“How lucky were we to live in the time of Stephen Sondheim?” In the final moments of To Steve With Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Stephen Sondheim, Callaway finally asks the question that she’s spent 75 or so minutes answering with a resounding verve. In a one-night engagement at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Saturday night, Callaway brought down the house with stories of her experiences working with the legendary composer and first-rate performances of some of his greatest and more obscure songs alike.
Written in the months following Sondheim’s death in November 2021 and first performed at New York’s 54 Below, To Steve With Love is an exquisite tribute to Callaway’s friend and professional hero. After first encountering his work as a child during the original run of Company in the early 1970s, Callaway was one of the young adults cast in the premiere production of Merrily We Roll Along. Though that production is regarded as one of Broadway’s most monumental flops, it commenced Callaway’s working relationship with Sondheim. And in the years following, she appeared in the legendary 1985 concert production of Follies with the New York Philharmonic, provided musical support throughout Sondheim’s interview on Inside the Actor’s Studio, and performed in regional productions of works including Sunday in the Park With George.
If such a pedigree is not enough to solidify Callaway’s place as one of the foremost interpreters of Sondheim’s work, then the performances certainly speak (sing?) for themselves. To Steve With Love is an exceptionally well-constructed and balanced tribute in a genre that too often toes the line of self-indulgence. But in her earnestness and devotion to the integrity of the man and his music, Callaway never once flirts with such a transgression. Rather, in her deference to the songs and her delightful recounting of her experiences performing for Sondheim, she speaks of him in the way that only a true fan can. And for a man who was so prolific in his correspondence with his listeners, Callaway signs, seals, and delivers what amounts to a gushing fan letter. It’s no wonder that the live recording of an earlier performance of the show has garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Tradition Vocal Pop Album.
Callaway isn’t the first to do a Sondheim tribute album — in fact, she’s up against Sondheim Unplugged (The NYC Sessions), Vol. 3 for that Grammy next month — and she surely won’t be the last. But in To Steve With Love, Callaway departs from the standard practice of simply trotting out a carousel of greatest hits, opting instead to lovingly weave in delightful medlies and parody numbers to offset the classics. In the opening number, she sets the tone for the show by blending “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures and “I Know Things Now” from Into the Woods with the title song from Company to establish her first encounter with Sondheim and the continuing effect of his music on her life. She achieves such confluence with both emotional aplomb and exceptional economy. And in a delicious sendup of “Another Hundred People” from Company, Callaway frantically sings about the complex arrangements and intricate lyrics listeners relish and performers dread.
She digs deeply into the trunk to revive songs from Sondheim’s early shows, including “What More Do I Need?” from Saturday Night and “What Do We Do? We Fly!” from Do I Hear a Waltz?, written with Richard Rodgers. And, in a heartwarming surprise, she summons her son, Nicholas Callaway Foster, to the stage for a performance of “Move On” from Sunday in the Park With George. Repurposing the song as a mother-son duet underscores not only Callaway’s firm understanding of the emotional depth in Sondheim’s songs but also the astonishing symbiosis of specificity and universality in which Sondheim rooted his work.
Still, despite these deeply personal tributes and nontraditional offerings, the most special moments of the night are Callaway’s straightforward performances of such classics as “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Follies, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, and “Loving You” from Passion. In each of these numbers, she refrains from resorting to unwritten riffs and flourishes, leaning into one of Sondheim’s own three musical principles outlined in his two-volume retrospective, Finishing the Hat: less is more. In Callaway’s case, the “more” becomes the “most,” as she relies on the clarity of her voice, exceptional vocal control, and instinctive phrasing to allow Sondheim’s heartbreaking lyrics to convey with maximum punch. Even without the benefit of narrative that in-context performances of these songs would afford, Callaway is still able to convey the emotional complexity of each number just the same. She performs the songs with the skill of a tried-and-true technician and the gravity of a true connoisseur. She is singing from her heart and her mind and her soul.
And so she should, for the greatest American musical theater composer of his generation. To call Sondheim’s music singular would be a disservice to the extraordinarily complex characters and issues he wrote for and from. His work runs the gamut of both form and favor, polarizing even those who count themselves as his biggest fans. But like that old refrain in “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, there is something for everybody in the Sondheim canon. With the introductory chords of each new song, heartbreaking sighs, excited yelps, and knowing mmm’s floated reflexively out of the audience.
“I know this is a city of Sondheim fans,” said Callaway to her assembled crowd, who seemed to nod as one in agreement. Two years after Sondheim’s death and 22 years after the Kennedy Center staged six Sondhiem musicals in its own Sondheim Celebration, Callaway’s performance feels a bit like a long-postponed family-only wake for a beloved icon. But with the advantage of time and reflection on the music and the memories, this meditation on one man’s life and his role in another woman’s is nothing short of celebratory catharsis.
How lucky we were to live in the time of Stephen Sondheim. And Liz Callaway.
Running Time: 75 minutes.
To Steve With Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim played a one-night engagement on January 20, 2024, in the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts Terrace Theater, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC.