Music for dreamers and strugglers: Eric McCormack, Cynthia Dale and more take on Sondheim’s ‘A Little Night Music’

Talk to me about Stephen Sondheim and our conversation could last for hours. I’ve long been fascinated by his preternatural melodies and incisive lyrics, and how they’ve shaped the modern American musical.

I could try to explain Sondheim’s unmatched genius or why his works remain so enduringly popular, but Cynthia Dale already said it best: His shows are “full of the wrinkles of life,” observed the Canadian television and stage performer. “If you’re at all a flawed individual or the kind of person who strives or dreams or struggles, then you recognize all of that in his music.”

The “Street Legal” actor is no stranger to Sondheim’s work. She’s appeared in everything from the showbiz-centred “Follies” to the Tony-winning “Passion”; her recent solo show “Take the Moment” even featured songs from the composer-lyricist’s expansive catalogue.

From Friday to Sunday, Dale will headline a concert production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” joining a company that includes “Will & Grace’s” Eric McCormack and Stratford Festival favourite Dan Chameroy.

It’s been 18 months since Sondheim died in 2021, at age 91. With this star-studded cast set to take on one of the musical mastermind’s most iconic shows — on the 50th anniversary of its original Broadway bow, no less — I was eager to catch up with some of the actors to discuss Sondheim’s legacy and his impact on their careers.

For McCormack, Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” was one of his first loves. The musical, about a vengeful barber who teams up with a baker downstairs to turn his clients into meat pies, “truly captivated” him as a teenager, he said.

And though he never saw the show’s original Broadway production, McCormack knew the score backwards by listening to the cast recording. He later auditioned for, and was accepted to a theatre program after high school, by singing “Johanna” from the musical.

“So that began my relationship with Sondheim,” said McCormack, speaking before the start of rehearsals. “It’s the most sophisticated stuff that we get a chance to do in the musical theatre.”

McCormack recalled meeting Sondheim years later, when the actor was invited to perform at a Hollywood Bowl concert in 2005 celebrating the American composer’s 75th birthday.

It was a rehearsal, McCormack said, and up onstage were Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, stars in the original cast of “Sweeney Todd.” They were running the show’s pun-filled, first-act finale, “A Little Priest.”

“I walked to the very back of the Hollywood Bowl, to soak that in: the two of them doing their original song,” he said. “And then I could see, walking up the stairs, somebody else who clearly had the same idea. And as he got closer, I realized that it was Stephen.

“He sat down on the other side of the aisle and all I said was, ‘Hi, hi Steve.’ And he said, ‘Oh, hi, Eric.’ And that was it,” McCormack continued. “We sat there and I just couldn’t quite fathom that I was watching the original Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett while Stephen was sitting across the aisle from me.”

At its essence, Sondheim’s work is nothing more than notes and words on a page. But the way he arranges those elements, injecting such complexity and originality — yet never compromising substance for style — has pushed the form forward more than any other writer since Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Throughout his nearly seven-decade career, Sondheim received seven competitive Tony Awards for works such as “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods” and “Company.”

His 1973 musical “A Little Night Music,” with book writer Hugh Wheeler, is arguably Sondheim’s most mature piece. Written almost entirely in the waltzlike, three-quarter time signature, and considered by some as a light opera instead of a traditional musical, it wistfully explores complex themes of desire and regret.

Based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” the musical follows the web of relationships among various couples in Sweden at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition to featuring one of Sondheim’s most famous songs, “Send in the Clowns,” the musical boasts some of the writer’s best lyrics. (Internal rhymes don’t get much better than this: “The hip-bath … About that hip-bath … How can you slip and trip into a hip-bath?”)

“He has a lot of words, they rarely repeat exactly the same way, but his melodies are always different,” said Chameroy, who plays the philandering Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and sings that ingenious lyric. “When you get on the Sondheim train, there’s no way off.”

With less than a week to the first performance, I was invited to observe a rehearsal of “A Little Night Music” during the Victoria Day long weekend.

Staging any theatrical production is a daunting task, but putting on a Sondheim musical, with all of its often hidden intricacies, requires a Herculean effort. All the more so when you have less than two weeks of full rehearsal, as was the case for director Richard Ouzounian (former Toronto Star theatre critic) and his team.

At the rehearsal I attended, the scene was one of controlled chaos, though the mood remained light and playful. In the centre of the room, McCormack and Dale talked through their entrances and exits for a scene; in one corner, four performers worked on correctly timing their dialogue with orchestrator Jonathan Tunick’s underscoring; elsewhere, actors Tess Benger and Edmond Clark were cleaning up a lift.

“If you think it’s easy, then you’re just not doing the work right,” said Dale of Sondheim’s material.

She plays Desiree Armfeldt, a once-successful actor who no longer leads “the glamorous life.” Desiree is torn between Chameroy’s Count Malcolm and her former lover, Fredrik Egerman, played by McCormack.

But as challenging as the material is, Chameroy also said it’s incredibly rewarding to explore the various layers of Sondheim’s work.

“As I get older and I look back at the lyrics, my relationship with the material as an audience member and an actor is much deeper,” he reflected. “It’s beautiful to sort of come to this material and investigate it once again years later and see life through a different lens.”

That quality of Sondheim’s work — its paradoxical universality and specificity — is likely why it has continued to be produced over and over again. This Broadway season alone has brought revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods,” while next season will see a production of “Merrily We Roll Along” with Daniel Radcliffe.

Sadie Laflamme-Snow, who plays Fredrik’s young wife, Anne Egerman, said she believes it’s Sondheim’s subtle topicality that makes his work feel so resonant, no matter when or where it plays.

“Some of the things that are happening in the world right now are so dark and it would be really hard to address them head on in musical theatre,” she said. “But there’s something about a lot of Sondheim’s work and its ability to touch on the profound or the darkness in the world without being too in your face.

“And what I think audiences are craving are these profound themes about humanity and people and society.”

The Royal Conservatory of Music’s concert production of “A Little Night Music” runs at Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W., from Friday to Sunday. See for tickets.


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