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BWW Interview: 'Sweeney Todd' Original Sarah Rice On Her Upcoming Shows At Pangea, Working With Sondheim, and the Zen-Like Theremin

Sarah Rice performing at 54 Below in 2012. Photo: Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.

Name any prominent opera or operetta, and it is likely already listed in soprano Sarah Rice's repertoire. Over her long and illustrious career, she has starred and performed in a myriad of productions all across the map, from Broadway to Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy. Strauss, Salieri, Sondheim--- it's there.

In what is both a typical and atypical introduction to New York and the Great White Way, Rice left college early and booked a one-way plane ticket to the city with little more than a couple of cats. She made her debut quickly and received her Equity card as a replacement in the Original Off-Broadway production of Harold Schmidt and Tom Jones' The Fantasticks playing Luisa, aka the Girl. The verdict: "Acts beautifully, sings even better," according to The Phoenix Gazette.

What happened then--- well, that's the play.

Originating the role of Johanna in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has made Rice a key part of Broadway and musical theatre history, certainly cemented with her Theatre World Award in her performance. God knows she's not shied away from that impact. A regular guest of Feinstein/54 Below's Sondheim Unplugged and Into Sweeney Todd's Woods, she cites Sondheim as "the god of [her] idolatry" (which, same). In fact, she will honor him yet again at this year's Cabaret Convention's Saluting Stephen Sondheim on October 19 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

But make no mistake, Rice is a master of invention and innovation. She is a 2010 Bistro Award winner, a 2011 MAC Award winner for Best Female Vocalist, and a regular performer in the Tri-State area.

Now, in her first solo show since 2013, Rice will debut her new show Music of the Night (borrowing, of course, from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, in which Rice played Christine in the National Tour) at Pangea Restaurant Pangea Restaurant (2nd Avenue between 11th and 12th streets) on August 17, 18, and September 20, all at 7 pm. Alongside pianist Matthew Martin Ward (Eric Sedgwick for the September show) and special guest David Vernon, she will sing and play a set aimed to explain "the things that go through your head at 4:00 AM," covering classical, Celtic, television and movie themes, and musical theatre.

Emphasis on "play." If her voice isn't enough of a selling point, Rice will be playing the theremin, an instrument that has gained notoriety with a little help from science fiction scores and soundtracks. For the uninitiated, a theremin performance is like watching a magic show. It is the only instrument you play without touching; instead, the player moves their hands in the proximity to the theremin's antennas to control volume and pitch. It's haunting and longing and "otherworldly," perfect for those 4:00 AM feelings.

In anticipation of the show, we sat down for a (very) long chat about Sweeney, teatime with Angela Lansbury, the human condition, and learning to control an uncooperative theremin.

This interview has been condensed/edited for length and content.

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AS: I was reading your bio and you've got this very, "If I can make here, I'm gonna make it anywhere" introduction to New York: You came with $100, two cats, and a piano. Tell me about that very theatrical-sounding arrival.

SR: Oh my God. Well, it was. I had won a singing contest for Finney's Musical Theatre and it was for $400. Now, of course, this was, like, 35 years ago, so that seems like a fortune, and they wouldn't give me the money until I left town because they didn't want me to spend it in Arizona and not do anything with it. So it paid for my one-way plane ticket. I had my two kitties with me. I went with my best friend from college and they could only do one cat per cabin. One of them was a Siamese cat and she did not react to the sedative, so she was like a mean drunk. She got to ride in first class and the other one was riding with me under my seat. Well, halfway through the flight--- and it's a night flight--- she's screaming her head off. The stewardess comes to us in the middle of the flight and says, "Excuse me, miss, but your cat has just eaten its way out of its box, has torn a man's coat, and it's running up and down the aisle. Would you please come and get her?" So I had to go and get this screaming Siamese cat and I had to hold her the whole way. That was our flight.

