Broadway sent in the A-team for “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” an online salute to Stephen Sondheim that had theater lovers across America in full “You’re not crying, I’m crying” mode. The cast of dozens of performers consisted mostly of the biggest names in musical theater from the last 40 or so years, including Patti LuPone, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Audra McDonald, along with stars of screen as well as stage like Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Mandy Patinkin, all using home as a launchpad to go into the Great White Way’s most deeply emotional woods for a few minutes each.
Although no one quite offered any “we shall never see his likes again” sentiments, it was lost on no one participating, and probably few watching, that Sondheim is the single most celebrated figure in the history of musical theater, and that he’s never gotten quite as comprehensive and mass-witnessed a tribute as this one, nor is he likely to again. If we have a pandemic to thank for the epic intimacy that gave us Bernadette Peters, Laura Benanti, Sutton Foster, Melissa Errico, Ben Platt and Josh Groban belting out some of the greatest songs ever written in bathrooms or in front of sewn-together tablecloths to a captive audience, it may go down in history as a weirdly blessed quirk of good timing.
Not that this was the first good Sondheim salute, or the 500th. Nathan Lane stepped in with some sarcasm (actual sarcasm) about the prolific parties the honoree has already received over the decades. “He’s been so under-appreciated all these years,” said Lane. “I can’t believe there’s never been a tribute like this, a musical tribute, to this unsung genius of the American theater. It’s about time, that’s all I can say. and not a moment too soon.” The actor humbled himself to self-ID as a collaborator with Sondheim as “book writer for ‘The Frogs’ — yeah, there I said it, ‘The Frogs’ — you want to step outside?” (That little-remembered show was one of the few Sondheim projects not to have any songs covered in the show.) More seriously, Lane said, “Here’s a little show-biz adage for this evening: If at all possible, try to work with a genius… There are angry geniuses and tortured, self-destructive geniuses. He’s a nice genius.” Retreating back to irony, Lane added, “I hope he enjoys this. You know, he doesn’t like a fuss.”
But a playful and/or demanding genius at times, too. Jason Alexander also spoke in lieu of performing, offering an anecdote from when he was making his Broadway debut at age 20 in the show “Merrily We Roll Along.” Sondheim came up to him during rehearsals, he recalled, and asked if he had any vocal limitations the composer might not be aware of, because he was thinking of writing him an additional song. Alexander allowed that his one area of vulnerability was not having a good ear for chromatics. Soon after, Alexander said, Sondheim delivered him a new song to open the second act that was “nothing but chromatics.”
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who identified himself as “Steven No. 2,” whose adaptation of “West Side Story” will arrive in theaters post-pandemic, shared Sondheim’s lesser known cineaste side. “Outside of everything you’ve created for musical theater, I celebrate you for another one of your extraordinary gifts, which is your photographic memory, which is constantly updated by your love for movies,” the director said. “I don’t know many other people who know the only movie that Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard appeared in together, or when you stop me with lines like, ‘I don’t go to church; kneeling bags my nylons’ (from “Ace in the Hole”). Or the story behind ‘The calla lilies are in bloom again’ (spoken by Katharine Hepburn in “Stage Door”). I mean, I thought I was supposed to be the film guy with all that archival knowledge, but it turns out you’re that guy who knows more about Hollywood’s cultural heritage than maybe me and Marty Scorsese put together.”
Oddly, perhaps, “West Side Story” was one of just a handful of Sondheim shows that none of the performers touched — maybe because they were under orders to have that firepower kept in reserve for the Spielberg remake, but more likely because it’s the rare show that he only wrote lyrics and not music for. The most obscure slot of the night, however, was devoted to a song that he only wrote lyrics for, as Linda Lavin revived a song that she introduced in the off-Broadway “The Mad (Magazine) Show” in the mid-’60s, “The Boy From…,” a spoof of “The Girl from Ipanema” Sondheim co-wrote under the pseudonym Esteban Rio Nido.
This vault nugget was not the climax of the two-hour-and-20-minutes show, needless to say. The entire last half-hour or so seemed to consist of numbers that easily seemed like they might be the finale, with Donna Murphy’s somber “Send in the Clowns followed by a raucous quartet version of “The Ladies Who Lunch” that had Streep, Baranski and McDonald mixing their own cocktails or drinking straight from the bottle on camera. (“I did it all wrong — God!” McDowell could be heard laughing at the end, though few would agree.)
Then it was Gyllenhaal — whose singing voice came as a shock to many who didn’t see him revive “Sunday in the Park with George” five years ago — bringing things back down to earth with duet partner Annaleigh Ashford on that show’s “Move On.”
LuPone made her modest bookcase feel like a proper proscenium as she delivered a favorite song from “Anyone Can Whistle,” followed by Peters doing her own dining-room turn on a song from “Into the Woods” — not one of her witchy ones, but “the song I’d hear when I’d be sitting in the wings,” “No One Is Alone,” which she said she “thought might be just the perfect song right now.”
