Tony Award-nominated Emmy-winning actress, singer, and recording artist Liz Callaway is returning to Feinstein’s/54 Below for four nights this month with her new show To Steve with Love. It’s a heartfelt celebration of the iconic composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and the monumental impact he had on her life and career, in honor of what would have been his 92nd birthday on March 22.
In 1970, Callaway saw Company, with music and lyrics by Sondheim, directed by Hal Prince, at the Alvin Theatre; it was her first Broadway show and an unforgettable experience that would forever reverberate with her. A decade later, in 1981, she made her Broadway debut in Merrily We Roll Along, also written by Sondheim, directed by Prince, and opening at the Alvin. Since then – in addition to her many acclaimed roles on and off Broadway (including five years as Grizabella in Cats), her extensive concert appearances around the world and throughout the US (singing with symphony orchestras, legends like Johnny Mathis, and her talented sister Ann Hampton Callaway), her voice work in popular animated films (among them, performing the Oscar-nominated song “Journey to the Past” in Anastasia), and her seven solo albums – she has continued to return to the inspiring works of Sondheim.
She has appeared in Merrily We Roll Along, A Stephen Sondheim Evening, Follies in Concert at Lincoln Center, and Inside the Actor’s Studio: Stephen Sondheim, in Marry Me a Little, as Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, and in the European premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim at London’s Royal Festival Hall. And now Callaway pays homage to the life and songs of the most influential master of the modern musical with her expressive crystalline soprano vocals and special stories in an original meticulously curated evening of his words and music.
Liz graciously agreed to share her insights and recollections with us in advance of her NYC premiere of To Steve with Love, which will be performed in person before a live audience at Feinstein’s/54 Below from March 23-26, and also livestreamed in real time for one night only on the cabaret concert’s closing date.
What does Stephen Sondheim mean to the world of musical theater?
Liz: Steve was a pioneer. He challenged us both as audience members and as performers. He made us think and care about a myriad of subjects and people because of the brilliance and complexity of his songs. Working on his music makes me see that every song has so many statements and contradictions; he was opinionated but always open to other people’s ideas, and it’s so rich to sing. I’m all about the lyrics and his are poetry. Teaching was important to him and he was generous with his time, mentoring a lot of people. There are so many things I admired about him. Since he passed away, I’ve been immersed in him and his interviews. There’s a huge gaping hole in my heart and in a lot of people’s now. It’s hard to imagine a world without him.
What has he meant to your career and to you personally as a performer?
I feel like Sondheim has always been in my DNA because of my early experience with the musical Company. My parents saw the show before I did and they brought home the cast album. I loved it, I kept listening to it, I memorized it, and I sang every part in every song. Eventually I saw the show on stage, and actually said, “there shouldn’t be words there” because the characters were talking in between verses. It’s because I knew his songs from the album!
Later, he took a chance on me with Merrily and eventually started using me for concerts. His work gives me the opportunity, gives me the words, to be a character, which is a dream for an actress. He does so much for the actor. And there’s so much more to explore as I get older; I can do THIS song now, I can dig deeper – and that’s not a frequent occurrence for women. To deal with the grief of him being gone, I want to keep his music out there. He started my career and, over 40 years later, I still feel that there’s so much of him to sing.
What’s your most cherished memory of Steve?
Oh, wow, that’s tough. I would say – and I actually have it in a photo – we did a reunion concert of Merrily in 2002, and it was an incredible experience. The show was not a success when it first opened on Broadway; it was very sad, it closed quickly, then we did the cast album. The reunion was happy, everyone was there with their kids, and Hal was there, too. There’s a photo of Hal and Steve hugging, and of Steve giving me a big hug. The emotion of that memory is very special to me. I’m thinking I might incorporate a few photos into the show at 54 Below.
Do you have one favorite Sondheim song that you relate to the most and always enjoy performing?
I would say . . . can I say two? . . . well actually three? I love “Move On” [from Sunday in the Park with George]. I love “Our Time” [from Merrily We Roll Along]. I love “Company.” Oh, I love so many!!! Putting the show together, it was so hard to narrow the song list down. I think I’ll have to do Part II and Part III concerts!
What do you hope the audience takes away from your tribute to him?
Let me start by saying what I’m looking forward to most in the concert is to have the collective experience with the audience – not just singing Sondheim alone in my car or in the kitchen while I’m making dinner, as I do all the time. The beauty of 54 Below is the intimacy. We’ve all been grieving him, but this is a celebration. It’s not just about ME doing a show; it’s a two-way street and we can do this together. Let’s all join in and celebrate Sondheim, through our tears, with each other.
Thank you, Liz, for your time and for your beautiful homage. I’m sure fans in NYC are looking forward to seeing you back at Feinstein’s/54 Below, just as audiences everywhere are to the livestream.
To Steve with Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim plays on Wednesday, March 23-Saturday, March 26, at 7 pm, at Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, NYC, cellar. For tickets (priced at $55-110, plus fees and a $25 per person food and beverage minimum), call (646) 476-3551, or go online. Doors open at 5:30 pm; everyone attending an in-person show must present proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a valid photo ID to enter. The performance on March 26, beginning at 7 pm, will also be livestreamed in real time only (and will not be available on demand). For tickets (priced at $25), click here.