Stephen Sondheim Plus Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole

After “Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation,” Backstage with Broadway Greats Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole


Immediately after “Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation” at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, friends lined up backstage to congratulate the evening’s participants.

They were Tony Award winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole, who lent their musical talents to illustrate points in the conversation, and moderator Michael Kerker, director of Musical Theater for ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.)

Although Sondheim did not appear backstage, the behind-the-scenes group was jubilant nonetheless.

“It’s like being shot out of a cannon,” Mitchell said of the evening’s experience, explaining that there was little time available to rehearse the show. Ebersole said she hadn’t sung any of her songs in public before. Given that the two are icons of the musical theater, however, it came as no surprise that they both sang brilliantly. (Mitchell will be receiving a prestigious 2012 National Arts Award, presented by Americans for the Arts, in New York Oct. 15 for “Outstanding Contributions to the Arts.”)

Over the course of the July 13 program, Kerker asked Sondheim – now 82 – intriguing questions about his life, music and relationships to other theater greats, among them his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, musicals playwright Burt Shevelove (“A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,”) and collaborators Richard Rodgers (“Do I Hear a Waltz,”) Jule Style (“Gypsy,”) and Leonard Bernstein (“West Side Story.”)

Sondheim talked of his musical philosophy, saying, “Clarity is everything;” his groundbreaking musical, “Company,” unusual for 1970 as neither a book musical nor a revue; and the current production of “Sweeney Todd” in London, for which he gave a rare – and enthusiastic – recommendation.

In closing, Kerker asked if there was anything he or the countless other interviewers over the years have not yet asked. Apparently not, because Sondheim replied, ”I think the bottom of the barrel has been scoured.”

Mitchell and Ebersole punctuated the night’s conversation by singing such Sondheim classics as “We’re Gonna Be All Right” from “Do I Hear a Waltz,” “It Would Have Been Wonderful” from “A Little Night Music,” “I Never Do Anything Twice,” from “The Seven Percent Solution,” “Pretty Women” from “Sweeney Todd,” “Losing My Mind” from “Follies,” and finally “Finishing the Hat” and “Move On” from “Sunday In the Park With George.” Tedd Firth served as musical director.

As “Finishing the Hat” is also the title of Sondheim’s book, it was a great treat backstage to have Mitchell show me his notes on the sheet music and explain his “reverse engineering” approach to understanding a  song. He said he deconstructs a song in the same way a mechanic might take apart a car to discover its inner workings.

Mitchell pointed to the repetition of musical notes in “Finishing the Hat,” to show how the music gets “stuck,” just as the character singing the song gets stuck in his work before “breaking out” at the point the music changes. (Onstage, Mitchell called Sondheim’s songs “little works of art.”)

As aside from his singing engagements, Mitchell plays one of Rachel Berry’s dads on the TV show “Glee,” I couldn’t resist asking about what’s coming up for him on the show. The last time we met, after his March concert on the Broad Stage, he said he had been hired for three episodes and had thus far completed two.

He said there was no news, but he hoped to be able to sing something “serious” on a future episode. So far, he and Rachel Berry’s other dad, Jeff Goldblum, have sung the novelties, “You’re the Top” and “Going to the Chapel.”

As an aside, when I met Lea Michele at the Chrysalis Ball in June, she said of her TV dad, “He has the most amazing voice on Broadway,” adding that she said exactly that to show creator Ryan Murphy as well.  And Michele should know – she and Mitchell shared the Broadway stage in “Ragtime.” She was ten years old at the time.


Top photo: Onstage at the Renee and Henry Concert Hall at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, from left, musical guests Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christina Ebersole with the legendary Stephen Sondheim (photo, courtesy of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Second photo: Brian Stokes Mitchell, a Tony Award winner for “Kiss me Kate,” explained his “reverse engineering” approach to singing songs, backstage after the night’s program with Stephen Sondheim plus Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole as musical guests

Third photo: Christine Ebersole, a Tony Award winner for “42nd Street” and “Grey Gardens” said she hadn’t sung the night’s songs publicly before program with Stephen Sondheim plus Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole as musical guests

Fourth photo: A view of the stage during “Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation,” from left, musical director Tedd Firth, musical guests Christina Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell, composer Stephen Sondheim and moderator Michael Kerker of ASCAP (photo, courtesy of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts)


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Stephen Sondheim Plus Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole

Published July 14, 2012 – Ellen Olivier, Society News LA