Then when we got here, we got an apartment in Hell's Kitchen we were clearing out for the first two weeks, so it was an adventure. But the rent was $125 a month, split three ways because I had two roommates. We were so poor our first Christmas that we couldn't afford a Christmas tree, so we tied a bunch of branches to a chair. The things I had to bring cross-country were my Christmas lights. For some reason, that's what I felt I needed with me--- and Christmas wrapping paper--- so we straddled the chair with the wired branches on it with the Christmas lights that I had brought, hand-carried from Arizona, and that was our Christmas tree.

Rice and the cast of The Fantasticks. Photo via Rice.

AS: What about the piano, then?

SR: My dad actually sent that a couple months after I got here, but they had to carry it up four flights because it was a fourth-floor walk-up. That was exciting. They got it all the way here and then they couldn't get it up the stairs. It's like, "Okay, look: This has not traveled 3000 miles to not get it up the stairs," so they had to hand carry it and sort of twist it up the stairs. But it's stayed with me. I still have the piano. It was present from my dad so it has family meaning, so it will stay with me forever.

AS: What was your training like musically?

SR: I had grown up doing children's theatre and I sang in choirs. I did a lot of community theatre, and I was in the [Bachelor of Music] program at [Arizona State] University. What was great about Arizona is that there were theatre programs and community theatre where you could go and learn everything: costumes, dancing, singing, acting, all kinds of stuff. Once you do a professional career you're so pigeonholed as to what you are that it's too bad that you don't get that kind of broad experience to really hone stuff. What they used to do is they would have few enough people in each category, but now it's like there aren't enough parts to go around. But back then, I didn't care. I would do the chorus in one show and dance in another and all that. I just wanted to be on stage.

I left very early; I was there a year and a half. I had won the singing contest and my best friend was moving to New York. It was like, "Okay, this contest will pay for that," and I had auditioned for a Marriage of Figaro that they didn't give me even though I knew I had done well. It was political, as many colleges are. So I said, "Okay, I'm going to New York where at least they admit that they're being political," and I left. I just quit the music program and just went.

AS: You said you auditioned for Marriage of Figaro. Were you leaning more towards the opera side, then, or was the plan to just be all-encompassing?

SR: Yeah, I was training for opera. They called it the Music Theatre Program, but it was Music Performance and it was a professional opera program.

AS: I'm pretty sure I lose my theatre geek card if we don't talk about Sweeney Todd and Stephen Sondheim.

SR: (Laughs) Great, I'm happy to talk about it.

AS: You came to New York, did The Fantasticks, and got your equity card. Now, Sondheim and Hal Prince want you in Sweeney Todd at 19 [or] 20 years old. Walk me through a little bit of that experience.

SR: We had five callbacks and they wanted legit singing, and, of course, this was a dream come true. When I was in Arizona, A Little Night Music had come out, Follies, all that kind of stuff, and we would sit around our "campfire," which was the record player, and listen to all these Sondheim shows. I did Company in college, actually.

AS: Who'd you play?

SR: I played Merle Louise's part, Susan, which was so cool, then, years later going to do Sweeney and she was my mother. It was like a little full circle for me. And, of course, I wanted to be Victoria Mallory when I grew up. She was the über Sondheim ingénue.

Anyway, when this came up they wanted legit singing, so I brought every coloratura aria I had, every yodeling-up-to-the-stratosphere kind of thing. It got down to me and one other girl. I found this out years later that half of them wanted her, half of them wanted me, and they were having trouble deciding. So the final callback, I sung "Steal Me, Sweet Thief" from Menotti [from The Old Maid and the Thief], which is a song about a woman saying, "Steal me, thief, because time's flight is stealing my youth..." I was 19 years old singing this. I made Mary Lea Johnson, the producer, cry, and she said, "That's the one you have to hire. That's your Johanna."

Rice performing in Sweeney Todd. Photo via Rice.

