Meryl, how did they tell you that you were going to be rapping in this movie and what was it like preparing for your big rap scene?
STREEP: I haven’t really done my real rap scene yet. [Laughs] I’m saving that up. I don’t wanna show you everything. But, yeah. I don’t know. When Steve wrote that, was he aware that he was – did they even call it a rap then?
DELUCA: It was 1987 and I think they did. I think he always called it “The Witch’s Rap.”
STREEP: Yeah, but who were his influences? [Laughs] Ice Cube or where are we now? In ’87? Who would it have been in ’87? Who would have been? Run DMC! Okay. Well, we’ll have to ask Steve. He’s not here today, but …
Meryl, I think one of The Witch’s defining moments is when she sings “Stay With Me” and then kicks Rapunzel out. What is more important to The Witch, Rapunzel or being right?
STREEP: That’s a very good question. I think she would say Rapunzel, but probably being right. I mean, the two things are conflated, I think, in the parental mind. You can get them mixed up because being right means protecting her. She also mistakes, you know. She makes a mistake a lot of women make, which is that if they look beautiful, they’re lovable. Their husband, their children, I mean, she thinks that Rapunzel won’t be ashamed of her if she gets this potion. You know, we all make that mistake thinking that how you look makes you more worthy of love.
What goes through an actor’s mind when he or she gets offered a musical and what was the motivation behind choosing to star in a musical?
ULLMAN: It’s just great to be able to sing and carry a tune, isn’t it? It opens up your horizons and gives you more opportunities to get roles, you know, because there’s so many roles in your mid-50s as an actress, it’s unbelievable. [Laughter] My cellphone’s rang 10 times now and I’m just looking for that action figure role where I get made into a little plastic person and make some money.
STREEP: It just opens up a whole new thing.
ULLMAN: Thank God I can sing. I can tap, too. In a pinch I might flash one of my boobs if you’ve got a job for me.
STREEP: Don’t! No!
ULLMAN: No, I won’t do that. I won’t! I’ll just do it in the house. I guess, you know, you get what you can get and I like singing. We can sing! Yeah!
STREEP: We’re lucky.
ULLMAN: You can really sing! Our leading lady here!
STREEP: Really, that music. That’s the thing. That’s the reason to do it.
ULLMAN: I remember seeing you in The Loman Family Picnic years ago.
STREEP: Oh my gosh!
ULLMAN: You can sing, dance and act! Triple threat!
STREEP: And [Christine’s] done Sweeney Todd. You’ve done all the Sondheim.
BARANSKI: I’ve not done Pacific Overtures, but I will.
ULLMAN: Yeah, so, you know, we’re just looking for a vehicle together.
BARANSKI: I will make a point that there’s singers who sing all the time and then like Meryl and Tracey and I, we act most of the time and then sometimes we sing, so there’s always that feeling like, ‘Whoa, whoa, gotta get in shape.’ And, whereas a singer, you just do those exercises every day like ballet barre, and so I have always found it a challenge because you never know when an opportunity will come. Suddenly, yeah, you’re offered a musical and then you kind of go on overdrive to get in shape. And I remember having done something for Steve and he said to me, I think it was after a workshop of Sunday in the Park that I did and he said, ‘You know, Christine, you should just keep working every day and keep your voice in shape every day.’
PLATT: It takes more than just a vocal instrument. What’s so great about these three ladies as well as the rest of the cast is you can sing if you have a great voice, but to connect that instrument to the text and connect it to the subtext, what lies underneath and the emotion, is indeed a rare talent, and when it’s on display you know it because you feel it. We have no filter for music, but we feel it when what’s being spoken and sung is telling a story and evidencing a character. And that’s why your performances are all so remarkable in the film because we feel that. And that’s, by the way, Steve Sondheim’s music, which I often say is calculus for actors and singers, demands that. He tells a story so specifically and [there’s] an emotion in his lyrics, so that’s not just singing, that’s acting.
That was sort of the phrase that I would be told all the time; act through song, don’t sing. Stop singing, act. Did you have conscious discussions about, say, that high C is coming. In your brain you’re thinking more about hitting the high C, but at the same time, it’s a high C because you’re saying something profound for the story. They said five weeks of rehearsals …
PLATT: Six. We just have to keep it straight.
Absolutely, yeah. Was that something that was discussed as a group in terms of prioritizing one over the other?
