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Stephen Colbert: A 'Company' Man On Broadway

Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton perform a song from Company on stage during the 65th annual Tony Awards. (Getty Images)

This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2011. This interview was originally broadcast on June 14, 2011.

Stephen Colbert has run for president. He's testified before Congress, created a political action committee and assisted the U.S. Olympic speedskating team in the role of assistant sports psychologist. He has a spider named after him (the Aptostichus stephencolberti) as well as a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor (the Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream) and a NASA treadmill (the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT).

And now, the political satirist and award-winning host of The Colbert Report can add a new line to his resume: Broadway star.

The comedian and television host recently grabbed a straw hat and cane and performed as Harry in the 2011 New York Philharmonic production of Stephen Sondheim's Company. The revival, which also starred Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Christina Hendricks and Martha Plimpton, has been made into a film that plays this week in limited showings.

Colbert tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he didn't fake "a single smile" during the show's entire run. "It's what I imagined I would be doing when I went to theater school," he says. "It was such a bungee into an old dream to go do something like that."

Colbert, who attended the theater program at Northwestern University, says he's a huge musical theater fan and that it was always his intention to spend his life acting on the stage.

"I imagined myself living in New York in some sort of open, large but sparse studio apartment with a lot of blond wood and a futon on the floor and a bubbling samovar of tea in the background and a big beard — living alone but with my beard — and doing theater," he says. "That's what I thought my life would be. It has not been — and I love what I do — but to be asked to do this and then to accept the challenge of it. ... I can la-di-da my way through things ... but to sing Sondheim is a completely different beast."

Let Me Entertain You

It was Sondheim, in fact, who wanted Colbert to perform in Company. After appearing on Colbert's show, Sondheim invited Colbert to appear in the production. But Colbert's agent turned the role down, saying that there was absolutely no way Colbert could fit the limited engagement into his busy taping schedule. That's when Sondheim wrote Colbert a personal note.

"[He said that] against his instincts, he had a good time on my show and would I consider playing Harry in Company?" he says. "And he ended the letter with the sentence 'You have a perfect voice for musical theater.' And I read it to my wife and she said, 'Boy, you have to do this. No one, let alone Stephen Sondheim is going to ask you to do Sondheim.' And I said, 'You're right, I have to do it.' "

Once he was cast, Colbert started taking voice lessons and gained a new respect, he says, for professional singers. "What I rediscovered was the therapeutic nature of singing lessons," he says. "They're like doing yoga but for [the] inside of your body. You open up and use muscles that you don't think of as malleable. ... You can turn your head into a bell. ... That's what we kept working on: resonance and projection and relaxation and just remembering or relearning how to breathe through a phrase. The technical aspects of it are fascinating to go through in the lessons. And then you have to forget all of it, and sing."

Because of the cast members' busy schedules, most of the rehearsals were conducted via the Internet. Colbert was given recordings of his harmonies and told to practice them alone. The cast got together infrequently to rehearse lines and choreography — and then performed live at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic.

"On one level, it was impossible," he says, of the limited-run engagement. "In another way, it was the only way it could have gotten done — because you couldn't have gotten all of these people to commit to doing Company. ... I literally left rehearsal for Company [one night] and went and did "Friday" on Jimmy Fallon and then went back to Company. It was just a tremendous experience."

In The Company Of The Colbert Report

Colbert says he specifically chose not to mention his role in Company on his show The Colbert Report for two reasons. The first, he says, was to protect the production from any kind of "fake" endorsements.

"People could ascribe an insincerity to the things that I tout on the show," he explains. "And I didn't want to ascribe any insincerity to trying to go do this [musical] at Lincoln Center. Because I knew that I was dealing with somebody else's delicate product and I didn't want to invest it with my character's ego."

The second reason he chose not to mention Company on his TV show, says Colbert, is that he was worried that his performance wouldn't live up to his expectations.

"I had no idea if I wanted anyone to know I was doing it, because I knew how hard it was going to be," he says. "I was afraid I would suck. I don't mind failing so much, but I am a perfectionist. ... If you're a perfectionist and you know you're about to do something at which you cannot be perfect ... then that is daunting because you know what your heart is like and the way you approach your work. ... It was difficult to say 'Hold onto your socks America, I'm singing Sondheim.' "

After the production's run, Colbert sent a note to Sondheim, thanking him for getting him into "the most joyous trouble" he's ever been in.

