She Loved 'Sweeney Todd.' How Singer Mardie Millit Befriended Stephen Sondheim (And Has a Show About It)

John Amodeo READ TIME: 11 MIN.

Michael Garinand Mardie Millit

EDGE: Which Sondheim song or musical resonates most with you?

Mardie Millit: This is a question Sondheim aficionados fight over [mockingly impersonating said aficionados]: "What? 'Sunday in the Park with George' isn't even in your top 10?" I don't like ranking them. As far as touching me and reducing me to sobs, it is "Sunday in the Park with George." I saw "Sunday..." when I was 18 in NY. I saw it alone, and that first act closure, when they play the last chord and that painting comes to life, was one of the best theatrical experiences of my life.

And "Our Time" [from "Merrily We Roll Along"] is an anthem for me. I asked him his permission to write the lyrics on the last page of my senior yearbook.

EDGE: Michael, did you take a particular approach to the musical arrangements for this show?

Michael Garin: Yes, it came out of my not being a well-trained classical musician. The way it was written on the page was not something I could lock into, so I would rely on the chord changes above the staff. I wasn't connecting to the music the way I needed to. My piano approach is to give it a beat so that people listening have to move. I had to give the music a danceable rhythm. It is such a brilliant genre and body of work, but it could use some funk. I grew up in the DC suburbs, and the popular music then was Motown and country, and all of that was dance music. So I thought, "Why not put some junk in the trunk and see what happens?"

Mardie Millit: And it changes some ways I sing the song. With my classical training, I envisioned singing the songs the way they are written. But Michael doesn't think that way. And I'm not saying we didn't fight about some of these things, because we did. But it made me find a way that would mean something to me in that rhythm. Working that way from the outside in, I had to work out something in my own head. Like "Sorry-Grateful," with Michael's arrangement as a funky bossa nova, I had to come up with something that was personal to me with that rhythm. So, when I'm singing those songs, they aren't about Sondheim, they are about me. Michael's arrangements are the number one thing that helped me with this.

Stephen Sondheim in 1976
Source: Getty

EDGE: Your zany humor has been described as "vaudevillian." Have either or both of you been fans of vaudeville and been influenced at all by it?

Mardie Millit: That's an interesting question. Neither of us were around for that.

Michael Garin: Speak for yourself!

Mardie Millit: But all of the 1950s-1970s sitcoms all pulled from vaudeville.

Michael Garin: A lot of vaudeville is immigrant theater. I'm first generation [American] and Mardie is second generation, and it appealed to us because that humor has a certain edge of the outsider. That last generation of the vaudeville performers influenced the sitcoms that we grew up watching. My first job was being a song and dance man, and it doesn't get more vaudevillian than that. The Dutch Weissman burlesque shows that I did in the '90s didn't pay – in fact, it probably cost me money – but some of the shows that I did in the Village would be called "shtick."

Mardie Millit: "Shtick" is just the word I was thinking of. You were doing experimental theater in the Village and I was doing opera. We are sort of in the cabaret world, but we are still outsiders.

Michael Garin: "Song of Singapore" used a lot of the elements of vaudeville. So many young people learned about classical music from Warner Brothers cartoons.

Mardie Millit: All of those Road Runner and Bugs Bunny cartoons were vaudeville, and because it was a cartoon, they could take it much further, like falling off a cliff.

Michael Garin: Taking a comedy class with Bill Irwin, one of the things that stuck with me is the mathematics and timing, like the rule of threes. "Three" is uneven, which brings motion. If you have three legs of a table, it will fall over. One of the reasons Mardie and I click comedically is that we almost finish each other's punch lines, because there is this unevenness.

Mardie Millit: Because it's uneven, it's always rolling toward the punch line. We are always making each other laugh, and more importantly we can make ourselves laugh. We don't think about it in advance. It happens automatically.

EDGE: You've said that while you enjoy the "permission" to be funny in cabaret, you do still love singing a good Sondheim ballad. What about a Sondheim ballad appeals to you?

Mardie Millit: I love the way he is able to marry emotion and intellect. The two don't have to be mutually exclusive. I'm reminded of Lorenz Hart and some of his extremely witty lyrics that traditionally we sing with a wink. But if you know anything about his life, you know there was real pain there. Witticisms are typically a coping mechanism. Sondheim knew that, and he mined that more than any lyricist I know. Because he was also a composer, he had the musical vocabulary to accompany his intellectual vocabulary. Take the song "I Remember" from "Evening Primrose," which is about something incredibly specific. If you are a book-reading kid left out of social situations, and if you are someone who gets their emotions out by singing, which is how I express myself, singing a song like that is so empowering when you feel like somebody else got what you were feeling so well that they wrote a song about it, and it expresses a feeling better than you could have expressed it yourself. There is a feeling of kinship with the composer that comes from that. And that is why someone like me at 14 years old in Shadyside, Ohio developed a relationship with this famous, then 49-year-old songwriter named Stephen Sondheim.

Mardie Millit, with Michael Garin, will perform "Sorry-Grateful: One Sondheim Story in Letters and Song" on Tuesday, February 13, 7 PM, at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, 407 W. 42nd Street, NYC 10036. Tickets $25x, visit: For reservations, follow this link>

Mardie Millit, with Michael Garin, will perform "Sorry-Grateful: One Sondheim Story in Letters and Song" on Sunday, February 18, 6 PM at the Napoleon Room, Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA 02116. No cover, but donations requested. For reservations, visit: visit the Club Café website.

by John Amodeo

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.

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