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Brucemorchestra shines light on Sondheim
Orchestra Iowa, Broadway’s Errico bring theatrical legacy to Brucemore’s front lawn
Broadway actor Melissa Errico is bringing her new concert collection to Cedar Rapids before taking it to Carnegie Hall.
So when Orchestra Iowa opens its centennial season Sept. 17 on the front lawn of Brucemore mansion, that audience will be the first in the world to hear her latest Stephen Sondheim celebration.
It’s an homage to her friend, the late titan of American musical theater, who died Nov. 26, 2021, at age 91.
Their relationship began in 2002, when he chose her to sing the lead female role in a limited run of “Sunday in the Park with George” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She continued with productions of Sondheim’s “Passion,” “Do I Hear a Waltz?” and a concert version of “Into the Woods.” She also performed in Sondheim’s 90th birthday concert and appeared in a Sondheim documentary that aired on PBS.
And she received rave reviews for her 2018 album, “Sondheim Sublime,” which the Wall Street Journal deemed “The best all-Sondheim album ever recorded.”
If you go
What: Brucemorchestra XV
Featuring: Orchestra Iowa and Broadway star Melissa Errico in “Sincerely, Sondheim”
Where: Brucemore mansion, 2160 Linden D.r SE, Cedar Rapids, on the front lawn facing First Avenue SE
When: Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022; gates open 5:30 p.m., concert at 7 p.m.; rain date Sunday, Sept. 18; masks encouraged, not required
Tickets: $20 lawn in advance, $25 at the gate; $35 chair seating; (319) 366-8203 or artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/brucemorchestra-xv/
Student tickets: $10 ages 18 and up; free ages 17 and under with paying adult; at the Ticket Office, 119 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Family STEAM Day: Free activities begin at 5:30 p.m., including Instrument Petting Zoo featuring real instruments and the odd Theremin that makes spooky sounds
Extras: Bring blankets, chairs, picnics, beverages, flashlight; or buy food and drink from on-site vendors
Artist online: melissaerrico.com/home/ and on Instagram @melissa_errico_fairymom
Before speaking with The Gazette by phone from her home in New York City, she requested three questions via email, including this glimpse into the life of the legendary composer:
“Steve Sondheim was a wonderful friend and for me a mentor of a kind — I don’t pretend that we were intimate, but when I was working on my Sondheim record, he offered me nearly a hundred emails on every kind of question, from recommending little known songs (like ‘Isn’t He Something’ from the troubled show ‘Roadshow’) to giving me strict orders to sing his songs as written — and then gleeful permission to become a ‘girl singer’ right after, and go a little wild interpretively.
“He could be ornery, and even a little perverse — he never liked my ‘Sondheim Sublime’ title and told me so, curtly. ... He came on strong, but when you came back strong, he could be gracious. ...
“I’ll always think of my first encounter with him as setting our dance together: I proposed playing the opening scene of ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ at the Kennedy Center ... nude in the bath, which wasn’t what he’d written. I didn’t have enough experience then, thank God, to know that you weren’t supposed to propose changes like that to Sondheim. But he took it in stride, liked the idea, and gently changed a couple of lyrics to make it work better.
“A great man in his talent, and a fine one in his generosities.”
Orchestra Iowa Maestro Timothy Hankewich had “something completely different in mind” for this year’s season opener — until Sondheim died.
“Clearly, he's one of the great American musical giants of the 20th century. And how to fit that into a season of symphonic music, given the fact that he had just passed away, was kind of a challenge,” Hankewich said.
"People love Sondheim, they respect Sondheim, and admire him, but to place that in an orchestral season can be tricky. And Brucemorchestra seemed to be the perfect vehicle for that.”
After the success of last year’s Brucemorchestra concert featuring the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Hankewich envisioned expanding on that idea this year, with an array of Broadway hits, including a few Sondheim classics. However, after Sondheim died, Errico’s agents reached out, noting her Sondheim expertise, and that she performs this kind of orchestral concert.
“Once we got in touch with Melissa, who is clearly leading the vanguard of championing the music of Sondheim, we quickly realized that she had access to resources that we could not have even imagined,” Hankewich said.