"I tell a lot of young performers, 'Go get in trouble. Go commit yourself to something you're not sure you can do,' " he says. "And I followed my own advice. It was something I desperately wanted to do — not as a career — but an invitation I knew I couldn't refuse and yet had no sense of whether or not I could do it. And that is trouble — but it was all so joyful. I'm very grateful to Mr. Sondheim that he got me in such trouble."


Interview Highlights

On becoming part of the Anthony Weiner story (when it was revealed that some of his text messages included messages about The Colbert Report)

"I couldn't be more thrilled to find out that we ourselves were part of the content because it's my character's greatest dream — it's all he wants to do, is be the news. ... That's one of the reasons we ran for president in 2007-2008 because [my character] didn't like that the story was getting bigger than him. He has to be at the center of the story. One of the touchstones for the character is Bill O'Reilly, and years ago, I heard Bill O'Reilly say to President Bush, 'Guys like us.' And I thought 'Wow, he thinks of himself just equal to the president.'

"So my character thinks of himself as at least equal with any story and so while this Weiner thing was just consuming the world of news, to be part of it, to be in the reporting — to have my name in there — was a complete validation. As much as [my character] may demur and say he doesn't want to be associated with such unsavory details, in fact he was thrilled. I was, too, to have such a pure expression of his ego right there on paper."

On how mainstream media cover stories by using his jokes instead of talking about the salacious details

"They can obviate the sin of it by playing our jokes. That's nice."

On his recent segment about Sarah Palin and Paul Revere [see NPR story for background]

"That entire bit came around because my executive producer Tom Purcell said, 'Wait a second. Play that again. Did she just say 'warning shot'? That's completely a 19th or 20th century idea that you can fire a warning shot. That's a repeating rifle idea. You don't fire a warning shot with a muzzle-loading gun. It takes three minutes or something to load it. Why would you waste it on a warning shot? That's what 'Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes' is about. We don't get a second shot.' So I said 'I should try to do that. I should try to show them how impossible that is. That's how it came about."

On testifying before the House Subcommittee on Immigration in 2010 [see NPR story for background]

"People went crazy. Two days before I was supposed to go down there, they said, 'Can we confirm that you're coming?' And I said, 'Yeah, I like the speech we're working on and I'm prepared to do this.' An hour after they announced it, they were ready to cancel it because the press had gone crazy and Republicans had gone crazy. And I said, 'Well, just tell me now because I don't want to work on the speech for another 24 hours because we have a show to do.' And the congresswoman [in charge of the committee] was really nice. She said, 'No, I said that you can come and I'm going to stand by my word.'

"... So when [John] Conyers (D-MI) said, before anything started, 'I'd like you to submit your statement [and then leave before testifying],' I was really confused because I was told everything was fine. And I said, 'Are you asking me not to talk?' And he said, 'I'm asking you to leave.' And that's when I actually started getting not nervous because something was happening that I didn't expect — and I thought, 'Oh this is fascinating. This is far more interesting than I thought. I'm watching a fight that I don't know about and I'm the subject of the fight.' It's not an ego stroke but it makes you interested in the fight in ways that you can't imagine."

On his gratitude for the military

"There is a residual sense for me, having grown up in the early '70s, that I did not know I had, which was a sense that the military are different than I. Because there was such a divide between the military world — and there still is, because there's no draft — and the civilian world is one of the rotten harvests of the Vietnam War, was this sort of bifurcation of America in that way.

"There was sort of a negative association with the military. Maybe growing up in the South or being in a family with members of the military, I didn't have that negative connotation, but I did have this 'separate' connotation. I was ashamed to realize I had it and did not realize I had it until I was [in Iraq]. I was so impressed by the people I met over there and there was just a sense of connection and gratitude towards those people.

"I called my daughter from Baghdad and she said, 'What's it like, Daddy?' And I said, 'Well, honey, however you feel about the war, when my show started, this was the worst place on Earth in 2005. And these young men and women have worked hard to make it someplace that might be a functioning democracy someday and you cannot help but feel proud for your nation in ways that I never have before.' "

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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

You may be used to seeing Stephen Colbert on TV as the host of "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, but this past June he showed up on broadcast TV in prime time, singing and dancing on the live CBS telecast of the Tony Awards. That's because Colbert was recreating his brief but well-received Broadway appearance as a supporting player in the New York Philharmonic's concert revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1970 musical "Company."