After host Raul Esparza’s farewell speech and brief a cappella snippet of “Our Time” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” there was a brief credit sequence that listed 97 singers — about 60 more than the audience had already seen. How to account for the big discrepancy? That became apparent with a post-credits rendition of “I’m Still Here” that had dozens of mostly lesser-known current Broadway performers getting in a few lines, four or so at a time, Zoom-style. Throwing in a couple of kid actors to sing lines associated with Elaine Stritch had the effect of being both a good gag and a sweet bit of marching-into-the-future symbolism.
The two hours prior to this last run of climaxes was hardly without other showstoppers running into the double digits. Neil Patrick Harris had an early one, saying that he “thought for my song I would sing something that shows off my vocal range” — which, for the knowing or clairvoyant, was a telltale sign that he was about to launch into the spoken-word piece from “Into the Woods” popularly known as “the witch’s rap.” Judy Kuhn ventured outside of Sondheim’s theater canon to give a rare revival to “What Can You Lose?” from the “Dick Tracy” movie’s song score.
Before Peters did “No One Is Alone” a cappella at the climax of the show, Patinkin pulled off his own baller move by singing “Lesson 8” from “Sunday in the Park with George” sans any instrumental accompaniment — outdoors, in an actual park. An empty park, too, maybe by virtue of being chilly — the singer was in a winter coat and cap — although thoughts of social distancing were clearly intentional as he got to the closing lines: “George is alone… George would have liked to see people out strolling on Sunday.”
“Into the Woods” seemed tied with “Sunday in the Park” as a favorite source of material. It was Miranda who got to sing about there being “giants in the sky,” but original “Woods” cast member Chip Zien got a bit of topicality in when he introduced his song from that show by saying, “There’s a point in Act 2 of ‘Into the Woods’ where there is a giant on the loose trying to destroy the kingdom, and that’s taken on a lot of meanings over the years, but I think it’s never been more relevant than today.”
On the technical side, most of the performances, with a few exceptions, were exceptionally better mic-ed and better shot than many of the contributions from home we’ve gotten used to seeing in live-streams or all-star network shows in the last month. Everyone sang to pre-recorded piano or trio tracks with earbuds or headphones (often artfully obscured by long hair). Sometimes you could literally see how these mini-gigs were held together by the seams. Sutton Foster sang “There Won’t Be Trumpets” from what looked suspiciously like large white tablecloths put together as a curtain — a suspicion confirmed when her daughter came out to sing “Happy Birthday” to Sondheim and charmingly revealed the bedroom dresser behind the set design.
Benanti might have won some kind of award for turning beans into gold: She sang “I Remember,” from the more obscure “Evening Primrose,” while seeming to be leaning against the edge of a bathtub — but if that sounds like it was taking home mundanity too far, it was also probably the most beautifully framed and lit performance of the show.
Certainly in the running for the most powerful, given the current moment — the one besides the honoree’s 90th birthday, that is — was Brian Stokes Mitchell’s stunning rendition of “Flag Song,” a number cut from “Assassins” but which Sondheim still thinks enough of to have asked him to sing it at a benefit a few years back. “I loved this song because if somebody asked Stephen Sondheim to write a patriotic song for our country right now with everything that is going on, I think this is the song he would write, and it’s pretty amazing that he already wrote it 30 years ago,” he said, before belting out the shockingly earnest (by “Assassins” standards, anyway) anthem of very conflicted love of country: “For a minute you’re aware / Of feeling proud / And then suddenly you’re staring / At the crowd / And you’re thinking / ‘There’s no link I can see / They’re as different from me / As they possibly could be / Then you see / The idea… / That it’s fixable tomorrow / We’ve a chance / There’s a choice.”
The show lasted a little more than 2 hours and 22 minutes — deliberately or otherwise, close to the average length of a Broadway show — after its actual kickoff time was delayed by 70 minutes due to technical difficulties. The first attempt to start the show made it clear that host Esparza was live, even if everyone else on the show was pre-taped. He appeared in a box in the corner of the frame while Stephen Schwartz played an opening overture, until producers could be heard discussing the unwanted picture-in-picture effect over the music, at which point Esparza quickly darted off-camera. He soon came back and delivered several minutes of opening commentary with no audio, presumably lost to the ages.
When the show finally started over, a half-hour later — as sponsor BroadwayWorld.co and many of the stars involved desperately tweeted viewers to come back — Esparza forwent the opening monolog and didn’t appear until about halfway through the webcast, though he ultimately put in several appearances, singing and otherwise. At the end, he thanked “all of you who stuck around with us tonight through gobs of technical problems” and sang an a cappella snippet of “Our Time,” from “Merrily We Sing Along”: “Feel how it quivers, on the brink … Everything! / Gives you the shivers / Makes you think / There’s so much stuff to sing!”
So much to sing, actually, that the common thread of the comments thread (once everyone got in their jokes about the early tech meltdown) was: “I don’t ever want this to end,” even as that last stretch of 11:00 numbers went past the 11 p.m. point on the east coast. As long as this cast of dozens was “still here,” the only pandemic anyone had to worry about was loneliness… and damn if Sondheim and Peters’ climactic ballad from “Into the Woods” didn’t have a fix for that.