Broadway actor and singer Bruce Sabath, who just before COVID-19 wrapped up a long run playing Lazar Wolf and then Tevye in the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s acclaimed Yiddish-language production of Fiddler on the Roof, says there have been two major throughlines to his artistic life: Tevye and Stephen Sondheim, who died on November 26 at the age of 91. While the Tevye plotline has been front and center lately as he performs his one-man show, Searching for Tevye, at New York’s Don’t Tell Mama cabaret, Sabath was moved by Sondheim’s death last week to reminisce about performing Sondheim’s work—he’s played roles in Follies, Company and Merrily We Roll Along, as well as the long-running revue Sondheim Unplugged—and about a key moment of affirmation Sondheim gave him at a time when he needed it most.
Let’s start with the lovely story you posted on Facebook, about Stephen Sondheim saying something to encourage you at a key moment in your career. What happened, and what did that tell you about him?
We were opening a revival on Broadway of Sondheim’s 1970 show Company in fall 2006. I had returned to acting in 1997 after a career in finance. I had done some film, some little TV things, some commercials, some off-off Broadway shows and some regional theater. And then I got the role of Larry in Company in Cincinnati, which was going to be a regional production, but it gained attention because John Doyle, the director, had just won a Tony award for the best director of a musical that year for his Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd. So we got a lot more press and a lot more attendance from producers, who ultimately decided to bring it to New York.
We opened the show in New York on November 29, 2006. And Sondheim, as he often did, invited the entire company to his townhouse over on East 49th Street for a party to celebrate. Cast, crew, directors, orchestra, everybody. It was a beautiful place. I believe he had the townhouse right next to Katharine Hepburn—as the story goes, they shared a wall. The house was filled with games and puzzles. And he had all of these one-of-a-kind antique games, all mixed together with show posters, and in the middle floor somewhere, a grand piano surrounded by yellow legal pads.
And so I’m just chatting with three or four cast members, and Sondheim walks into the room and interrupts the flow of the conversation, and he says, “I’ve been meaning to tell you, Bruce, I absolutely love your voice. It’s just beautiful.” He was just very complimentary, saying it wasn’t the training of my voice, it wasn’t the acting, it was just the tone, the expressiveness of it, that he felt was so well-suited for this material, and he was just so happy that I could be in the show. He said, “I had mentioned it to some other people, but I wanted to let you know directly.” And then he sauntered away. And the three or four of us were looking at each other going, “What the heck?” And one of the guys said, “Well, I guess that really made your day.”
I had been writing daily journals this whole period, and I remember after the party whipping out my notebook and trying to recreate the moment and get the words exactly right, because that’s the kind of conversation that doesn’t happen every day.
Did you take it as affirmation of the choices you had made?
Exactly. This was my Broadway debut. Nine years before, I had left a career in finance and corporate strategy to leap without a net into a career as an actor. And I felt like I was pursuing my passion and that it was the right thing to do, but there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t say, “Am I absolutely nuts? Am I delusional?” And then you debut on Broadway as a principal, and then the next day, Stephen Sondheim tells you that he thinks you have an amazing voice. It helps you think that maybe you weren’t delusional. And then a few days after that, you’re back to thinking it, but you’ve always got that to remember. And that’s a very powerful nourishment when things are tough.
Was that typical of him?
As I heard from various people over the last several days since Sondheim passed away, he had conversations with many artists over the years that were equally inspiring and supportive and encouraging. He grew up with Oscar Hammerstein as a father figure. They were neighbors, and they spent a ton of time together. Sondheim really looked up to Hammerstein, and he has said, “Well, if he had been a plumber then I would’ve wanted to be a plumber, but he was a musical theater composer so I wanted to be a musical theater composer.” And so I think he understood the power of that positive message, sending that to artists. When he felt that it was the right moment, he was very generous with those kinds of messages.
Did you go on to have more interactions with him in your subsequent career?