Those performances were filmed and shown in a limited run in movie theaters. Neil Patrick Harris starred as Bobby. Colbert's other onstage colleagues included Patti LuPone, Martha Plimpton, Jon Cryer, and Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan on "Mad Men." Terry Gross spoke with Stephen Colbert in June, 2011, the day after the Tony Awards telecast.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Stephen Colbert, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed hearing you and seeing you in "Company" at Lincoln Center, to see you singing Sondheim and to see you dancing in a little chorus line with a hat and a cane. I mean, it doesn't get better.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, thank you very much. It was an amazing amount of fun.

GROSS: Good. You looked like you were having fun, and that made it even more enjoyable.

COLBERT: It was all true. I didn't fake a single smile.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So let's talk about "Company." Now, there's a song in "Company" that you sing called "Sorry-Grateful," and it's a song about the ambivalence this character has about being married. And Neil Patrick Harris' character is the single guy in this, and all of his friends are, like, married couples, and they're actually all miserable, but they're trying to convince him he needs to get married.

So he's been visiting you and your wife in this, and you've just been bickering and fighting the whole time, even had a karate match together. And then he says to you - and we'll hear what he says to you as you sing this song about the ambivalence of marriage, "Sorry-Grateful." So here is Stephen Colbert. The first line you're going to hear is Neil Patrick Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY-GRATEFUL")

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Robert) Are you ever sorry you got married?

COLBERT: (As Harry) (Singing) You're always sorry. You're always grateful. You're always wondering what might have been. Then she walks in and still you're sorry, and still you're grateful, and still you wonder, and still you doubt, and she goes out.

Everything's different; nothing's changed, only maybe slightly rearranged. You're sorry-grateful, regretful-happy. Why look for answers when none occur? You always are what you always were, which has nothing to do with, all to do with her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Harry, darling, come to bed.

COLBERT: (As Harry) Coming, darling.

GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert, in Stephen Sondheim's "Company," a New York Philharmonic production. You sing with emotion and vulnerability in that song, things that you can never show on your own program, "The Colbert Report." It's such a different side of you.

COLBERT: It is. It is at that. It's what I imagined I would be doing when I went to theater school.

GROSS: Really, musicals in particular?

COLBERT: Well, just anything in theater and musicals as part of it, I suppose. And it was such a - it was such a Bungee into an old dream to go do something like that because I went to Northwestern University and I went to the theater program there, and I worked very hard, and my intention was to spend my life doing theater.

I imagined myself - in college, I imagined myself living in New York in some sort of open, large-but-very-sparse studio apartment with a lot of blond wood and a futon on the floor and a bubbling samovar of tea in the background and a big beard, you know, and, you know, living alone but with my beard and doing theater.

And that's what I thought my life would be. And it has not been, and I love what I do, but to be asked to do this and then to accept the challenge of it, I had to start taking voice lessons again because I can la-di-da my way through a lot of music, and I've done so on my show and for other people, but to sing Sondheim is a completely different beast.

GROSS: What's different about it?

COLBERT: Not being a music theorist, I'm not sure whether I could explain technically what's different, but there is a complexity of the note changes, like where you're going next in the song in Sondheim that isn't necessarily what you expect to do if you are mostly a la-di-da kind of guy.

GROSS: So what did you learn from the singing lessons that you didn't know before?

COLBERT: Well, it was like a rediscovery when I did the singing lessons, because it was - I was doing all the stuff that I was doing when I was an undergrad at Northwestern. And what I discovered, or rediscovered, was the therapeutic nature of singing lessons. They're like doing yoga, but for the inside of your body, and they're...

GROSS: Nicely put.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Thank you very much. They are. You open up and use muscles that you don't think of as malleable, and you spend a lot of time thinking about your soft palate and opening up your sinuses, and it is almost impossible for someone to explain why that's important, how you can turn your head into a bell. But that's what - at least for me, that's what we kept on working on is trying to get to things like resonance and projection and relaxation and just breathing.

And then you have to forget all of it and sing, or as my - my voice coach is Liz Caplan, and Liz would say - we would work and work and work. We worked for months. And then she said: Oh, just sing stupid. It was just a few days before we went. She goes: Just sing stupid.

