Is It Always 'Or'? Is It Never 'And'?: Melissa Errico Explores Sondheim's 'Losing My Mind' Ahead of Carnegie Hall Debut | Playbill

Special Features Is It Always 'Or'? Is It Never 'And'?: Melissa Errico Explores Sondheim's 'Losing My Mind' Ahead of Carnegie Hall Debut

The Amour Tony nominee explains in a personal essay how one word can affect a singer's entire interpretation of a song.

Melissa Errico

Editor's Note: On November 18, Broadway favorite Melissa Errico will make her long-awaited Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Pops in evening appropriately titled Broadway Blockbusters. Steven Reineke will conduct the famed orchestra for a concert that also features Broadway artists Nikki Renée Daniels, Jordan Donica, and Matt Doyle as well as Essential Voices USA, the latter led by music director and conductor Judith Clurman.

"This will be my Carnegie Hall debut on the main stage—I’ve sung happily on the smaller ones, but it isn’t quite the same," Amour Tony nominee Errico tells Playbill. "So inspired by staggering respect for the place and occasion, I’ve been joyfully belting out songs all month while on the road."

"I've been excited before by events—my marriage and giving birth to twins was pretty exciting—but singing at Carnegie is equal to any of it," Errico adds. "I get to sing songs from classics from my past, like My Fair Lady and Sunday in the Park With George, and I get to sing them alongside the magnificent Nikki Renée Daniels, Matt Doyle, and Jordan Donica, conducted by brilliant Steven Reineke leading The New York Pops. What a thrill! I do feel a bit like Eliza—an Eliza with three teenagers, a husband, and two loving parents—and we are all going to the ball!“

Errico will also have the chance to wrap her soaring soprano around Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind," Sally's second act torch song in the groundbreaking Follies. In her essay below, Errico explores how one word of a lyric can completely alter an artist's interpretation. For more information about the Carnegie Hall concert, click here.


Singers live for words. And, sometimes single words have resonance for us that transcend their normal meanings in ordinary speech. Tony Bennett once said—to me, as it happens—that you should always watch the way Sinatra lands the word "love." I tell singing students to do the same with the word "light" when it comes up in Sondheim. The marriage of words and notes is our life, and as much as we want to hit the right B-flat, we need to know what the word means that it accompanies.

This month, I found myself in the middle of a series of arguments—quarrels, debates—all over the proper placement and choice of a single word in a single song I’m scheduled to sing at Carnegie Hall on Friday, November 18. All month, I’ve been belting out songs out in rental cars or humming to myself with AirPods on in airport lounges or while getting my 10,000 steps and taking in a local park in Singapore or London. (Rehearsals happen everywhere, the shower, the tube, the toilet—home, where I’d be surrounded by my library of biographies and music books.)

And, in that time there first began an actual, rolling, hundred-voiced debate on Twitter (and Facebook)—ignited by me, I’ll admit—about a single word. The question was whether in Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” (from Follies)—a song which I’m scheduled to sing at Carnegie Hall—the right lines are “I talk to friends and think about you” or “I talk to friends. I think about you.”

The character in the show, you see, is obsessing about a lover she cannot have. The song traces her day, and the key to the song, I’d decided through all that on-the-run practicing, is to feel her whole day. The fact that he’s always on her mind, that he’s permeated everything—her coffee cup, her talks to friends, her sleep, perhaps years of no sleep; she can hardly believe it’s not visible to everyone that he’s…on her skin. I’m not sure she has to actually be arriving at mental destruction (I don’t think she needs to seem institutionalized!), as much as a revelation that she’s so far in this hidden passion that it’s agony to imagine not breaking it into the light. (“Does no one know?“ she sings. How could no one know?) A deep torch song—the torch a light in the depth of her heart, pulsing under the surface.

And then, at the end of the song marking her day, we should suddenly realize that this woman is on a wheel, she’s reliving this day again and again: from coffee cup to frozen legs, unsure which way to turn in life. And, all of this could turn on whether or not she sings the "and." The quality of the emotional transmission I was practicing would be different depending on the absence or the presence of that "and."

