Barrymore Awards for your performances – so congrats!
Matthew: Thank you Joel. Piazza was a terrific experience from start to finish. It’s also worth mentioning that frequent Signature guest director Joe Calarco also won for his exquisite direction.
Let’s talk about Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin which you played last fall at La Jolla Playhouse opposite Rob McClure. The show won Outstanding New Musical from The San Diego Theatre Critics Circle’s 2010 Craig Noel Awards, you received a nomination and Rob won for his performance as Charlie Chaplin. When I interviewed Rob at Walnut Street Theatre when he was playing Mozart in Amadeus, he said the show was having another workshop. What’s happening with the show?
Matthew: Limelight was an exhilarating show to work on. First of all, I got to work with my wife Kirsten. We had never been out of town together on the same show and La Jolla, CA is the most beautiful place in the world for two newly weds to spend a few months. The cast was also extremely tight, a really top notch group of people. And then there’s Rob McClure. I’ve known Rob since we were 17 years old. We then went on to do our first professional job (Carousel at the Paper Mill Playhouse) together. We’d cross paths every once in a while on the streets of New York, but we really got to reconnect on Limelight. We were brothers from the get go. He’s so easy, so open and so insanely gifted. We played off one another beautifully, and it will go down as one of the great working relationships of my life. As far as the show is concerned, it is my understanding that they are interested in moving forward. I certainly hope to be a part of it, but I’ve learned you cannot count on anything in this business until it’s right in front of you and you can touch it with your own two hands. And even then…
Nancy, I saw you perform last year in Yank! at The York Theatre where you played ‘The Women’. Bobby Steggert told me there have been major rewrites to the show. Will you be part of the next production of Yank!?
Nancy: Bobby is a genius, and a wonderful person. The artistic team decided to recast the part that I played, and I have, therefore, not been involved in the new versions.
What’s next for you after this production ends?
Matthew: I have nothing on the horizon. I will be hanging around DC for a week while Kirsten finishes up her run at the Kennedy Center and after that we have a trip planned to Europe.
Nancy: I have some teaching engagements this summer, and otherwise I will be accompanying Ethan to the summer theater he runs at The Chautauqua Institution in upstate NY.
What is Stephen Sondheim’s legacy now and what will it be?
Matthew: Yikes! I don’t know if Stephen Sondheim himself could begin to answer such a question. He’s revolutionized the American Theater and inspired generations of artists. His book, Finishing The Hat, is insightful and funny, often very touching too. But, more than that, it’s something of an instructional guide for aspiring lyricists/composers. Perhaps that may be his latest great contribution to the world.
Nancy: He’s not dead yet, y’know. I will not even try to expound on that question, but I will say that an enormous number of my peers got into the business of musical theater because of Sondheim’s works, specifically Sweeney and Sunday, and I think that is telling about his influence on the current and future ‘adventures in Broadway’.
Why should DC audiences come to see Side By Side By Sondheim?
Matthew: Because I guarantee you it’s not what you think it is. I am sure you think you’ve got it figured out and you’re wrong. It’s fun, it’s surprisingly fresh, it’s energetic and beautifully simple. It’s about a man and his music. Or rather, the man and his music.
Nancy: We’re charming and talented and the songs are GREAT.