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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Tonight on PBS, Great Performances presents Stephen Sondheim's "Company" with the New York Philharmonic. The musical, written by George Firth - with music and lyrics by Sondheim - premiered on Broadway in 1970. More than 40 years later, this concert revival was mounted and it's a terrific production. Neil Patrick Harris stars as Bobby. His co-stars include, Patti LuPone and several players more associated with TV than Broadway - like Jon Cryer, Christina Hendricks, and our next guest, Stephen Colbert, who plays Harry, one of Bobby's married friends.

Terry spoke with Stephen Colbert in 2011, when the film production of the New York concert - the one shown tonight on PBS - was presented as a four-day special event in select movie theaters nationwide.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Stephen Colbert, 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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

GROSS: Now, there's a song in "Company" that you sing called "Sorry-Grateful," and it's, 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 MOVIE, "COMPANY")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY-GRATEFUL")

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (as Robert) You ever sorry you got married?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

(as Harry) (Singing) 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: (as character) Harry, darling. Come to bed.

COLBERT: (as Harry) Coming, darling.

GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert, in Stephen Sondheim's "Company." 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 supposed. 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 went to the theater program there, and I worked very hard, and my intention was to spend my life doing theater.

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 -that - 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: 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 doing when I was an undergrad at Northwestern. And what I discovered, or rediscovered, was the therapeutic nature of singing lessons.

They - they're like doing yoga but for the inside of your body, and they're...

GROSS: Nicely put.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Thank you very much. They are. You open up and use muscles that you don't think of as malleable, and we don't - 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 the things like resonance and projection and relaxation and just breathing.

And then you have to forget all of it and sing, or as - 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 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, 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 said: 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.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I can't - 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 I - 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.

(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." So...

COLBERT: OK. 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.

(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: OK.

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

(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.

(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 long 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: I hope - is there more? Are you going to have another book out in (unintelligible)?

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

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.

(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 say, you know, you don't usually do that on your show because you have to look superior to your guests.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Exactly, or feel superior at least.

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

COLBERT: It is. It's - 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 the Hat" or at least reading the lyrics to "Finishing the 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.

BIANCULLI: Stephen Colbert speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Stephen Colbert, one of the cast members of the New York Philharmonic's concert revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Company." That production receives its TV premier tonight on Great Performances on PBS.

GROSS: OK, well, look. 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...

COLBERT: Well, here's - I don't - I did nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

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 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 was Sondheim on the set at all? And did he work with the people in the show?

COLBERT: He was there. He was there once we got into Lincoln Center, which is to say the day that we opened, because we never ran it until we did it for the opening-night crowd.

GROSS: Yeah, because you were all rehearsing long-distance, right? I read you were rehearsing via Skype.

COLBERT: We were rehearsing long-distance. It was all put together -yeah, it was rehearsing via Skype, or people were just sending you an MP3 of your harmonies, and then you'd be working on it alone with, you know, a pair of cans on, trying to sing along, your Bobbys - Bobby, Bobby, baby. I think my last words on this Earth, I'll go: Bobby, baby. And people will go: What does that mean? We'll never know. Who's Bobby?

And all of us, all of us were under the impression that this was going to be a stage reading, that there'd be like music stands and, you know, the music in front of you and perhaps we'd wear tuxedos, but we would basically be standing there with the orchestra behind us. We didn't know this was going to be fully staged.

And this slowly, it slowly dawned on us as we had to show up for fight choreography and, you know, dance choreography and, you know: Well, everybody, let's be off-book tomorrow. It slowly dawned on us: No, we're doing "Company" in two weeks. We're doing "Company."

GROSS: Stephen Colbert, I always love talking with you. Thank you so much for coming on FRESH AIR today.

COLBERT: Well, thanks for having me on. It's always fun.

BIANCULLI: Stephen Colbert, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. He appears in Stephen Sondheim's "Company," with the New York Philharmonic, which premiers tonight on Great Performances on PBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "COMPANY")

JENNIFER LAURA THOMPSON: (as Jenny) (Singing) Bobby.

