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Eleri Ward’s Sondheim show interprets the Broadway legend in an unusual, intimate way

A native of Chicago, musician Eleri Ward is now based in New York City. She’s quick to mention her role in St. Louis years ago, as part of the ensemble in the Muny’s “Wizard of Oz,” as a memorable moment in her career.
Eleri Ward
A native of Chicago, musician Eleri Ward is now based in New York City. She’s quick to mention her role in St. Louis years ago, as part of the ensemble in the Muny’s “Wizard of Oz,” as a memorable moment in her career.

Early in 2019, Eleri Ward started recording covers of Stephen Sondheim songs in her room. It was just something the young singer and guitarist did for personal enjoyment, taking Sondheim’s compositions and bringing a Sufjan Stevens-esque spirit to the beloved Broadway tunes.

But then, in 2021, she joined TikTok. It seemed a useful archive for what by then had grown into two years’ worth of DIY pieces. Ward never expected to go viral — which is exactly what happened after she shared her version of “Johanna (Reprisal),” from the musical “Sweeney Todd.”

From there, Ward developed her recently released album, “A Perfect Little Death: Acoustic Sondheim,” which was recorded within the confines of her closet. She was still exploring distribution ideas when she heard from St. Louis native Kurt Deutsch of Ghostlight Records. Deutsch, whose label focuses on the work of musical theater artists, listened to one of Ward’s covers and found it unlike anything he had heard.

Eleri Ward began arranging unusual covers of Stephen Sondheim songs long before the Broadway legend’s recent passing. Now, she hopes people find healing in her 2021 album “A Perfect Little Death.”
David Noles
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Eleri Ward began arranging unusual covers of Stephen Sondheim songs long before the Broadway legend’s recent death. Now, she hopes people find healing in her 2021 album “A Perfect Little Death.”

“I reached out to her and [said]: ‘This is beautiful. Have you ever thought about making a full album of these things?’” Deutsch recalled to St. Louis on the Air. Ward told him that in fact she had one in hand — and offered to let him listen to it.

“It was just so beautiful,” Deutsch said. “And so I asked her if she wanted me to distribute it on Ghostlight Records.”

Formally released last June, “A Perfect Little Death” includes 13 Sondheim tracks full of gorgeous harmonies that, as the Ghostlight Records website describes them, weave “in and out of darkness and light” in Ward’s thoughtful care.

Sondheim, who died in late November, knew of Ward’s work. The Chicago native never met him, but multiple people told her they had shared her innovations with him. When the Broadway legend died, Ward said she cried “the whole rest of the night.”

“But at the same time, the fact that people were turning to his canon to honor him and heal, and [that] a part of that was listening to my album, it was very touching to me that I could be one of the vessels for this giant’s work,” Ward said.

Next week, she’ll bring that music to St. Louis’ Blue Strawberry in the Central West End. She envisions it as an experience at the nexus of theater and cabaret.

“It’s just gonna be me and the guitar, which is super raw and intimate, and I think allows a lot of space for us to be super dropped in with the music,” the musician said.

On Friday’s talk show, Ward joined host Sarah Fenske for a preview of the Feb. 4 event — and also shared some tunes.

Take a listen:

Eleri Ward brings her Sondheim tribute to St. Louis
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Related Event
What: Eleri Ward at the Blue Strawberry
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4
Where: 364 N. Boyle Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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