The original Christopher Bond play that it's based on, she was really more like a heroine of the whole piece; it was all about Johanna. She was like the plucky heroine kind of thing. Of course, when they did Sweeney, they made it more about Angela [Lansbury] and Len [Cariou] and they kept cutting expositions that explained Johanna, but I had all that information when I was doing the part. So it was trying to decide which daughter are you: Are you Sweeney Todd's daughter or are you Benjamin Barker's daughter? The thing with Hal is he directs in very broad strokes. His big thing is casting and he figures if he's cast you, you're the right thing for that part. So we weren't getting a lot of individual character stuff. It's like he had images that he wanted, but how you get there is your business. It's scary when you're young and you're trying to figure it out. So we were all trying to figure out who these people were and my acting teacher said, "Well, why don't you be the yellow spot in a very gray canvas?" In other words, if you really took it apart, the thing is that until the judge asks her to marry him, she's actually been treated really well in the manner of Victorian women of the day. She never suspected that there was this venal side to him because he kept it hidden. That's when she steals the key; she manages to steal it because she's smart. That was the path. I decided I would be Benjamin Barker's daughter. There's a lot of crazy stuff that happened, but the truth is that it had all that stuff not happened to Benjamin Barker, he would've been the guy that you go get your haircut for 20 years. I think the point that Hal was trying to make is that these were all your every day people that because of injustices go into an extraordinary mode. Three years later, Len was talking about when he first heard the score and he decided--- and I didn't know any of this at the time--- that he based his Sweeney on, "There was a barber and his wife and she was beautiful." That was what he based his character on was that song, which means that it was all about how he loved his wife, he loved his family, he loved his life and all that was taken away from him.

AS: Fundamentally on the relationship.

SR: Yeah, that that was the tragedy. And at the end, when we point our fingers, it's like Sweeney sitting beside you. It wasn't a thing of he's The Boogeyman, it's, "It's you! This could be you." He's the person sitting next to you that cuts your hair. He's the person that you go for your dry cleaning. The revenge was that he was just pushed beyond his limits by the injustice. That's where the tragedy is, is that these were good, decent people and pushed beyond their limits by greed or whatever. It has a lot of resonance for people.

AS: Working with Sondheim and [Paul] Gemignani, what kind of notes did you receive?

SR: Stephen, he's like Mozart. You learn it exactly the way he wrote it because everything has been thought out. It's all there in the music. The dotted notes are there for a reason, that specific word is there for a reason--- you don't mess with them. It's very, very well thought-out and it's all there for you if you just do it. That's Stephen.

And Paul was great. He was married to a soprano, so he was helping me get it into the right key, and if he knew you were in trouble, he'd be there for you. He'd do things in the pit that would just crack you up. It was really a love fest. And working with Angela and seeing how hard she works. Every spare second was drilling lyrics and all of that kind of stuff and she didn't coast on being Angela Lansbury one second. She's got an incredible work ethic, as does Len, and it was such a lesson to see how these people work. I have a theory that the happiness of a company comes from the top down, how the stars treat the cast, and she made sure that everybody was treated and acknowledged. She had bowls of M&Ms in her dressing room for us that you could stop by, and we knew that if the door was closed she needed her private time, but otherwise her dressing room was open to us. My final performance, she had a hen tea at her apartment. She baked scones, she did the whole thing, and then gave me the final bow my last performance. She gave me the star bow, which was just amazing. I've tried to carry that with me whenever I've been the lead in a show. That's really class behavior. To have a chance to see that at such a earlier age was so useful and helpful, that it's like, "Okay, this is what these people at this level do." I was very grateful for that, just to see what that kind of behavior is.

AS: How long were you in the production for?

SR: I think I was six weeks short of a year. They let me out of my contract a little early because I got a chance to go sing Daughter of the Regiment and my manager at the time said, "If you're serious about an opera career, you need to go do this." So that's what I did.

Rice as Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Photo via Rice.

AS: I think it's fair you went from Sweeney immediately into opera. It's very Verdi with Gilda dying in Rigoletto's arms.

SR: Exactly! That's what I thought from the start: "This is just like Rigoletto! I'm home!" (Laughs) And it really is Rigoletto, about how your revenge gets in your own way. You kill what you love the best when you're blinded by revenge. In fact, we used to say, "You always eat the one you love."

