Millicent Martin is making a rare visit to London this month to appear on stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in Hey, Old Friends! An 85th birthday tribute to Stephen Sondheim.
Born in Romford, Essex, Millie first tread the boards in the children’s chorus at the Opera House in Covent Garden, and later turned up in the chorus of South Pacific – with Sean Connery and Larry Hagman. She made her Broadway debut opposite Julie Andrews in The Boyfriend (1954), and took over the role of Dorothy in the original Broadway production of 42nd Street.
Back in the UK, she became a household name as the singer of topical news songs in the 1960s TV satire That Was The Week That Was, and went on to front her own show, Mainly Millicent.
She also guested a number of times at the Royal Command Performances, and appeared in classic movies Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), Alfie (1966), and Stop The World I Want To Get Off (1966).
Now resident in Beverly Hills, Millie is a regular on US television, where she is best known for her role as Daphne’s mother Gertrude in Frasier. Her TV CV also includes Days of Our Lives, Guiding Light, As the World Turns, L.A. Law, The Drew Carey Show, Will & Grace and Modern Family. She counts Betty White among her closest of friends, and recently guest-starred alongside her in the hit comedy Hot in Cleveland.
On 25 October, Millie will be returning to the London stage to star in a one-off 85th birthday celebration of Stephen Sondheim. It was for her role in Side by Side by Sondheim that the singer-actress earned her first Tony nomination in 1977, and she will be reunited with her Side By Side co-star Julie McKenzie in this star-studded charity gala concert at the Theatre Royal.
Interview with Millicent Martin
Are you looking forward to coming to London for Hey, Old Friends!?
I’m thrilled and so looking forward to it. It’s going to be wonderful. It’s got to be six or seven years ago since I was last in London. It was for Gigi at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre [in 2008], I think. I can’t remember! I know it was a long time ago. When I did Regent’s Park, it rained on me every day. It wasn’t one of my best visits, trying to do a show eight days a week and being rained on constantly.
Do you enjoy visiting London?
Oh yes, but I found it really crowded last time. A thing came on television here about homes around the world and they said that London is one of the most over-populated cities in the world. It’s actually quite a small city – it wasn’t meant to have all these people and all this excitement! But it’s only that it’s London that I’m coming. I don’t think I’d make a big long trip to anywhere other than England. Travelling is such a horror now. Before you could just hand over your passport and enjoy the lounge. Now it’s a two-hour horror of customs and queueing each way.
You must live a very different lifestyle in Los Angeles…
Well, we’re much more laid back and enjoying life. I still do a lot of television here, and that’s fun because it’s on my doorstep. Twentieth Century Fox is just across the street, so I can roll into there after a nice morning breakfast. And today, like most days of the year, it’s about 70 degrees. But we have an Olympic-sized swimming pool, at least! We also have a home in Palm Springs, which gets very hot in the summer but it’s just beautiful. It’s in the desert and has that lovely desert air. It’s like silk as you drive through it.
What can we see you in at the moment?
The most recent show I did was last week, a comedy called Two Broke Girls. I’ve done Modern Family, Castle, Bones, Chuck… most of the big comedy series. It’s so lovely. I can enjoy the week and it’s not months of exhausting work. My time off is precious to me – I love being lazy!
You’re coming over to sing Sondheim again. Do you have a particular favourite song?
I’m doing “I Never Do Anything Twice”, and that one is a favourite for me because when I was doing Side by Side by Sondheim, that wasn’t in our first production. Stephen said to me, “Very little of that song has remained in the film [The Seven Percent Solution],” and he asked me to put it into the show, and I did. I feel like that was a gift from him. I think I was probably the first person to ever sing it all the way through.
Side by Side by Sondheim opened in 1976 and was a turning point for the composer in the UK. What kind of impact did it make at the time?
It was amazing! Julia and I were both in Alan Ayckbourn plays at the time – she was in The Norman Conquest, I was in Absurd Person Singular at the Vaudeville – and David Kernan was in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. I popped in to see him and was sad because I’d been offered the role of the Fairy Queen in the film The Slipper and The Rose.
I couldn’t do it because I was booked to do a play for Michael Carter and I had top billing so I couldn’t just be let out to do a movie. I went to David and told him how sad I was about not doing the movie, and he said “Last week, I went to do a charity gig and I sang some Stephen Sondheim numbers, and the audiences loved them. I thought we could work up some Sunday shows together.”
That’s how Side by Side by Sondheim started. We did four or five of these Sunday concerts – with Ned Sherrin doing the narration – and two of them at Cleo Laine and John Dankworth’s Stables Theatre [in Wavendon, Buckinghamshire], and we were just stunned at how it took off. People would sit there all polite at the start of the show and by the end of it they’d all be on their feet. It was so exciting to realise that somehow we’d managed to make this wonderful little show and eventually bring it to the West End. It just happened and was very exciting – we all loved the music and loved doing it.
How important was the show in popularising Sondheim in the UK?
It made a big difference, I think. One night, Julia and I went out with Stephen for a little supper after one of the first shows and he said, “This work that you’ve done has opened me up to a bigger audience than I’ve had here before.” That was an enormous compliment. I think he really enjoyed the show. He didn’t have to do anything with it, or go through all the horrors of mounting a new show, which can be very daunting for some people. He just came over for it, stayed a couple of weeks for the cast recording and it was an enjoyable time for him. He even brought Jonathan Tunick over to do the recording, which says a lot about what he thought about it. It’s a lovely recording, and we’re really proud of it.
