From Broadway to Hollywood: A Conversation with Liz Callaway
Liz Callaway landed her first Broadway role at 20. Four decades later, she hasn't stopped.
Before Liz Callaway was 30, she’d conquered Broadway. Before she was 40, she’d sang an Oscar-nominated song, been nominated for a Tony, and won an Emmy. In the last few weeks, she was nominated for her first Grammy.
Callaway and I first connected a few months ago after she read my history of television theme songs and told me that she sang back-up vocals on the theme song for The Nanny, which her sister wrote and sang lead on. Intrigued, we spoke for an hour last week to discuss her recent Grammy nomination, what it was like to star in Cats, and how she made the jump from Broadway to Hollywood.
A Conversation with Liz Callaway
Your album To Steve with Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim was recently nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. Even though you’ve already had tons of success is it still thrilling to be recognized like that?
Absolutely. I'm still a little bit in shock, though not because my album isn't worthy. I'm just the first of my Broadway peers to break into this category. It's such a mainstream category.
I was doing a concert in Indianapolis, and I got off the stage and my phone blew up with texts congratulating me for my nomination. I thought, “Oh, wow, I must have been nominated for the liner notes that I wrote for my album.” But I wasn’t. It was the album itself. I've always felt like a part of the theater community, but this actually makes me feel part of the music community. I'm really excited at this stage of my life and my career to be recognized like that.
Did you know you had a chance at being nominated?
Yes. I submitted my album for consideration, but it was almost an afterthought. I initially just submitted the liner notes for the album. I had written a 16-page booklet for the album, and Scott Simon from NPR wrote some additional notes. While I was doing that, I realized I could also submit for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. So, I submitted it. Maybe people liked the album. Maybe they wanted to recognize the work of Stephen Sondheim. Or maybe they wanted to recognize everything I’ve done so far.
Your relationship with Sondheim’s music goes back very far. The first Broadway show you saw was his Company. The first Broadway show you landed was his Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. How has your relationship with his music changed over the decades?
As you noted, much of my early success was tied to his work. He was a master at writing wonderful, complicated songs for women of a certain age. So, it was nice to dive into his catalog and explore songs that I hadn’t before and revisit songs I had sung at a young age, albeit from a new perspective.
After he passed, I did a concert at 54 Below in New York celebrating his work. Some people said, “Hey, you should make a live album of this. This is something really special.” So, I put on my producer hat, and we recorded it. Since then, it’s taken on a life of its own, which has been very special.
Did you get to know him personally?
I did, though I was always a little intimidated by him because I was in awe of him. We weren’t super close, though. There are other composers I’ve gotten to know better, like Stephen Schwartz. I play tennis with him.
But Sondheim had a huge impact on my life. As you noted, my first Broadway show was Merrily We Roll Along. If I hadn't gotten that, I wouldn't have gotten other shows, met my husband, or had my son. It all starts with Merrily We Roll Along for me. I wanted to help keep Sondheim’s music alive.
So, you landed Merrily We Roll Along when you were only 20. Your next show was Baby, which you received a Tony nomination for. Were you surprised how fast things happened for you?
Yes. It all happened very fast. When I moved to New York, I was 18. I only went to college for a few months. I knew I had talent, but I also knew I was very raw. My initial goal was to get in an off-Broadway musical chorus within three years. Things happened so fast that I never even got the chance to learn that there are no choruses for off-Broadway plays.
I do think having my first Broadway show be Merrily We Roll Along was a good lesson for me because it closed after two weeks. Now, it’s a huge hit on Broadway. You just never know.
Why did it only run for two weeks?
People just didn’t like it or understand it. Now, everyone considers it to be one of Sondheim's finest scores. Go figure!
During much of the 1990s, you played the role of Grizabella in Cats. Unlike earlier roles in Baby and Miss Saigon, you did not originate that role. Is there a difference coming into a role when you aren’t the first to do it?