Just sing like you don't - like we've never discussed any of this and just make every mistake you can think of but just sing the song with all your heart. And that was the first breakthrough I had, about a week before I had to do it. The way I sang it completely changed.

And I'm incredibly grateful to her for encouraging me to sing stupid, which was really just to sing with feeling and don't think about everything you're doing, a little less thinking, a little more feeling, I'm just quoting Momma.

GROSS: So how did you get the part? Who said get Stephen Colbert? Because it's not like you went and auditioned, right?

COLBERT: No, well, you know, I do the show 161 days a year. And sometimes I don't know who the guest is coming up. And I looked up from my desk one day, and I saw on the grid a few days ahead of me, it said Stephen Sondheim.

And I was with my booker. And I said: Stephen Sondheim. And she goes: Do you not want Stephen Sondheim? I didn't know. A lot of people here weren't sure whether you'd want Stephen Sondheim. I said: God, do I want Stephen Sondheim.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Because people don't know this about me, that I really like musical theater. And I think of myself - I think of myself as an actor and a theater person, even though I've done no theater in 20 years. And people don't perceive what I do as acting, but I still do. And the canon of Stephen Sondheim is devastatingly beautiful to me, and I was so thrilled to have him on the show. So I did something I never do with my guests: I did research.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I actually put effort into Stephen Sondheim because I knew it wouldn't be an easy interview, because you never see him being interviewed. And I assumed he doesn't like it or something. And one of my writers and I worked on a little parody of "Send in the Clowns," and one of the things - I have to stay in character. Even though I like him, I have to try to stay in character, and it was very hard for me.

Because I didn't want to go in attacking Stephen Sondheim or really even be that ignorant about Stephen Sondheim, which is another sort of tactic on the show. I can either sort of be hostile toward my guests, or I can be ignorant of what they know and care about, and it was hard for me to do that with him because I care so much about him and - or his work, that is. And so...

GROSS: You know what? Before you go any further, we have that clip right here.

COLBERT: Oh, you do?

GROSS: Yeah, we have it right here. So before you describe it more, why don't we actually hear it, and then we can talk more about how you got the part in Stephen Sondheim's "Company."

COLBERT: Great.

GROSS: So here's Stephen Sondheim, interviewed on "The Colbert Report," and you wrote a new ending to his most famous song in this, and let's hear how that played out.

COLBERT: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

COLBERT: Maybe your biggest toe-tapper out there, the one that people know the best, is "Send in the Clowns."

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Very slow tap.

COLBERT: Very slow tap.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SONDHEIM: It's from "A Little Night Music."

COLBERT: Yeah. It's from "A Little Night Music"?

SONDHEIM: Yeah, uh-huh.

COLBERT: It what - where were the clowns? Because you say where are the clowns, and we never find out where the clowns were, and it really leaves the audience hanging.

SONDHEIM: Well, she's a lost lady. She doesn't know where they are either.

COLBERT: Well, I found where they are. I've got some lyrics, if you'd like to perhaps finish your song.

SONDHEIM: Okay.

COLBERT: (Singing) Where are the clowns? I booked them for eight. Hold on, that's them on the phone, saying they're late.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: (Singing) Traffic was bad. The tunnel's a mess. All 12 of them came in one car; they lost my address. You just can't trust clowns. That's why they're called clowns.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

COLBERT: So much more satisfying, isn't it? Isn't that satisfying to know where the clowns are?

SONDHEIM: Well, listen. We have three weeks left of the show on Broadway, a little longer, before it closes in January. I don't see any reason why Bernadette Peters can't sing that.

COLBERT: I'm totally ready to pitch it.

SONDHEIM: No, we need some laughs in the second act.

COLBERT: Is there more? Are you going to have another book out in (unintelligible)?

SONDHEIM: Yeah, the second one is going to be called "Look, I Made a Hat."

COLBERT: Well, come on and talk about that.

SONDHEIM: I'd love to.

COLBERT: I rarely fawn because I like to seem more important than my...

SONDHEIM: Fawn, fawn.

COLBERT: ...than my guests. I would just say I'm so happy you came here. You and me, bud, we're the loonies. Did you know that? I bet you didn't know that. Stephen Sondheim, thank you so much.

