How Stereophonic's Juliana Canfield and Sarah Pidgeon Found the Music, and a Friendship | Playbill

Tony Awards How Stereophonic's Juliana Canfield and Sarah Pidgeon Found the Music, and a Friendship

The two are singing and playing instruments for the first time on a stage—and they're both Tony-nominated for it.

Juliana Canfield and Sarah Pidgeon Heather Gershonowitz

Sarah Pidgeon and Juliana Canfield don’t sing. They don’t play musical instruments. But right now, they’re doing both of those things in the new Broadway play Stereophonic, which follows a fictional rock band. As members of that band, Canfield sings and plays the piano while Pidgeon sings and plays the tambourine. The two did play piano as children, but it’s a career first for both to do something musical on a stage.

“It was this vulnerable place for me as a performer to go because it’s not something I feel completely comfortable with. I don’t feel like I have mastery or control over my [singing] voice,” said Pidgeon on April 1, just before Stereophonic began previews on Broadway. “It’s like, if you sing the wrong note, everyone knows you sang the wrong note.” Pidgeon previously starred in the Hulu series Tiny Beautiful Things, but Stereophonic is her Broadway debut.

Sitting next to Pidgeon in their shared dressing room at the Golden Theatre, Canfield agrees: “When we started this process, I had a very precious attitude towards music, probably because of my understanding of musical theatre.” The actor, who had done plays Off-Broadway and was previously a cast member of HBO’s Succession, then paraphrases a line from Stereophonic: “Music isn’t about getting everything perfect. It’s about saying something from your soul.”

Both of their singing voices are tuneful and beautiful—with a delicate, raw texture that's more reminiscent of pop singer/songwriters rather than musical theatre performers. So in other words, the ideal voices for playing rock stars. 

Stereophonic is written by David Adjmi with original music from Will Butler (formerly of the band Arcade Fire, now Will Butler + Sister Squares). The show had its world premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons last fall. And after selling out its run and making several critics’ year-end list of best plays, plans were quickly made to transfer the show to Broadway. That decision was a smart one—Stereophonic has now broken records as the most Tony Award-nominated play of all time, with 13 nominations, including for both Canfield and Pidgeon's performances. There’s even a cast album that will be released May 10.

It's been a whirlwind for these actors, a turn of events that's not dissimilar to what their characters are going through in the play (unknown musicians who suddenly hit the big time). Says Canfield in a follow-up interview April 30, right after she heard she had been nominated. "I was so scared to audition for this play...I remember thinking during rehearsal that the success of the play was the joy of the rehearsal process. And so, it was this total lovely surprise when it was so well received at Playwrights [Horizons], and then we moved to Broadway. And this is also a surprise. I never thought this far ahead, or in this direction, when I finally signed on to do it."

Andrew R. Butler, Sarah Pidgeon, Juliana Canfield, and Will Brill Andy Henderson

It's especially surprising when one considers that the play itself is three hours long, with no stars in its cast, and is wholly original. Stereophonic takes place in 1976 as an unnamed five-member rock band is in a California studio recording their album. They are trying to create something artistically meaningful while balancing the friction in their personal lives—the band contains two couples and half of its members are British, far from home. Yes, it kind of sounds like a bio-play about Fleetwood Mac recording Rumours—though Adjmi also took inspiration from Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Arcade Fire, even the Company cast album documentary.

READ: How the Company Cast Recording Documentary Inspired Stereophonic

“There certainly are some parallels, but I don’t think this was ever billed as ‘a play inspired by…’,” says Pidgeon, intentionally cutting herself off. “It actually gave me a lot of liberty to find out who this character [Diana] was, and where Sarah’s understanding of the world kind of meets Diana’s.”

That's because the appeal of Stereophonic isn’t to hear your favorite rock songs on stage or to see the life of your favorite band recreated with varying degrees of accuracy. It’s definitely not a jukebox show (Butler’s songs are only heard in snippets, and only two songs are played in full).

