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Sondheim Originators on His Advice to Them

Len Cariou, one of the five performers who recently reminisced about having originated roles in musicals by Stephen Sondheim, recalls getting the script for “Sweeney Todd” and thinking “You’ve got to be kidding!”  At the end of the first preview, although it was plagued by technical glitches, Sondheim came backstage and exclaimed about the audience: “The understood it! They f— understood it,” and performer and composer hugged. By that time Cariou had long since come around: “We realized this was one of the great musicals of all time, a work of genius.”

Cariou and the others — Harvey Evans, Pamela Myers, Kurt Peterson and Teri Ralston, who variously originated roles in “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Sweeney Todd,” (and performed in the original “West Side Story” and “Gypsy”)  — gathered over the weekend to talk for 90 minutes about their experiences with the composer who changed their lives. The video below is an 18-minute excerpt, answering the question: What advice did Sondheim give you?

“I don’t remember his giving us too many notes,”says Harvey Evans, who performed in the original Broadway productions of West Side Story, Gypsy, Anyone Can Whistle and Follies. “I wish he had given me more personal help.” But he did give them stories.

Pamela Myers auditioned for the original production of “Company,” having just moved to New York from Ohio. A little while later, Sondheim came up to her: “I wrote a song for you.”
“I guess I got the part,” Myers recalls thinking. The song was “Another Hundred People”
The note she got from Sondheim and director Hal Prince: “The song is about joy. Most people would not think that, but it’s about how much somebody loves living in New York. That’s all they had to tell me.”
“He’s the only genius I ever met in my life.”

Kurt Peterson, who had starred as Tony in the 1968 Broadway revival of West Side Story, and created the role of Young Ben in Sondheim’s Follies, became a producer in 1973, putting together a concert entitled “Sondheim – A Musical Tribute.” It had been a taxing endeavor, Peterson recalls, so much so that at the end, Sondheim said to him: “Now that the last few months have aged you so, you’ll never have to play a juvenile again.”

Teri Ralston, said that she wasn’t impressed when in 1970 Sondheim cast her in 1970 as Jenny in the original production of Company. “I didn’t know who he was. That’s how I naïve I was.”
On the last day of the run, Sondheim told her that her performance had been ‘perfect.’
“I will carry that with me forever.” Three years later she originated the role of Mrs. Nordstrom in “A Little Night Music.”
“I didn’t know what I was learning then,” she says. “I know that now.”

The five appeared in a panel discussion moderated by Rick Penner as part of the American Theatre Critics Association conference, at Don’t Tell Mama’s, November 5, 2017.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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