I did another Sondheim piece with John Doyle a few years after that. We did Merrily We Roll Along in Cincinnati again with a lot of the same cast members. It was a completely revolutionary perspective on a show which has been considered troublesome to perform. And Steve came to Cincinnati, he saw this production, he was brought to tears. He loved it, he absolutely loved it. It wasn’t what he had intended originally, but it was a perspective that brought a whole new freshness to the story. He knew so many of us already from Company, it was like old home week when he came to see us. A couple of times, we’d go out drinking, and he also came to a party at the artistic director’s house. They had done probably every Sondheim show at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park over the years, so Steve felt very at home at that theater, and he just loved the new breath that was breathed into this show from this new production.
What’s that like, hanging out with Stephen Sondheim? Was he expansive? Was he shy?
I think that when he was around a piece of art that he loved, he would get in a really good mood. He loved being with artists whose work he enjoyed. He definitely had a reputation for being prickly, and he could be very critical, but I think that’s when he felt like something’s been missed or something’s gone terribly wrong. But mostly, he was supportive. And in Cincinnati, he seemed to be very upbeat and happy to be there.
From what I know, just from anecdotes about him, he was always thrilled to see new treatments and perspectives on his work, and to see them live fresh lives under the creative direction of different directors and actors and set designers who would come together to create something completely new. And in the same way that he loved our version of Company and it brought him to tears, he also loved the current revival of Company [which reverses the gender of the main character] because by playing with gender roles, it allows you to peel back even more of the onion and see all kinds of new understandings of human relationships. That’s the show he saw on Broadway just a few days before he died.
Not all composers tolerate that kind of thing, right?
A lot of people hold a very strong grip on how their productions are going to be done. The set has to be thus and so and all kinds of things. I’m sure Sondheim had his limits on the kinds of things that he would allow to be done with his works. But he definitely found caretakers whom he trusted, and he would work with them and allow them a lot of freedom.
As a working actor and singer, can you put your finger on what makes a Sondheim song a Sondheim song?
One, he is such a master of language that every word is the perfect word. And like I said, he loved puzzles, and I think writing songs are some of the biggest puzzles. He had absolutely no tolerance for just almost right; everything had to fit perfectly. There are no near-rhymes in any Sondheim songs, they’re always exact rhymes. He was opposed to near-rhymes until he met Lin-Manuel Miranda. And somehow, he learned something new about storytelling with rhyme that he hadn’t appreciated before that, because obviously Lin does a lot of near-rhyming. I think he sort of said, “Okay, if it’s that good, I’m with you.”
Another thing about the choice of words: From a physical point of view, there are no tongue twisters in a Sondheim song. Even if the words are fast, everything flows perfectly off the tongue. I’m thinking of the song “Now” from A Little Night Music: “Now as the sweet imbecilities tumble so lavishly onto her lap.” Every consonant and vowel makes it easy to sing that fast. He’s done this on purpose, for the singer.
Everything is deliberate; the choice of the melody that goes with the song that goes with the story. One of my favorites is from Company, “Marry Me a Little” (which wasn’t in the original Company, it was added in a revival). The melody sounds like it’s a romantic, beautiful, mushy song, but it’s contrasted with the lyrics, which are equivocating: “Marry me a little. Love me just enough. Cry, but not too often. Play, but not too rough.” I find that it’s so funny because the music is flowing so it sounds like this beautiful ballad, but the lyrics show it’s this very careful contract. I just think that’s fantastic. People often mistake the song, they use it at weddings. They’re not listening!
Because of your long involvement with Tevye, your work is also entwined with Jewish heritage. What can you tell us about that side of Sondheim? What did being Jewish mean to him?
I think he was a pretty secular Jew. It was not his first, second or third thought about his identity. He was Jewish, he would never have denied that fact, but that wasn’t what he was focusing on. It’s interesting, because the earlier musical theater writers, Oscar Hammerstein and a number of other composers and story writers, wrote what seem like coded Jewish stories. This has been discussed at length elsewhere, but everyone knows that underneath South Pacific is a story of otherness, about bigotry, about people not accepting other people for the way they look or what they believe. Those are important themes to Rodgers and Hammerstein in South Pacific and in Oklahoma!, and in many other shows too. You could go on and on. I feel like Sondheim’s interest was in human nature in general, or in a more psychological focus on individual relationships, as opposed to trying to sneak in a point about societal wrongs.