“ ... She had at her disposal an army of arrangers, including arrangers who work with Barbra Streisand all the time. As a result, the program went from sort of a broad Broadway revue, to really a tribute to Stephen Sondheim,” Hankewich noted.
“Most of the music has been written from scratch, and we are beta-testing this program, meaning that other orchestras have since picked up this program — the Toronto Symphony and the New York Philharmonic and others. And so within months, this program is going to be performed throughout the country.
"What a perfect way to celebrate our 100th anniversary by debuting a program that is going to be featured throughout the country,“ Hankewich said.
The program will cover examples of Sondheim’s early days writing lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” as well as his later works where he wrote the lyrics and music for such popular shows as “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Company,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and “Into the Woods,” as well as the lesser-known musicals “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Passion.”
“Of course, you can't do a Sondheim program without ‘Send in the Clowns’ from ‘A Little Night Music,’ ” Hankewich added.
Now 52, Errico grew up with artistry in her heritage, jumping back two generations to her Italian immigrant side, with her grandmother who sang opera and great-aunt who became a Ziegfeld girl, to Errico’s father, a surgeon and concert pianist, and her mother, a sculptor.
At age 12, Errico was cast in the children’s television series “The Great Space Coaster,” and after her first year at Yale University, she put college on pause to tour as Cosette in “Les Miserables.” She returned to Yale, where she majored in art history and philosophy.
Early in her career, she worked in television and film in Los Angeles, before an offer to sing in what she called “the world’s best cabaret,” Cafe Carlyle, lured her back to New York.
Even though husband Patrick McEnroe, whom she married in 1998, pointed out they were finding success in Hollywood. But Errico prevailed, and they moved East. (McEnroe — younger brother of tennis legend John McEnroe — is a former tennis pro turned commentator. He and Errico now have three teenage daughters — the eldest, 16, is a rising star tennis player, and the twins, age 13, are dancers who favor the arts scene.)
In New York, Errico created a cabaret show titled “New Standards,” singing what she considered the second round of the Great American Songbook — songs by such pop icons as Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
She also returned to the stage at home and abroad, finding success with numerous productions, including “My Fair Lady,” “Anna Karenina” and “High Society,” and was nominated for a Tony Award as best actress for her work in Michel Legrand’s “Amour.”
But it was Sondheim’s music that reeled her in, giving rise to her “Sondheim Sublime” recording.
“The wit, the storytelling power, the complexity of emotion, the perfection of form, the feeling for metaphor,” she said. “Who else would have made a profound song about the creative process and the creator’s loneliness all about finishing a hat?
“If there’s one side of Steve’s work that draws me specially ... it’s his sheer skill and originality as a composer. He’s so famous as a wordsmith that we sometimes don’t see how original his music is, with those repetitive Steve Reich-style figures and the amazing lulling ecstatic lullabies and hymns, like ‘I Remember’ or ‘Not While I’m Around.’ That’s the sublime part of Sondheim for me.”
And through her personal knowledge of Sondheim comes a very intimate insight into his legacy.
“Historians of musical theater will argue about Sondheim’s place for decades,” she wrote. “For me, as a performer (and, yes, writer, too) the great leap was the way he allowed ambivalent and complicated emotion into the life of the American musical theater.
“I call it the ‘Sondheim Comma’ — the way he always asserts one emotion and then its opposite. ‘Marry Me, A Little,’ ‘Sorry, Grateful,’ ‘Good Thing, Going.’ You even saw the comma in the twisted ironic expression on his face. The songs are always turning in on themselves, offering new complexities of feeling. That’s why we never come to the end of Sondheim’s art.”
His imprint on the realm of musical theater “has yet to be seen in the course of history,” Hankewich said. “He certainly revolutionized and reinvigorated Broadway. He and Andrew Lloyd Webber were the leading proponents of Broadway from the 1970s all the way up until recently.
“And I think many people for a while thought Broadway was dead, and if it weren't for people like Stephen Sondheim, much of that art form could have been forgotten.
"Where Stephen Sondheim excels is in his messages of hope,“ Hankewich added, ”and adult themes of growing up, and the difficulties and the contradictions that people will encounter in their lives. There's a lot of wisdom in the lyrics that he writes.”
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