AS: (Laughs) Certainly fitting for Sweeney.

SR: No show that I've done since was anything like that. It's just interesting how Sweeney has changed in the public's acceptance of it because when the reviews first came out, the reviewers said it was cold, it's harsh, and, of course, growing up in opera it's like, "Well, this is business as usual." And nobody knew! We didn't know if it was going to be Springtime for Hitler [from Mel Brooks' The Producers] (laughter). I'm serious! People didn't know what to make of it, and the blue-haired ladies would come and their mouths would be open. The expressions on their faces like it was Springtime for Hitler. It wasn't singing and dancing careens with legs up to the roof, so it was a very different thing for musical theatre people at the time. And the fact that the orchestra was like an acting partner, that it really is a character in the show. It's so expressive of everything.

AS: Just that intro into "The Worst Pies in London" alone is---

SR: Amazing. And when he touches the razor for the first time after 15 years in "My Friends," there's a blood rush in the orchestra of the little chimes and it's like such an amazing moment to me. Paul said, "Oh my God, Stephen made the love song of the show Sweeney's song to his razors." That's the most romantic song in the whole show, is the song to the razors. They're in his hand for the first time in years and you just feel his excitement in there. It's just so brilliant.

AS: You do Sondheim Unplugged, you've done Into Sweeney Todd's Woods, you're doing the Cabaret Convention this year saluting Stephen Sondheim... On paper it definitely seems like you've got a bit of a soft spot for him, judging by how often you've performed his works.

SR: Oh my God, both he and Hal were like the gods of my idolatry and to actually get to work with them was truly a dream come true. That and Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Getting to do The Fantasticks was also a dream come true. That's the whole thing about coming to New York, is you get to know these people for real. To get to do their works is fabulous.

AS: I think my favorite part of that working relationship is he released a collection in 2008, Stephen Sondheim: The Story So Far, and had included your version of "Green Finch and Linnet Bird."

SR: Yeah, that meant so much to me. (Laughs) The first time I was off-book in rehearsal, it's 10 o'clock in the morning and this girl don't do mornings. I'm on diva time and I don't even have a meal until noon. Ten o'clock in the morning, I'm up on the damn platform off-book for the first time doing "Green Finch" and I sang, "How can you refrain staring at the rain?" instead of "How can you remain staring at the rain?" because I couldn't think of the word so I did something that kind of sounded like it. Sondheim came back and said, "If you knew what you were singing about, you wouldn't have made that mistake!" Of course, that stuff stays with you forever, right? He's just a real stickler for those lyrics. He's very exacting, so for him to choose my "Green Finch" was an incredible validation of what I tried to do with it because I always felt that "Green Finch" was her moment of realizing, "Holy shit, I'm like a bird in the cage." Everything had kind of been okay until it's like, "Oh my God, wait a minute. I'm trapped as they are." The fact that he chose that out of all these beautiful singers that have just sung it so beautifully, that meant a lot to me, that he liked my version. Just a nice little validation, because at the time you're just doing the show. You don't have any historical perspective, you're just trying to figure out who these people are, how they relate to one another, and everything else. It's only after the fact.

AS: Let's talk about these shows coming up next week and in September at Pangea. I had kind of an expectation in my head of what to expect from your show until I read the press release; I was not expecting a theremin. How did you get interested and involved in playing?

SR: I had stopped singing for a while. I had a death in the family and it hit me very, very hard and I couldn't sing for a while. I was getting back and I was doing a concert called The Other Side of Broadway, which was musical theatre composers writing their classical stuff. We were rehearsing at Tom O'Horgan's house, and he collected musical instruments. People sent them from all of the world and his loft was just filled with all these odd musical instruments. He had an original RCA theremin from the '20s that worked and he let us play it because he loved it when people wanted to play the instruments, and it was the most amazing sound I had ever heard in my life. The RCAs are like a cross between a cello and a woman singing, depending on where you are in the range. Down low, it sounds like a cello and as you get up higher then it mixes and it becomes like a woman singing. It's just incredible and I was so hooked by it and it was like, "This is the most amazing sound I have ever heard." Then you don't think much about it for years and then I just sort of hearing Clara Rockmore recordings and it was like, "I've got to do this." I was enthralled with it, so I started learning how to do it and how to play it as a classical instrument.