CRAIG BIERKO: (as Peter) (Singing) Bobby.

THOMPSON: (as Jenny) (Singing) Bobby, baby.

BIERKO: (as Peter) (Singing) Bobby, bubi.

PATTI LUPONE: (as Joanne) (Singing) Robby. Robert, darling...

JON CRYER: (as David) (Singing) Bobby we've been trying to call you.

THOMPSON: (as Jenny) (Singing) Bobby, baby.

JIM WALTON: (as Larry) (Singing) Bobby bubi.

JILL PAICE: (as Susan) (Singing) Angel, I've got something to tell you.

COLBERT: (as Harry) (Singing) Bob.

WALTON: (as Larry) (Singing) Rob-o...

LUPONE: (as Joanne) (Singing) Bobby, love

PAICE: (as Susan) (Singing) Bobby, honey...

KATIE FINNERAN AND AARON LAZAR: (as Amy and Paul) (Singing) Bobby, we've been trying to reach you all day

WALTON: (as Larry) (Singing) Bobby...

COLBERT: (as Harry) (Singing) Bobby...

BIERKO: (as Peter) (Singing) Bobby baby...

MARTHA PLIMPTON: (as Sarah) (Singing) Angel..

LUPONE: (as Joanne) (Singing) Bobby, honey...

JON CRYER AND JENNIFER LAURA THOMPSON: (as David and Jenny) (Singing) Bobby, we've been trying to reach you all day.

PATTI LUPONE AND JIM WALTON: (as Joanne and Larry) (Singing) The kids were asking, Bobby...

LAZAR: (Amy and Paul) (Singing) Bobby, there was something we wanted to say.

JON CRYER AND JENNIFER LAURA HOMPSON: (David and Jenny) (Singing) Your line was busy.

CRAIG BIERKO AND JILL PAICE: (as Peter and Susan) (Singing) Bobby?

STEPHEN COLBERT AND MARTHA PLIMPTON: (as Harry and Sarah) (Singing) Bobby. Sweetie. How have you been??

WALTON: (as Joanne and Larry) (Singing) Stop by on your way home.

JENNIFER LAURA HOMPSON: (as Jenny) (Singing) Seems like weeks since we talked to you.

HOMPSON: (as David and Jenny) (Singing) Drop by anytime.

COLBERT: (as Harry) (Singing) Bobby, there's a concert on Tuesday. Hank and Mary get into town.

THOMPSON: (as Sarah) (Singing) How about some Scrabble on Sunday?

LAZAR: (Amy and Paul) (Singing) Why don't we all go to the beach next weekend?

WALTON: (as Joanne and Larry) Bob, we're having people in Saturday night.

PLIMPTON: (as Sarah) (Singing) Angel...

LUPONE: (as David) Whatcha doing Thursday?

MARTHA PLIMPTON AND STEPHEN COLBERT: (as Sarah and Harry Time we got together, is Wednesday alright?

KATIE FINNERAN: (as Amy) (Singing) Bobby...

WALTON: (as Larry) (Singing) Rob-o..

PAICE: (as Susan) (Singing) Bobby, honey...

LAZAR: (as Amy and Paul) (Singing) Eight o'clock on Monday.

LUPONE: (as Joanne) (Singing) Robby, darling...

BIERKO: (as Peter) (Singing) Bobby fella...

PATTI LUPONE AND CRAIG BIERKO: (as Joanne and Peter) (Singing) Bobby, baby...

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. And here's Neil Patrick Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "COMPANY")

HARRIS: (as Robert) (Singing) Phone rings, door chimes. In comes company. No strings, good times, room hums, company. Late nights, quick bites, party games. Deep talks, long walks, telephone calls. Thoughts shared, souls bared, private names. All those photos up on the walls, with love. With love filling the days. With love" seventy ways. To Bobby with love...

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