Remembering the Great Stephen Sondheim Through the Lens of a Cellist

Cellist Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf reflects on the music and artistry of composer Stephen Sondheim.

By Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine

The first time I met Mr. Sondheim, I did not recognize him. I was packing up my cello at New York City’s Minetta Lane Theatre after playing in the orchestra for the musical The Last Five Years, when he came backstage hoping to greet the composer, Jason Robert Brown. All guests were supposed to wait in the lobby, and luckily something stopped me from asking him to leave the area. I instead suggested I let Jason know who was waiting, and to this, he stepped forward and beamed, “Stephen Sondheim. A pleasure to meet you!”

Only a year had passed since I had had the lightbulb moment of knowing I wanted to play musicals. My professional world had been almost entirely classical, and at home, my tastes leaned toward Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. Born in Scotland, I’d come to the United States as a graduate student and was midway through a doctorate, caught up in the worries of comp exams, dissertations, and lecture recitals. Broadway—or in this case, off-Broadway—was still very new to me, and it did not cross my mind that the man in front of me was its greatest living composer. In hindsight, I think he was delighted not to be recognized, as I learned he could be uncomfortable with the constant attention and requests for photographs.

In the 20 years since that embarrassing introduction, I have had the good fortune to hold chairs in two of Sondheim’s Broadway revivals—Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music—and have played in the off-Broadway production of Passion at Classic Stage Company and the revue Opening Doors at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. I have also enjoyed beautiful onstage collaborations with noted Sondheim interpreters Christine Ebersole, Maria Friedman, John Pizzarelli, and others. To have discovered Sondheim’s music through playing it, often in his presence, has been one of the great privileges of my career.

Like many, I initially found much of his work challenging. His harmonies are complex, and the songs tend not to follow a standard pattern. Over time I connected with his more Romantic repertoire, perhaps based on the shows I had the opportunity to play. Our production of Sunday in the Park with George at Studio 54, with a reduced orchestra of only five musicians, felt similar to playing Brahms chamber music every night. Given there is no orchestra pit at Studio 54, the band was seated in the audience boxes, so I also had the opportunity to watch the stage.


The show is an ode to art and love, centering on pointillist painter Georges Seurat as he captures his mistress, Dot, and other Parisiennes enjoying a Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte. I have never found playing eight shows a week challenging: the emotions and energy communicated between the stage and the audience are genuine, and there is always something to tap into. As the weeks went by, I found each show more satisfying to play as I simultaneously fell in love with the story. I know I’m not alone when I say it is my favorite musical.

Bernadette Peters’ version of “Later” from A Little Night Music

Perhaps the most famous theater song featuring the cello is “Later,” from A Little Night Music. Part of a trio of songs “Now/Later/Soon,” “Later” features the immature and lovelorn Henrik expressing his romantic frustrations as he practices his cello. The role requires the actor to sing and play, or mime playing, simultaneously. For the revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre, in addition to being in the orchestra, my job was to coach the lead actor and his understudies—given none were cellists—to convincingly look like they were playing. At the same time, I watched on camera and played along. (The easiest and most believable trick was for the actor to use a bow with no rosin).

Night Music ran for a year on Broadway, and this time, as the weeks went by, I was struck by the mathematical complexity of the score, which famously comprises only time signatures divisible by three (3/4, 6/8, etc.), mirroring the trios of emotional entanglements onstage. During the run, Mr. Sondheim invited the company to his home, where I had the opportunity to admire his renowned collection of puzzles. We had a brief conversation as I took in a particularly intricate painting, and I told him how much I enjoyed discovering as many of the musical puzzles in the show as I could.

The notoriously complicated “Liaisons,”  a song with three different key signatures, three verses, three choruses, and additional bridge sections, is known to be a challenge for even the most seasoned performer. When Elaine Stritch took over the role of the elderly dowager, Madame Armfeldt, I enjoyed documenting her entertaining variations to the lyrics, and the song became lovingly referred to as “Elainsons.” 


Elaine’s music director, Rob Bowman, had also joined the production, and as a Christmas gift to him from the band, I organized for the recently published book Finishing the Hat to be signed by Mr. Sondheim. I had started knitting during the run; the band was hidden backstage, and with the long stretches of dialogue and the fact we were invisible, it proved to be an ideal way to stay occupied while still focused on the show. I decided to knit Mr. Sondheim a hat, using the most expensive yarn I could find, as a thank you for signing the book. His response—where he admitted never having had a knitted hat before and that he planned to take it with him for a romp in the snow—is framed in my office, between the two personalized puzzles he presented to every Broadway company on opening night. 

Besides the cello part in “Later,” my role in a musical theater song is usually fluid. I can play the same Sondheim song in a Broadway theater, with a singer on a cabaret stage, or on a symphony concert platform and see different notes on the page each time, as an arranger or orchestrator will have reimagined the song to fit the scope of the event. I asked Michael Starobin, orchestrator of the original productions of Sunday in the Park with George and Assassins, to outline the process as it pertained to Sondheim’s shows: 

“Stephen presented his orchestrator (primarily Jonathan Tunick and occasionally myself) with a fully notated piano-vocal score to the song. However, his piano parts were composed for piano accompaniment, not as orchestral sketches. Though occasionally material spilled onto a third staff, there was no instrumentation indicated. His orchestrator derived the primary harmonic and rhythmic content from these piano parts. 


“In the service of theatricality, his orchestrators would add orchestral content that stayed true to his compositional conception, and more importantly, stayed true to his dramatic intent. He welcomed this collaboration with the understanding that to fully make use of the orchestra and its greater palette of color and polyphony, additional material would need to develop from his pianistic conception. He welcomed the collaboration of an orchestrator who was sensitive to the musical, lyrical, and dramatic intent of his song.”

Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf plays a cello-piano version of “Send in the Clowns”

A few years ago, I started creating my own arrangements, eventually leading to my debut album, Music of Broadway for Cello and Piano (Craft Recordings/Concord Theatricals), released this past September. I also commissioned several charts for the album and was grateful pianist Billy Stritch agreed to help create a cello-piano version of “Send in the Clowns.” In studying the score, I noticed an unfamiliar harmony note, and after receiving conflicting opinions from several music directors, I emailed Mr. Sondheim requesting clarification. He quickly responded, “The note is correct. Thanks for asking.” When I followed up with the first edit of the track, he praised the recording but asked that a melodic eighth note be removed: “My only cavil is that there shouldn’t be an upbeat in the melody line in the first of the last three phrases in the cello (i.e., the “but” on “But where are the clowns?”). With the lyric, it’s effective; without the lyric it becomes rhythmically repetitious.” It was impossible to remove the offending note, given it was already recorded in every take, but it provided an important reminder that his melodies and lyrics served each other. When the album was released, he again sent a very kind message without mention of the extra note.

When Follies was revived on Broadway a few years ago, I took my husband to see the show. A saxophonist and woodwind doubler, he is also a huge Sondheim fan. As I got swept up in the lush score and powerful onstage performances, I had the thrill of recognizing the creator was likely enjoying a quiet night at home a few blocks away. That feeling—that we were enjoying Beethoven symphonies in Beethoven’s company—was pervasive throughout the Broadway community, and Sondheim’s seemingly sudden passing in late November led to a shockwave of grief. The internet became awash with letters he had written to musical-theater writers, performers, and even children: people who had plucked up the courage to write to him and were likely stunned, as I was each time, to receive a response. I will always be grateful to have been one of the beneficiaries of the care he took to support and encourage anyone with a love of musical theater.