AS: How long ago did you start playing it actively?

SR: This has been about three and a half years now. It takes two years of daily practice before you don't suck. It's like a kid with a violin. You're playing electromagnetic airwaves, so there's no frame of reference other than just the antenna. You're playing the air; it's the only instrument that you play without touching. A friend of mine says that it's like trying to have sex with a ghost (laughs). I like to say it's like trying to play a cat. It totally responds to everything that you are. Your body becomes part of the instrument.

Rice performs in Sondheim Unplugged at 54 Below. Photo: Stephen Sorokoff

AS: I was going to say it's a very intimate instrument.

SR: Mm-hmm (agreement). I like to say it's very spiritual. It's a challenge. You're tuning to the width of your own hand, so you learn where a third is, you learn where a fifth is, and you learn where an octave is, and seconds and minors and minor thirds and all that kind of stuff, and so that's kind of your anchor, but then you have to be completely still because if you even breathe it changes the pitch. That's why it takes two years of daily practice to not suck, just learning to control it. When I first was doing this it would make like these little strange animal yelps. If you're playing right handed, your left hand controls the volume and the articulation and your right hand is doing the notes, so it's like you have to control it to quiet it down. That's why I try to do as many live performances as possible, is because it's the only way that you battle-harden yourself to everything that could possibly go wrong. It's all a learning thing of, "Okay, so this is going wrong. How do you prevent that? How do you solve that on the fly?"

AS: Sure. You can be so good at home, but playing in public or singing in public is an entirely different beast. There's no a comparison.

SR: Oh, totally! How do you ride the adrenaline, which is a thing for all performers, whether you're singing or playing a musical instrument and it's something that you learn to control over time. As a singer, it's been interesting to control the theremin because it's is so sensitive to everything that you do. If your hand is shaking from the adrenaline, you start to sound like a really bad church soprano. I figure the only way around it is through it. You just have to keep doing as much public performing as possible so that you learn how to control it.

The thing is, is that when I'm by myself and I'm just playing, there's something kind of Zen about it. I'm not worrying about intonation, I'm not worrying about being perfect. I'm just trying to get into the music. There's just something really fabulous about it. It's saved my life in a way, just to have that kind of place to inhabit musically.

AS: It's meditation.

SR: Yeah, it's like meditation. Live performing is a whole different thing because you're trying to circumvent all these issues (laughs), but when it's just sitting there and just go and play, there's just something wonderful. It's simply very spiritual, it really is. To me, the perfect spiritual pieces are like Mozart. Everything just kind of goes into sync and it's like, "For this moment, the world is okay." So hopefully that will translate to this performance (laughs). I have a little tribute to Marnie Nixon and a little bit of a tribute to Dana Lorge. She was the sort of the seamwork of the cabaret community and we lost both of them fairly recently, so I have a tribute to them in there. There will be a little classical, and, this being Pangea, they wanted something a little edgier, so I've got a little soundtrack/movie theme/television theme stuff in there, and some comedy. I try to have a lot of pathos, of moving people, of touching them. Whoopi Goldberg was great at this. She would set them up laughing and then come in for the emotional kill of where she'd just open them up and devastate them. This has a little bit of everything. There's a little Ravel, there's a little Offenbach, there's a little Celtic, a little Fauré. And, of course, there's Sondheim in there---

AS: Of course (laughs).

SR: (Laughs) Couldn't do a show without a little Sondheim! It's very eclectic, which I tend to do. Marnie and I used to talk about one of our dreams was to start an art song cabaret where you bring art songs into a cabaret setting, which is very intimate and communicative, and just explore what they're about in that kind of setting. This is the first solo show on theremin in New York City that I've done, and I'm hoping that people will get to see that the theremin can be very beautiful and haunting.