He seems to have lived in a world where pretty much everyone was Jewish anyway.
Right. I think he took it for granted.
His music’s not about being gay either, is it?
No. He writes about mostly heterosexual characters and longing and human foibles and faults. I think his interests seem to be more in the one-on-one than in society or the ills of society.
Is there anything Jewish about the music, about the work?
Going through his characters in my head, I’d say he seems to be very Freudian. But there’s Greek tragedy in there too, human tragedies and relationships not working because people are flawed. As opposed to, say, Tony Kushner’s work, which seems very Jewish to me, whether his characters are or not. I don’t think Sondheim ever uses Yiddish. I’d be curious to know if he ever used the word bagel or kugel or bubbe or anything, for a rhyme.
Some of Sondheim’s characters strike me as Jewish, but he never references it. If anywhere, I’m thinking maybe in Follies. I played the character Benjamin Stone in a production of Follies, which is a musical about a group of women who were members of the Ziegfeld Follies in different decades, and they’ve come back for a last reunion because the building is being destroyed. And they represent different decades of Follies girls from 1913 through the present day. The Benjamin Stone character is a financier turned politician, and I feel as if he’s Jewish. When I played the character, I was trying to work out his backstory, and I remember thinking he probably changed his name from Stein to Stone because it was expedient. Or maybe his parents did.
Is there a lot of Sondheim content in the show you’re doing now about your own career, Searching For Tevye?
In the show, I’m singing some Sondheim songs that I learned early on as part of my training, and then of course I’m singing stuff from Company. I didn’t really grow up with Sondheim. I’m from Rochester, New York, where we lived in a Rodgers and Hammerstein kind of world. And so I didn’t really get to know Sondheim until later when I moved to New York, and really not until I started seriously studying performing. It was my singing teacher who really started throwing tons of Sondheim at me as singing and acting exercises. They’re fantastic for that purpose because they’re hard to sing. They force you to really understand what you’re saying, so you have to act them. And so I started getting a crash course in Sondheim and realized, “Wow, this stuff is amazing.” I also started doing a lot of performing with Sondheim Unplugged, a series in New York that has played at various cabarets, where people from Broadway shows and other great vocalists come and sing a series of Sondheim songs from a bunch of different shows, all with commentary by Phil Bond, who created the series. And that also was an education in Sondheim. It became a really important part of my identity in terms of musical theater.
The show is really a chronology of my life as an actor and as a not-actor, growing up as kind of a theater kid, ending that path when I got to college, moving into the finance world and corporate strategy world and then finding it again at age 35. Fiddler On the Roof played a through line through the whole thing because I had been exposed to Fiddler as a little kid, and I sang songs from Fiddler in chorus concerts and I played Tevye in high school and in college. And then it was the goal of what I wanted to do when I became an actor, to play Tevye, which I did eventually get to do in St. Louis, and then in New York in Yiddish just before the pandemic.
Since writing the show, I’ve been thinking about Sondheim a lot. I was intensely writing all summer long, basically, and I was going through it thinking about where was I then? And what was I doing? Trying to remember stories that I had forgotten. It’s been so front of my mind for the last several months. And every year on Sondheim’s birthday, in March, I would always think, “How much longer can we keep him,” you know? And then it happened. And it’s crazy. In a sense, he couldn’t have gone out on more of a high note, with this beautiful production of Company, this amazing production of Assassins that’s happening downtown, and a new movie with what I hear is an amazing interpretation of West Side Story. His name was more front and center than it has been for a very long time, and it’s all good, and maybe he just said, “You know what? Now is the time.” I think he went out with a smile.
Bruce Sabath’s show Searching for Tevye is at Don’t Tell Mama cabaret January 12 and 13.
Top photo: Bruce Sabath