DELUCA: Technique is always spoken of, and these actors really dove into this with every part of their beings. And Sondheim is so tricky technically and it is a bit of a challenge for everything. To let that technique go you need to really dive into it and really study it and work and work and we really worked them to the bone actually so that when they came to put it all together, they were free enough to let that technique, you know, you’d don’t see the technique. But it was a long, hard process. Everyone had their challenges.
ULLMAN: We pre-recorded everything, but I found on the day just my bit that I did walking around the cow and in a field, I just felt I wanted to sing it live because it was too slow what we had recorded, and we had the ability to do that and it still felt – and you did your rap completely live, didn’t you? You could never have pre-recorded that. And having the technique and the strength on the day. We were all nervous about going into the recording studio and laying it down and thinking, ‘Well, this is it.’ We had the option to – and Anna Kendrick had some really difficult stuff.
I really do think all of you made your characters wholly your own. They sounded unique to each of you, but I’m curious, was there a temptation to go back in the past and listen to previous performances?
STREEP: I had seen Bernadette [Peters] do The Witch 20, maybe 30 years ago. And, you know, I remember it vividly. It just was etched in my soul. I came out, you know, everybody says, ‘Oh, Sondheim’s music is, you know, unsingable or whatever,’ that it’s too complicated, but those melodies lived in my head for, well, years after hearing the musical. I didn’t buy the album, but it was in my head. Do you know what I mean? So I think I wanted to just find my own inner Witch and I didn’t even think about copying. Usually I steal from somebody, something from somebody. Usually I steal from men because nobody notices when you steal stuff.
But anyway … to your question earlier – I remember how to meld the technique with the abandon that you need and there’s certainly that in both of the big songs that I sing, that I found myself just singing them over and over without investing because you make a lot of assumptions. You think you know this music until you really look at the sheet music and we sat with Paul Gemignani, and their little rests and always a reason for it. In Sondheim’s mind there are little sort of elisions, things that arrest you and make you really listen harder and it’s all precise and deliberately there, and so we had to be exact with all of that. So learning all that and then you just get rid of it and start to live through the music. I found it unbearable when I allow the song to meet the music, to allow the story to meet the music. I couldn’t sing it. I got so upset because with “Stay With Me,” I got so upset. And, you know, you can’t sing when you’re upset. You can’t sing when you’re crying. You get all congested and disgusting. So it was just a measure of finding a way to control the emotion, use it, funnel it, make it ride on the sound.
ULLMAN: We had our one chance to do it for this movie which is immortalizing, it’s fantastic, but people like Bernadette Peters who played this role in the past and your Kelli O’Haras and your Brian Stokes Mitchells and your Patti LuPones who go out and do eight shows a week, and your Christine Baranskis, on Broadway and they just amaze me.
STREEP: Every time.
ULLMAN: That’s incredible discipline.
For Meryl, Tracey and Christine, talk about how fairy tales influenced you when you were a child and maybe your family. Did you have favorites and did they inform these roles?
STREEP: I always liked the Three Little Pigs, but that wasn’t included. That wasn’t a fairy tale, right? I’m just saying my first reaction. I did like the Three Little Pigs. You did, too? Okay.
ULLMAN: Don’t knock a classic. They’re fabulous.
BARANSKI: Well, I loved Rumpelstiltskin.
ULLMAN: She’s all about this guy!
BARANSKI: I know. I’ve had a thing about him, but I’m hoping that Steven Sondheim will – I wish he had included Rumpelstiltskin because can you imagine the rhymes? Can you imagine what he would have done with Rumpelstiltskin? Boggles the mind.
STREEP: When my children were little, I remember we had Shelley Duvall’s entire set of Faerie Tale Theatre which is absolutely fantastic, and if you can get hold of it, it’s everything.
ULLMAN: The dancing princesses, they would go out and wear their slippers out every night.
STREEP: Yes! And Thumbelina. Carrie Fisher on a little acorn. And Chris Reeve was the handsome prince! Yeah, Bernadette Peters was Sleeping Beauty. No music, but they were oddly skewed through her sensibility. They were fantastic.
ULLMAN: Yeah, they’re good.
STREEP: But the fairy tale that really scared me was Bluebeard.
BARANSKI: That’s very dark, isn’t it?
STREEP: That’s the one where he just kills one after another of these woman, these wives, you know, that he lures up to the castle. I just think about fairy tales as stories women told their children to warn them, you know? To keep them safe, to make sure they married up, all the things that would have safeguarded them in the olden days.
ULLMAN: Don’t go into the woods alone, you’ll get eaten by a wolf.
BARANSKI: Or you’ll meet Johnny Depp!