SONDHEIM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

COLBERT: The book is "Finishing the Hat."

GROSS: I love that because, like, at the end you really genuinely tell him how much you like him. And like you said, you know, you don't usually do that on your show because you have to look superior to your guests.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Exactly, or feel superior at least.

GROSS: And that's a Sondheim lyric you're quoting at the end, right?

COLBERT: It is. I'm imperfectly quoting it, but that's from "Sunday in the Park with George." That's the boatman, who says to George: You and me, pal, we're the loonies. Did you know that? Bet you didn't know that.

And I love "Sunday in the Park with George." I saw that when I was just, just starting theater school, and I remember singing "Finishing a Hat" or at least reading the lyrics to "Finishing a Hat" and other songs from "Sunday in the Park with George" to my mom to try to explain why I wanted to be an artist.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert. We'll talk more about "Company" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: So my guest is Stephen Colbert and he was in the New York Philharmonic production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company" at Lincoln Center. I've interviewed Stephen Sondheim I think four times, and he never asked me to be in one of his musicals. So what did you do?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I did nothing.

GROSS: What did I do wrong?

COLBERT: And I did not realize that I was auditioning at that point. I was just - one of my writers, Peter Gwinn, worked on that song, and I was so happy that he had a good time at the interview, and I was so happy that it ended well with that parody of the song and that he took it as the valentine it was meant to be. And I thought that was it.

Well, great, I did a good interview with Stephen Sondheim. You know, that's a little notch on the belt. And then I got - we got a call that Lincoln Center was going to do "Company," and would I want to play a part in it.

And my agent so wisely said: No, he doesn't have any time. And he told me later that he'd already turned it down. And I said: Ah, geez, James, you know what? That was the right call. That's the right call, absolutely. Wow, that's hard to say no to, but yeah, absolutely the right call. There's no way. It's insane. I can't do it.

And then a couple days later, I got a letter from - a hand-typed letter from Stephen Sondheim saying that he, against his instincts, he had a good time on my show and would I consider playing Harry in "Company," and he ended the letter with the sentence: You have a perfect voice for musical theater.

And I read it to my wife, and she said: Boy, you have to do this. No one, let alone Stephen Sondheim, is ever going to ask you to do Sondheim. And I said: You're right, I have to do it.

And that sentence - you have a perfect voice for musical theater - I throw around willy-nilly now. Like my wife and I will be having an argument, like who takes out the trash or who needs to pick up the kid from, you know, from soccer practice. And I'll just turn and go: I have a perfect voice for musical theater. And it generally wins the argument.

GROSS: So one more thing about "Company." You know, your character on "The Colbert Report" brags about everything that he's doing, every time he's mentioned, every time he gets an award, everything that's named after him. I didn't hear you mention "Company" once on "The Colbert Report."

COLBERT: No, I did not.

GROSS: How come?

COLBERT: Not that I think that the things that my character mentions on the show get poisoned by the mention, but there is a level that people could - they could ascribe an insincerity to the things that I tout on the show.

And I didn't want to ascribe any insincerity to trying to go do this thing at Lincoln Center and - because I knew that it was - I was dealing with somebody else's delicate product, and I didn't want to invest it with my character's ego because it would just flavor what I was doing in a way that I don't think would be useful to the production.

And the second thing is, is I had no idea whether I wanted anyone to know I was doing it, because I knew how hard it was going to be, and I was afraid I would suck.

GROSS: Really?

COLBERT: Oh, yeah. I mean, I don't mind failing so much, but I am a perfectionist. So if you're a perfectionist, and you know you're about to go something, for instance "Company" at Lincoln Center, if you know you're about to do something at which you cannot be perfect, you know this ahead of time, then that is daunting because you know what your heart is like and the way you approach your work.

So it's difficult to know you're not going to be perfect. And I guess I just didn't - I was afraid to invite people.

GROSS: That's interesting. Of course, it couldn't be kept a secret.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: No, no, I know, but I didn't want to...

GROSS: You didn't want to do it yourself.

COLBERT: ...brag about it. Do you know what I mean? Of course it's not going to be kept a secret, but you know, I didn't want to say: I'm going to be great. You're not going to want to miss this.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

COLBERT: Hold onto your socks, America. I'm singing Sondheim.

BIANCULLI: Stephen Colbert, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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