Stephen Then

Reflections on an American legend

Stephen Sondheim is known for working with the same actors time and again: Len Cariou in A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd and Anyone Can Whistle, etc. But only one actor appeared in the original Broadway productions of both Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods. Edmund Lyndeck, who from 1958 through 1962 cut his musical teeth on 48 roles at the Muny, was Sweeney's memorably evil Judge Turpin and Cinderella's Father in Into the Woods. (Before that run was over, he also played the Storyteller and the Mysterious Man.)

"Both shows got unexpected audience reactions," Lyndeck recalls. "When Sweeney began to preview, the first audiences were turned off by the subject matter. At the Wednesday matinees, we would see old ladies going up the aisle leaving the theater. I remember Stephen being very unhappy. He said, 'People are not laughing. Why aren't they laughing?' I said, 'I think it's your fault. You're held in such awe that people are afraid to laugh.' He said, 'No, I mean for parts of it to be funny.' So Angela began to play Mrs. Lovett a little more broadly, and we went for whatever could be considered comedy. That helped. Then after we won eight Tony Awards, audiences became much more receptive. But we were never a big box-office hit.

"Into the Woods was much more of a commercial success, but initially we had a similar problem with the audiences. When people heard that it was going to be about the beloved Grimm fairy tale characters, they brought their children, assuming it was going to be a happy musical. They didn't read carefully enough to know that it was an ironic treatment. So those audiences had to change too. Children continued to be brought throughout the run, but they became better-informed children, and were better prepared by their parents."

Lyndeck has only fond memories of working with Sondheim: "He's very accommodating to actors. In Sweeney he raised the key of one of my songs without my ever asking, simply because he sensed I was uncomfortable. He's also a great one for changing a single word, as he did twice for me -- once in each show. In Into the Woods, he said, 'Ed, I'm going to give you a different word from what you're singing now, but I've got to go home and check my thesaurus.' I said, 'Steve, the world thinks all these words come directly from your head!' He said, 'I couldn't write lyrics without my thesaurus and The Oxford Book of English Verse.'"