I was struck by the alacrity of responses and the intense reasoning of my peers and fans when I put the question out on social media. One of the first replies was, “Check the Bible.” (i.e., Sondheim Complete). But one could find it sung by first-class Sondheimians in both ways. Some ruminated on whether the “and” showed two actions happening at the same time, or if the constant obsessing was clearer without the “and.” One writer, Leon Ferguson, wrote “Losing the ‘and’ makes better sense of her state of mind. Two separate unrelated activities. Otherwise, it seems like talking to friends instigates thoughts of you.” The feeling was that without the “and” the character seemed more obsessive. The repetition of the “I” was part of the obsessiveness.

But another Sondheim expert insists that the song becomes more devastating once the “I think” sentences give way to “and think about you” and “to think about you.” She spends sleepless nights to think about the lover: “To think lands even more powerfully because the ‘I think’ chain has just been broken.” Another pointed out that it was vital that it is “I think about you” in the first two stanzas because it shows the thought is disconnected from the real-world things she describes, a kind of evocation of a person able to be in two places at once. Physically in one life, and mentally in another.

All that on an “and!” The conversation among fans was so moving, as if everyone were talking about someone they knew and loved: how they felt for, as if she were real, a heartbroken woman who now only has a life of spending nights thinking “of him.” It was delicately mentioned that Barbra Streisand performed it at Barclays with the “and” in the wrong place. Giddiness peaked with one writer writing, “I love this thread so much. This is why I moved to NYC.” To which I wrote, “This is why I’m going to die here, too.”

But—and this is my implicit point—that’s the singer's special art, and a backwards blessing of this post-pandemic, social media moment is that we get to universalize it! I had a similar mass investigation not long ago on whether the character Petra, in “The Miller’s Son,” sings “giggle on the grass”; in last-minute rehearsals, I referenced many recordings and found that some actresses sang “in the grass,” and printed materials in my collection and online sources showed it both ways.

What interested me was not so much that the controversy was simple to solve (Sondheim’s intention was “on”), but the speed with which his devoted clarified things. In a quick flurry of tweets and comments, I felt a shared sense that it mattered if it was “on” or “in.” Just as it matters if it’s "and" or “I." (Ultimately, how’s this for an irony, the outdoor event itself was rained out, twice, and there was no one on the grass.)

And, it isn’t just Steve who inspires intense-crazy single-word lyric debates; I’ve had still one more in the past weeks about whether the lady in “The Lady Is a Tramp” likes or loves the rowing in Central Park Lake. Both versions have credible sources and singers—and, yes, it’s a big difference in defining her character. If she likes the rowing, she’s flippantly nonchalant; if she loves the rowing, she’s almost childlike in her pursuit of simple pleasures. (Or, maybe landing a double entendre.) While in the “film noir” concert I’ve been traipsing around America, and then London, performing, I enjoyed adding the 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein fuck you song “The Gentleman Is a Dope” from Allegro, the failed musical that Sondheim, who saw it frequently as a teenager, always hoped to cure for his own mentor Oscar. (The tune is not traditional noir, but it’s noir to me, and inescapably thematic as it’s the perfect anthem of feminine defiance.)

Yet, the dance of words and their multiplicity never ends. Singing “The Gentleman Is a Dope” in the front seat of my car, my own little rebels (femmes?)—my three teenagers—promptly corrected me: surely, they insisted, I meant “the gentleman is dope”—without the "a." Dope, being a very common exuberant compliment these days. The gentleman is a dope/the gentleman is dope. Changing the meaning, and updating the song for 2022, by swallowing an “a.” In one omission of one syllable, the man got away.

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Just when I thought these queries were perhaps mine alone, I had my first rehearsal this week at Carnegie Hall. Suddenly we were stalled awhile as we sang “Climb Every Mountain” (our finale) and conductor Steven Reineke had occasion to explain that the final line is “'till you find your dream” not “dreams.” He said he’s corrected singers countless times on this. And, a substantial discussion began about why it’s a very different final sentence—end of a huge concert!—if you switch that one word.

Important vibration in attending to one word. Multiple dreams imply goals, perhaps by having many of them, it seems less majestic. Steve brilliantly pointed out that to have “a dream”—a singular dream—has a certain power. It becomes entangled with a spiritual dream, not just things we think we want, but larger values. I’ve followed a dream, and it’s this Friday.

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