Rachel Bloom Enthusiastically Explains Stephen Sondheim

The actor and writer’s book of essays ‘I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are’ is out now.

Illustration by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist. Photos by Presley Ann/Getty Images, Oliver Morris/Getty Images, and Evening Standard/Getty Images.

There aren’t many people out there who can do multiple things and do them all well. Whether or not she’d agree with me, actor and writer Rachel Bloom is one of those people.

The 35-year-old created The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the musical comedy-drama that ran for four seasons and made many women (myself included) feel uncomfortably seen in protagonist Rebecca Bunch, a lawyer who upheaves her life to follow her ex-boyfriend from summer camp to California. It’s not surprising that, in the wake of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bloom has multiple projects in the works, including two different shows at Hulu—one will reunite her with Aline Brosh McKenna, with whom she created Crazy Ex—and a film called Bar Fight co-starring Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Melissa Fumero. But over the last few pandemic years, Bloom has been busy writing her new book of essays, I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are, which is a delightful treat that explores mental health, pregnancy, being a horny teenager, etc. Per always, she writes hilariously and insightfully about these topics.

If you’re a fan of Bloom and Crazy Ex, you know that Broadway is a huge inspiration for her in many ways—look no further than truly the entire show. (“You Stupid Bitch” and “Rebecca’s Reprise” are personal standouts.) So who better for Bloom to talk about than the late Stephen Sondheim, one of her heroes and another person who fell into that “can do many things and do them well” category?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Stephen Sondheim in August 1962, the summer when 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' opened on Broadway. | Photo by Michael Hardy/Express/Getty Images

Sondheim Becoming Sondheim: An Overview

He was born in the ‘30s. When he was a kid, his father left his mother. His mother was an incredibly emotionally abusive person. Sondheim said in numerous interviews, she said, "My biggest regret in life is giving you birth." His mother sounds like someone who, from what I know about psychology, had some sort of personality disorder. [He was] tremendously abused and slowly realizing he's gay at a time where that's not something you talk about. [After Sondheim's parent's divorce they lived in Pennsylvania], where they lived down the street from Oscar Hammerstein of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

And somehow Oscar Hammerstein becomes his surrogate father. Sondheim said in numerous interviews, "If Oscar Hammerstein had been a butcher, I would've been a butcher. If he'd been a blacksmith, I would've been a blacksmith. He was a musical theater writer. So, that's what I wanted to become." And that's what inspired Sondheim to write musical theater. There's this story where he wrote this musical for his prep school and thought, "This is brilliant. I'm going to show this to Oscar Hammerstein. And he's going to be like, 'This should be on Broadway right now.’” And he showed it to Oscar Hammerstein, and he said, "This is terrible, but let me tell you why." In that afternoon, apparently, Oscar Hammerstein told Sondheim everything he needed to know about musical theater, which I theoretically doubt.

So he started writing musicals and he wrote Saturday Night when he was in his early 20s. And then Leonard Bernstein, who didn't write lyrics, started writing West Side Story. They were looking for a lyricist. And I think through Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim got the gig. I want to see how old Stephen Sondheim was when he wrote West Side Story—he was 25, 26 years old. But also he was writing for someone. I mean, that must have been so scary to be writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein, who was already an American legend.

When Bloom Went Into the Woods

The real gateway into Sondheim fanaticism was my junior year of high school. I was in a production of Into the Woods, where I played the Witch. Thank you very much. And the music director, who was called in to direct this, was like my age, a year older. And he was this prodigy from the San Gabriel Valley. So I fell madly in love. And he was obsessed with Sondheim. He had all of his books and he would spend hours talking about the music theme in Into the Woods. So as I fell more and more in love with this guy, I also fell more in love with Sondheim. So that's the summer that I first listened to Sunday in the Park and Assassins, which led me into every other Sondheim thing. And long after I got over that guy, I remained in love with Sondheim's music.

Sondheim's Signature Pastiche

His use of pastiche [is a huge influence]. I started out as a musical theater performer who then fell in love with sketch comedy and then melded the two. I come from a pastiche place of writing. Follies and Assassins are hugely influential on me. I would say Assassins and then Chicago by Kander and Ebb are probably my two biggest influences because they take the idea of pastiche and then they make it dark, right? They put it on its head.

I call myself a lyricist with a capital L, and a composer with a small C. Sondheim created his own sound. Not everything he does, [but] most of the things he does aren't nestled in this idea of pastiche. And because I admire him so much as a composer, it's part of the reason I rarely just work as a composer solo because he studied classical training. There's something that you get from working with someone who is a brilliant musician even if you're working in pastiche.

When Rachel Met Steve

Years ago when I was in college, I was obsessed with the revival of Sweeney Todd. I saw it at least twice on Broadway, if not three times. And after one of the shows, they had an in-person album signing of the cast album with Sondheim and the entire cast. So I went to that production and then I waited in the line. And so I met him.

My point of connection with him was that when I was a senior in high school, I grew up in Los Angeles. There was a big concert for Sondheim's 75th birthday at the Hollywood Bowl. And a bunch of choirs from public schools in the Los Angeles area were asked to come on stage and sing the final number, which was “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along. And I was in that 500-kid choir. I was just about to go to school to major in musical theater. I remember walking in the Hollywood Bowl and I walked into Bernadette Peters literally in the middle of rehearsing. And I was dead. Then I say, "I have to go to the bathroom." And they were like, “Fuck, we don't know where to take your kids to the bathroom.” So they took a group of us to the dressing room bathroom. And I walk into this room with a couple other kids to use the bathroom, and sitting there is Sondheim, Bernadette Peters, Audra McDonald, Stephanie D'Abruzzo from Avenue Q. And then when I walked out, I did such a wimp thing. I went, "You're all my heroes." But I shouted it as I was walking out. When I met Sondheim, I brought that up. I was like, "I sang in the choir of your Hollywood Bowl show." And he's like, "Oh, that was so great." I was weeping.

Stephen Sondheim at London's Old Vic Theatre in November 2015. | Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

Sondheim the Pothead

I met some of his friends at the Tonys a couple years ago. I wore a shirt that was a sketch of him smoking a big blunt. And Sondheim was a known pothead. So I was like, "I want to smoke with Stephen Sondheim, how do I make that happen?" And one of his friends was like, "I feel like we can make that happen." But I never heard back from him. From what I know, he smoked a lot of weed and he drank a lot. He's a god of musical theater. But I think the most important and interesting parts of Sondheim are the parts of himself that are flawed.

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Kerensa Cadenas is the editorial director of entertainment at Thrillist. You can follow her @kerensacadenas.