What’s the lasting appeal of Sondheim?
He’d probably shout at me and tell me I’m wrong but I think it’s his use of lyrics. It’s the same way Shakespeare took words and lyrics and shaped them until they became poetry. But more importantly, the rhythms are also different because he writes them to be sung in exactly the same way you’d speak them. So you get [sings] “Sunset Bou-levard” but you’d never stop someone for directions and ask for “Sunset Bou-levard”. But with Stephen’s lyrics – like “With so little to be sure of, If there’s anything at all. I’m sure of here and now and us together,” – it’s the same whether you say it or sing it. Because it’s written as speech, it makes it lovely to sing. You’re not twisting words, or hanging on to words, because you wouldn’t when you speak.
When we did “Not Getting Married Today” [as part of Side by Side by Sondheim] and I had the fast part, I used to speak it: “Pardon me is everybody there? Because if everybody’s there, I want to thank you all for coming to the wedding…” That’s how it sounds – no different saying it than singing it. It made it much easier to learn because you could say it over and over before introducing the music.
I’m impressed you can still remember the lyrics to “Not Getting Married Today”. Do you still know them off by heart?
I do. I remember all of Stephen’s lyrics because he doesn’t jump off at a tangent. Whatever he’s writing about, he writes that idea fully. He doesn’t jump about unless it’s somebody at that point in the show being demonic or having a break down and would do that anyway. That to me is very appealing.
What a favourite Sondheim role you’ve not played?
Oh, I would have loved to have been Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. There was one point when I was asked to do it but I was in the middle of another job and I just couldn’t make the dates. Maybe he’ll write another show for an 80-year-old Mrs Lovett!
Do you find it more difficult to secure work as you get older?
I do a lot of television, so they know me and get me to play lots of old eccentric ladies. I love guest slots because you go in for just a week. So yes, there are plenty of parts available to older women, I think. The thing I think one needs in a musical is colour and texture. It’s lovely to have these glorious young soprano and tenor voices but to have a fully rounded-out musical – which is what Stephen’s are – you need all different types of voice. You need the aged voices and the young voices, else it’s all just one colour. An evening of pink is not going to cut it: you need pinks and whites and red. After a while, if you’re just hearing one sound you can lose concentration, but with lots of different types of sound, you’ll stay interested.
Do you consider yourself a singer who acts or an actor who sings?
Before, I was definitely a singer who acted, but I now say that I’m an actress who performs songs. So I’m very good with lyrics: I’d say the best things I did in my working life were the lyrics. That was where my talents lie, in performing the lyrics. I’ll leave the glorious singing up to Julia McKenzie!
Sondheim is also very particular about his lyrics, isn’t he? More so than his music?
Yes, he is very kind and very accommodating with the music. My voice is very low, so when I went into Follies, I found that the verse of “Ah, But Underneath” had quite a wide range and went too high for me. But Stephen re-adjusted the music for me. The orchestra, when I finished the rehearsal, applauded the work he’d done adjusting the song to my range. That he will do, but he won’t touch the lyrics. He’ll come up to you after a show and say, “You sang ‘and’ instead of ‘if’ tonight!” You mustn’t change the lyrics and I wouldn’t want to.
He said to me one time, “It takes me a long time thinking about how to get those words just right,” so for somebody to just throw out the odd word is kind of an insult. It would be like giving one of Shakespeare’s great speeches and throwing in a couple of extra words. You just don’t do it.
What’s Sondheim like to be around?
I always feel for the first 10 minutes when I meet him that it’s like I haven’t met him before. I think it’s a reserve or shyness – it takes him a while to warm up to people. Even we haven’t seen each other in years, Julia and I are exactly the same when we get back together, but I think Stephen’s reserve means that he takes a while to warm up. I hope his ego enjoys the fact that we’re all making a fuss over him at this gala. He’s wonderful, and I do admire him so.
And you’ll get to spend time with your chum Julia McKenzie when you’re in the UK…
I will. Her lovely husband has decided to go to their other home, so Julia and I can have a terrible few days together! Jerry’s probably thinking, “I’m outta here, these two will never stop talking!”
You must have made some good friends over the years…
I’ve been very lucky, making some lovely friends in London and over here. Like the fabulous Betty White from The Golden Girls. She’s wonderful: she’s 93 and she’s a pistol, as they say over here. She’s so fast and has the most wicked sense of humour. Just a joy! And Alfred Molina… Lots of nice people. I’m very lucky.
And you worked with Leslie Bricusse…
Ah yes, a lovely man. I did Stop the World I Want to Get Off with him. I’ve seen him and his wife Evie a lot over here because of that. In fact, he calls me his second Evie!
You and Leslie must spend a lot of time name-dropping…
Well, I try not to. I’ve got a pretty good list but I’d better shut up because people will think I don’t know anyone who’s not famous! When you live in Beverly Hills, everybody is somebody!
For more on the Sondheim gala and to book tickets, visit www.sondheim.org/gala
Hey, Old Friends! An 85th Birthday Tribute to Stephen Sondheim
THEATRE ROYAL, DRURY LANE
Catherine Street LONDON WC2B 5 JF
Sunday 25 October at 7.30pm
Tickets £38.50 – £108.00
Box 0ffice: 0844 412 4657 www.seetckets.com