Sondheim covers on Instagram, TikTok paved Eleri Ward's path
NEW YORK (AP) — It was 2019 and aspiring Broadway actor Eleri Ward had Stephen Sondheim’s “Every Day a Little Death” stuck in her head.
“I would see friends at auditions and whatnot, and having been awake since like 4 or 5 a.m., they’d ask me how I’m doing,” she said. “And I responded with, ‘Oh, every day a little death.’ I was saying it as a stupid joke.”
She decided to record an acoustic rendition in her New York apartment's living room and posted the iPhone video to Instagram on a Friday afternoon that March.
Her innovation helped fulfill her aspiration: That simple post, amassing 120 likes, would lead to a recording contract, a job as the opening act for Josh Groban on tour last summer and the release Friday of her second indie-folk CD of Sondheim covers, “Keep a Tender Distance,” on Ghostlight Records.
“She’s completely unafraid of exploring the darkness of loneliness, as Sondheim does as well,” said two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy, the original Fosca in “Passion.” “She’s a fully present human in expressing both through her music and through what she shares in conversation with her audiences about what’s painful about being human.”
After the initial Instagram post, sung in a style inspired by Sufjan Stevens, Ward's friend pushed her to explore more from Sondheim.
“So the very next day I came up with 'Johanna (Reprise),’” Ward said. During the pandemic, Ward and her boyfriend put the contents of their New York apartment in storage and moved to Boston. By January 2021, she was posting her Sondheim videos to TikTok, at the suggestion of another friend.
“People really responded to them, wanted me to release these covers on streaming services,” Ward recalled. “So I said, ‘OK, I know how to record guitar and vocals and keyboard,’ so we had a walk-in closet in this apartment in Boston and I started recording what I had already created and editing and creating new things along the way.”
She made a TikTok asking Broadway World to write about her album, and the website subsequently ran a Q&A. Kurt Deutsch, founder of Ghostlight Records and a senior vice president of Warner Music Entertainment & Theatrical Ventures, read that story, searched online, discovered “Johanna (Reprise)” and messaged Ward on Instagram.
“I was in my Boston apartment about to eat sushi with my boyfriend and I freaked out,” Ward said.
“I had never really heard Sondheim done in that way,” Deutsch said. “I found her music just glorious and I said, ‘Do you have more?’”
Ward’s debut album of acoustic Sondheim covers, “A Perfect Little Death,” was recorded in the closet of the Boston apartment and released by Ghostlight on Oct. 1, 2021.
For her second album she was afforded 11 sessions last year at Better Company in Brooklyn and got to lay down her own backing vocals. The recording was initially issued digitally in September, and Ward made her off-Broadway debut last fall as a swing in “Only Gold.” She’s in the midst of a winter/spring solo tour with dates all over the country.
Ward couldn't contain her tears as she walked onstage at Manhattan's Sony Hall for a December concert. She was overwhelmed with joy when Bobby Conte and Jennifer Simard, standouts in last season's revival of “Company,” joined her for duets.
“I lead with my heart when I’m performing.” Ward said. “My solo shows, this is my chance to open up my whole soul to you. It’s a very vulnerable but beautiful experience.”
Now 28, Ward grew up in the Chicago suburb of Burr Ridge, Illinois, her mom an interior designer and real estate broker and her dad a consultant. She started piano lessons at 5 and remembers seeing “Sweeney Todd” at the suburban Drury Lane Theatre and attending a Sondheim talk with critic Frank Rich.
After graduation from high school at Chicago Academy of the Arts, where Ward sang Amy in “Company,” she enrolled at Boston's Berklee College of Music. Ward transferred across the street to the Boston Conservatory and earned a 2017 bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater with an emphasis in acting and songwriting.
She picked up a guitar in 2016 only because a friend was selling hers for $40.
“It totally open and whole new voice for me artistically,” Ward said. “I was writing completely different music on guitar and I just sort of fell in love with it.”
Days after her debut album's release, Ghostlight helped arranged a concert at Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan. Groban was in attendance, having been given a copy of her recording by Kevin Gore, Warner's president of global catalog for recorded music.
Sondheim died that November at age 91, bringing wider attention to Ward’s covers. In December, Groban asked Ward to criss-cross the U.S. with him for a 26-show, six-week summer tour.
Emotion overflowed last March after Ward's concert at New York's 184-seat Joe’s Pub, where she sang a duet of “Loving You” with Murphy. Ward was introduced after the show to Rick Pappas, Sondheim’s lawyer and the executor of his estate.
“Rick says, 'I want you to know that Sondheim loved your album and loved that you were doing something he never imagined with his music and bringing it to new audiences,'” Ward said. “I’m holding onto Donna Murphy, crying, and she’s crying. It was just the most amazing moment and such validation that I just never thought I was going to get.”
Ronald Blum, The Associated Press