AS: You're going to be performing with David Vernon on a duet or two. How did that collaboration come about?

SR: David and I have sung together for years. He's an international recording artist and one of the most beautiful voices around. We love to sing together, and he's graciously agreed to come and just be part of it.

AS: Between his voice and the sound of the theremin, you've really got that haunting, longing theme kind of down pat.

SR: Right, and he's kind of otherworldly. We call him the space alien, which he loves. He's his own thing and it's so beautiful.

AS: You were talking about how eclectic your shows usually are and just looking at your repertoire over the years, you've covered everything imaginable from Mozart and Salieri, to Strauss, to Sondheim and Webber. How do you condense to put together a show like this?

SR: It's all expression of the human condition, whether it's an art song, whether it's a symphony. One of the quotes that I like to use in my shows is that the Greek's considered astronomy the mapping of the outer universe and music as the mapping of the inner universe, and it's so true. When my dad had died, I was young--- it was before Sweeney--- so many of friends didn't know what to say or do because nobody had lost their parents yet, so it was trying to find a way to express that. Then I heard the Strauss Death and Transfiguration and I had to run out of the room the first time I heard it because it just expressed it so deeply of that experience. I think all music, if you really express what it's about, is a shorthand to everybody's emotional soul. It doesn't matter if it's rap, it doesn't matter if it's whatever. It's all different flavors of expressing the human condition. People will hear classical music and say, "I always thought it was so stuffy, but you make it so emotionally accessible," and that, to me, is music to my ears when people say that. By not overloading a program with it, you get to experience it in a different way. It sets everything off like a little jewel as opposed to the whole big ol' meatloaf sandwich (laughs). That's why I like to do these kinds of eclectic evenings and not do too much weird shit.

Rice after winning the Mac Award for Best Female Vocalist in 2011.
Photo: Genevieve Rafter Keddy

AS: Well, some might argue that the theremin is weird shit.

SR: Yeah, that's redundant, right? There are thereminists that just do "spooky woo-woo"--- that's what we call the music that's the strange sounds. It's fun to hear that kind of stuff, too. Would I want a whole program of it? No. A lot of people don't know what a theremin is past science fiction films and "spooky woo-woos." But what's interesting is a lot of young thereminists today are experimenting with it in ways. They're taking it into all different kinds of categories and using it as a classical musical instrument and new compositions and all kinds of stuff. It's cool. Young people really take to it.

AS: Sure. A lot of times there's that sense of recognition in movie or video game scores and people don't know what the instrument is, and then they see it and hear it and see how it's played, like, "Oh, that's that thing."

SR: "That's that thing," right (laughs). And people think they know it from the Star Trek theme and from "Good Vibrations," but actually "Good Vibrations" was a Tannerin, which is a keyboard with a ring so that you can play it easier. Even Brian Wilson called it a theremin and it wasn't. And then, Star Trek was originally a woman singing, but then they discovered that they were going to have to pay her royalty because she was a soloist. So what they did is they went and mixed like a clarinet, an oboe, and something else together and then mixed it all together. Marnie Nixon told me a story that she dubbed as a theremin for a science fiction movie in the '50s because it was hard to find a player. It's a cool instrument, and what's fun is exploring how to be expressive with it. At least with a violin you can bite into the strings by bowing, and this, you don't have that.

AS: I think it's a great fit in a show where you're singing songs about what you think about at 4:00 AM.

SR: I'm hoping people will like it. It's a little different than what I did in Provincetown [at CabaretFest in early June of this year]. The core show is the same, but in Provincetown, I was trying to do more American Songbook. This one, being a New York audience, they can go a little edgier and a little out of the box a little bit. I've taken out the Irving Berlin and have been putting in Offenbach and Midsomer Murders and that kind of stuff. It's a little this, a little that. We like to say it's like the New York weather: If you don't like it, wait five minutes and it'll change.

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Sarah Rice will perform Music of the Night at Pangea Restaurant (2nd Avenue between 11th and 12th streets) on August 17, 18, and September 20, all at 7 pm.

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