Singing the Sublime with Melissa Errico

A musical meditation from Melissa Errico, who finds light and wisdom in the Sondheim songbook.
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Being an actor is a hard life, and a strange life. But those of us who are musical theater actors cannot imagine our lives, cannot imagine the experience of being an actor at all, without the influence of Stephen Sondheim. I’m blessed to have just completed the passion project of my life—made more passionate by my having once appeared in his great musical play Passion—and that’s a recording of Sondheim’s sublime songs.

Why “sublime”? Well, by sublime I mean what the poet Wordsworth meant by it:

Sublime.
That blessed mood
In which the burden of the mystery,
In which the heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened.

I began thinking of recording a Sondheim album at a mysteriously unintelligible moment in my own life. I was juggling three daughters, a marriage, a career, aging parents and all the rush and worries of maturity. The need to unburden my world and make it intelligible again led me directly to Sondheim. He lightens us not by false distractions but by real wisdoms. He writes truths for us to live by: “It’s not so much do as you like/As it is that you like what you do” and “Careful the tale you tell/ That is the spell/ Children will listen.” Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the musicals Hamilton and In The Heights, in his first Tony Award acceptance speech, proudly announced “Mr. Sondheim! Look, I made a hat! Where there never was a hat! It’s a Latin hat, at that!”

A recording is a chance to capture a passion and its contradictions, to preserve the intimacy of connecting to music. When a singer meditates and sings, live on stage, it’s an act designed to happen and be gone in an instant. How do you capture a musical meditation? You search for a theme—and a central theme in all of Sondheim’s work is light. (I sometimes tell my singing students that “light” is the key word in Sondheim, the way “love” is in Sinatra.)

Light! And I don’t mean the spotlight of the theater, that “look at me” light of center stage. I mean the light of experience honestly observed, the light that happens when a window long shut comes open, the light that lets us see the world as it is. “Understand the light/Concentrate on now.” The power of now—that’s Sondheim’s light.

In my new album, I wanted to shine my own light on Sondheim’s, light on light—Sondheim can provide us actors with plenty of pizzazz, but that wasn’t the light I hoped to cast. I wanted to let my own experience as a woman shine over his experience as a man.

His work may seem super-cool and super-smart, but just beneath the shimmering surface is a deep river of empathy—the incomparable richness of his music approaches a spiritual level for me, a sanctity, a call to care for other human beings, to share in jubilation with people we love, to love, to touch, to vote, to marry, to empathize with struggles and most of all, to move forward. To move on.

Now that the music’s done and out in the world, I hope it leads others down that river, a river where the water is sometimes incredibly clear and lucid, and other times beautifully, complexly muddy. As performers, all we do is to try to cast our own light so that another artist’s work can be seen—the way the light touches the water. Then comes the next mystery.

Errico’s album Melissa Errico: Sondheim Sublime comes out November 2 on Ghostlight Records/Warner Music.