Author: Olson, John
Date published: October 1, 2010
Euan Morton's fear of performing songs by Stephen Sondheim was once so great that he pulled out of a concert obligation to avoid singing one. But in the spring of 2010 he began interpreting Sondheim with no less than Barbara Cook and six others in Sondheim on Sondheim, a major Broadway retrospective. How did this 32-year-old performer born in a small town in Scotland, with Tony and Olivier Award nominations for playing Boy George in the musical Taboo, get to Studio 54? In a phone interview during previews of Sondheim on Sondheim, Morton shared his thoughts on the challenges of interpreting Sondheim's songs outside of the context of their original book musicals.
"In college, Sondheim's work made me really nervous," Morton admits. "I was only 16, much younger than my peers. I wasn't mature enough to understand his work, so I always avoided doing it. Once I was given 'Finishing the Hat' to sing, and I was so scared of what it meant that I didn't go to the concert. I ran away and pulled out."
Since his Broadway work in Taboo (2004), Morton has focused on concert and cabaret work along with dramatic roles on and off Broadway. "Most of my cabaret work has been closer to the pop world. It's only recently that I've learned to feel free enough to want to reinterpret Sondheim. I was doing an evening of duets with Natascia Diaz at Signature Theatre in D.C. last November, and it was my first time returning to Sondheim's work since I played Old Ben in Follies in drama school at the age of 19. The Signature concert was a salute to their 1991-1994 seasons, and most of the work from those years was Sondheim's. I sang 'Finishing the Hat' and three others. There I was suddenly surrounded by Sondheim, learning the songs, learning what 'Finishing the Hat' meant to me and the audience. A week-and-a-half later I was called to come in for Sondheim on Sondheim and I thought, 'There's a sign in that.'"
Morton says performing Sondheim's songs before audiences who know them so well is a bit daunting. "I had a certain level of nervousness because everyone has a favorite interpretation. I ended up not pushing myself as I normally would have as an actor. I finally had a chance to talk with Sondheim about 'Franklin Shepard, Inc.' He gave pointers about the character and said, 'Well, of course you want to reinterpret it. You wouldn't want it to be the same all the time.' I knew all that, but it was strange to be so nervous about someone's work, to come with such reverence."
According to Morton, James Lapine, who conceived and directed Sondheim on Sondheim, made a through-line using video and film interviews with the composer that allows each song to show Sondheim's development as a man and a writer. "In one of the clips that's played before I sing 'Franklin Shepard, Inc.,' Sondheim talks about collaboration and his relationships with Hal Prince and Mary Rodgers. I wanted to interpret it as, yes, Charley Kringas [the Merrily We Roll Along character who sings the song], but also a little bit as Sondheim and as Hal Prince and as those people who have these relationships ... so it's larger than just the fictional characters. We're talking about these real people. You want to imbibe the reason the song was written as well as the character it was written for."
In the revue, the song "Beautiful" from Sunday in the Park with George is sung by Morton and Barbara Cook. "Funnily enough, that's the one song where Sondheim doesn't go deeply into where the music came from. But it's the song he admits is probably the closest to him."
Is Sondheim admitting to a greater connection between his personal experience and his lyrics than he has previously acknowledged? "Well, I'm not a psychologist, but as an actor, I always find that my personal experiences, even if I don't want them to, do influence my work. Stephen speaks in the show about collaboration ... not to put words into his mouth, but I would certainly say that he must have had a hand in building these creatures from experiences in his own life."
JOHN OLSON is an associate editor of TSR. He lives and works in Chicago, where he reviews theatre for TalkinBroadway.com.