The Tony-Winning Actress stars in the world premiere of a symphonic Sondheim on Sondheim with Boston Pops
Two years ago when Ruthie Ann Miles took home the Tony Award for her performance as Lady Thiang in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of The King and I, she became only the second actress of Asian descent to win a Tony.
If her performance in The King and I put her on the map, it was her Theatre World Award-winning turn in Fatboy Slim and David Byrne’s Here Lies Love that first put her on our radar. And just last month, she wrapped up performances in the much-loved (and totally sold-out) revival of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George with Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal.
It is all the more exciting, then, that this rising star should spend two evenings in Boston with the Boston Pops in the world premiere of the symphonic version of Sondheim on Sondheim. There are few things in life as fulfilling as hearing Sondheim’s music performed by a live orchestra, which makes Sondheim on Sondheim the must-see musical and theatrical event of the spring.
You recently wrapped up the much-lauded revival of Sunday in the Park with George. Was that experience every bit as remarkable as it seemed?
Thank you for saying so! It really was for me. I had the pleasure of being part of it at both NY City Center and its Broadway transfer at the newly reopened, historic Hudson Theatre, so I had the honor of playing with both casts. Sarna Lapine directed both productions, and I must say that I particularly loved figuring out Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine’s jigsaw from her intelligent, thought-provoking perspective. She helped me understand the brilliantly intricate show in a simple, streamlined way, which, in my opinion,made it newly relevant for our audiences and for me. Certainly we had incomparable talents (Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford) as our lead storytellers, and I personally had a marvelous, emotional time; still, very much credit for our show’s success goes to our creative team.
Was there any disappointment among the cast or creative team over the producers deciding not to submit the show for Tony Award consideration?
Our producers and managers at Sunday were forthcoming with why we weren’t submitting for awards season, and I thought it was admirable and quite refreshing. This meant we were given the opportunity to tell a story without the pressure of racing toward a prize. We were given the gift of telling Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine’s masterful story without thinking about who was a voter in the audience. I can’t say if there wasn’t disappointment, but I do know that regardless of who wasn’t in the audience,with particular praise in this matter to Jake and Annaleigh, everyone gave of themselves fully and shared performances I think we were really proud of. I do wish it ran longer, though.
Speaking of Tony Awards, you won your first just two years ago. Congratulations! How has that award, if at all, changed the kinds of projects that are offered to you, or the way that you audition?
Thank you. Fortunately, life post-Tony hasn’t been easy. It has been challenging, meaning I get to challenge myself to strengthen a different set of muscles that I might not have otherwise. Let me explain. AsI am relatively new to the scene, and certainly new to the Broadway stages, I must start by saying I recognize I have very much to learn, particularly when auditioning and approaching new material. I had only performed in a handful of shows until my first principle role in Here Lies Love at the Public Theater, the show before I made my Broadway debut in The King And I at Lincoln Center Theater. In both these shows I portrayed two very powerful, intelligent, focused women, so unsurprisingly I have since been asked to audition for these kinds of women. But in auditions I am often shy as I stumble for words, my nerves get the better of my preparation, my focus wanders to caring more about them than about the story … not at all seeming powerful or confident! God bless my directors! For better or worse it is never easy to be suddenly looked upon under a different lens, expectation, or in my case, spotlight, but the challenge has been accepted! I mean I get to learn how to channel my energy in a different way and play pretend at being a stronger,smarter, sometimes sexier version of myself. It has been a challenge but it has been good for me. Like I said, challenge accepted. It’s been fun, but it’s gonna get funner.
Sondheim on Sondheim is such a special piece because we get to hear directly from Sondheim himself. What is your favorite tidbit of musical theater lore that he discusses?
He briefly talks about it toward the end of the show. He says, “Art is the other way of having children—teaching.”Every time I hear this I pause. And if I could ever string my words together whenever I’m around him, I’d love to tell Mr. Sondheim what his art has taught me, tremendously, deeply. It has helped me see the world from a myriad of different perspectives, to be creative and to do, to mind my manners and be careful my words, to be bold … The list goes on and on, all of which help me be a better wife and friend, guide me through song as a first-time mom, reminding me to cherish love and wit, and of course teaching me to read and understand music better as he has written some of musical theater’s most difficult melodies and patterns, which I love, love, love, to sing. I have,indeed, been carefully taught by his children, his art.
Sarna Lapine, who just directed you in Sunday, is at the helm of this concert. Her uncle, James, is a longtime collaborator of Sondheim’s, so it would seem that some of this is in her blood. What makes Sarna the ideal person to direct this?
From what I understand, Sunday may have been Sarna’s first sit-down show when she was just this-many years old. In addition to naturally deepening her personal relationships with Mr.Sondheim and Mr. Lapine, I imagine that over the years she has also absorbed both their combined and individual works like a sponge. Plus she has their ears(and they probably text using emojis). This [puts] her in a unique, insightful position to translate this show for us. Plus she’s really badass. Can I say that?
What is your favorite Sondheim lyric, and why?
This is an impossible question; how dare you,Christopher. Next!
What can we look forward to you performing in this? Dare I wish for “Losing My Mind/Not a Day Goes By” with Carmen Cusack?
Well, if Carmen has already broke, I will, too. Yes! I get to sing these, some of Mr. Sondheim’s most heart-wrenching lyrics, as a duet with Carmen Cusack. Can somebody pinch me already? Someone once advised that to not cry through a song you must sing it 50 times. This is a lie.
SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM. THU 6.15–FRI 6.16 AT SYMPHONY HALL, 301 MASS. AVE., BOSTON. BSO.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.