Instead, the appeal of Stereophonic is in its exploration of the minutiae of making music—from trying to find the perfect bass line for a song to the redundant pain of tuning a snare drum. And that divine moment when struggle gives way to brilliance. That's something the cast of the show knows intimately now. When they first started rehearsals for the world premiere of Stereophonic, they spent four hours a day practicing their instruments. 

The cast also have a particular challenge: Every night on the stage, they have to fake imperfection over and over again, while making sure that moment of discovery feels real to the audience.

In one memorable moment in the show, as Diana struggles to hit a high B, her voice cracks repeatedly. So she has to sing the same line over and over again until she can hit that note (while sipping Courvoisier, which was also Stevie Nicks' drink of choice during the recording of Rumours). Pidgeon uses her anxiety about her own singing voice as fuel in that moment, because that note is so high for her that she's not even sure she can hit it. She admits that she practices it for Canfield backstage. "That fear, I think, really propels the scene," she explains. "I think it's because that's what my voice wants to do. My voice wants to crack."

Canfield turns to Pidgeon: "Your ability to act the crack or create the crack every night is, to me, that's even more impressive than your ability to hit the note...When someone's pretending to be pitchy, it can feel very contrived. And that moment never feels contrived." Touched, Pidgeon says a soft thank you.

Juliana Canfield and Sarah Pidgeon Heather Gershonowitz

The play is an ensemble piece, but its female cast members have established a close bond. It parallels their characters' relationship in the show. As Canfield playfully said during the duo’s photo shoot with Playbill, “We’re in love.” During the interview, Canfield casually leans into Pidgeon, putting her head on her co-star’s shoulders. As the only two women in a cast of seven, the two have been having conversations about what it must have been like to be female musicians in the 1970s—women who were expected to take care of their male partners, while trying to further their careers as artists in an industry that didn't take them seriously. 

And it's also women trying to find their own voices—Diana is trying to grow as an artist and climb out of the controlling thumb of her partner. Holly, Canfield's character, is trying to leave her husband, who is an alcoholic.

For Pidgeon, Stereophonic is particularly refreshing for how it portrays the ambitious women within it as being friends, rather than competitors. “I think the idea of two women, the only two women in a band, being catty with each other and competitive is so boring. It’s just been done so many times,” says Pidgeon. “And in my life, I have rarely felt competition from other women. I’ve actually felt more competition [from] men. The ability for these two women to find each other and find grounding in each other—when they can’t even put their finger on what it is that is making them uneasy or what feels unfair…It’s this beautiful silent understanding.”

Adds Canfield, excited, "There's just ease between the two of them. And an ease that is in contrast to the guardedness or the tension of their relationships with everybody else in the play. And I love this play because I think that David's done such a great job of articulating their burgeoning political awareness of feminism, without putting too fine a point on it. As you said, it's just sort of...." She pauses, looking for a word.

Suggests Pidgeon: "Percolating."

Canfield notes: "Yeah, they haven't read all the literature about the '60s and '70s yet, so it's not digested and metabolized. But there is a sort of picking at something that feels curious or uncomfortable." 

It is that percolation, what is simmering under the surface, that gives the play its delicious edge. Because Stereophonic doesn’t hit you over the head with its themes, or even what its characters are feeling. It is a hyper-realistic exploration of making art while being a flawed human. So what remains unsung or unsaid is just as valuable as what is vocalized. It’s up to the audience to pay attention and fill in the gaps. At the very least, they will leave with a new appreciation of music-making.

“This is very special, this opportunity to watch a recording studio, in process, in action on stage,” says Canfield. “To watch the sausage-making of music that we’ve all listened to in our headphones and on the radio our whole lives…and to understand the emotional underpinnings of all of those very technical processes—it’s novel. And everybody loves music. So getting to see how music gets made, everybody can find something in that.”

Juliana Canfield and Sarah Pidgeon Heather Gershonowitz

Photos: Stereophonic on Broadway

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