Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday party was the best Broadway fever dream
The Daily Beast
April 27, 2020
Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and Christine Baranski stole the show. But Stephen Sondheim’s online 90th birthday celebration also underscored his genius, and the power of theater.
Sure, we can talk about technical gremlins. But honestly, when you have Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and Christine Baranski in their bathrobes swigging from Martini, Scotch, and wine glasses, singing “The Ladies Who Lunch” as a masterfully growling, slurring trio, technical gremlins recede into the territory of “whatever.”
Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, a benefit broadcast by Broadway.com for ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty), started so late one YouTube commenter wondered if Stephen Sondheim would turn 100 before it got underway. Someone else mulled: “Did Dr. Fauci close this down?”
But this was also a very putting-on-a-show, seat-of-pants affair—and when you’re crafting a star-studded tribute to the world’s pre-eminent musical craftsman in the middle of a global lockdown, well, you have some leeway. The performances may have been pre-recorded, the technical logistics were not so easily marshaled.
Plus, as the feverishly messaging fans on YouTube showed: This was a captive audience. Broadway fans denied the chance to see shows on Broadway, and offered the best of it online for an evening are not going anywhere. The show was timed to happen on the exact 50th anniversary of the opening night of Sondheim’s musical Company.
When it finally did begin, it was piercing to see the title of the show imagined as a Broadway marquee, the sound of car horns and city life a mournful reminder of Broadway’s closure, and this evening’s event a feat of technology executed in coronavirus lockdown, far away from any stage.
The evening’s producer and live-host Raúl Esparza, who has starred in many Sondheim productions, could not be heard. The lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz played the prologue of Follies. Then the feed died completely. Would we ever see Sondheim’s songs sung by Streep, McDonald, Baranski, Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Annaleigh Ashford, Sutton Foster, Jake Gyllenhaal, Beanie Feldstein, Ben Platt … and the rest?
Well, yes, we would—and, when the elves finally got it together, the show fast became something that was not just artistically beautiful and that hopefully raises a lot of money for an urgent cause—but something that showcased the full range of humanity in Sondheim’s work.
Sondheim doesn’t just make us laugh and cry, he makes us think, examine, touch the open wound, and see the absurd, macabre, painful, delightful, and revelatory in our relationships with others and within ourselves. Sondheim is the ultimate outer and inner truth-teller, and this concert was—for a world upended by coronavirus—perfectly timed, gorgeously performed catharsis.
Foster sang “There Won’t Be Trumpets” from Anyone Can Whistle, letting her daughter Emily Griffin steal her mini-show dressed in an “I Love Sondheim” T-shirt, singing a cute rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Neil Patrick Harris employed his two children, Harper and Gideon, in his rendition of “The Witch’s Rap.” His deadpan children, again, completely co-opted the spotlight.
When Judy Kuhn sang “What Can You Lose” from Dick Tracy, her connection with the material, humming through the screen, was as painfully acute as the best Sondheim can be.
Just as her character Bobby has gender-switched in the latest production of Company (like every show on Broadway right now, not open), so Katrina Lenk played guitar and sang the traditionally male-voiced love song “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd.
By now, technical glitches had been well and truly forgotten; this was simply, and quickly, becoming an evening of delicious musical pleasure, with musical direction by Mary Mitchell-Campbell, and directed by Paul Wontorek. Birthday messages were many; an added layer of fascination came in who called the evening’s invisible subject “Steve” or “Mr. Sondheim.”
The young actor Iain Armitage (Ziggy in Big Little Lies, and Young Sheldon) spoke at insightful speed about young people and art, revealing that as an even younger kid, he was adept at interpreting “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park With George. Beanie Feldstein and Ben Platt sang, and shimmered, their way through “It Takes Two” from Into the Woods, while Brandon Uranowitz showed his skillful command of Sondheim’s lyrics, phrasing, and meaning in “With So Little to Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle.
If, by now, you were weeping steadily over your laptop, Randy Rainbow, the doyen of musical re-interpretation, had wittily re-conceived “By the Sea” as an imagined future as Sondheim’s other half—ending with a dead-eyed plea for work.
More measured tributes came from Mandy Patinkin, who said Sondheim “turned darkness into light,” and Steven Spielberg, who confessed himself envious of Sondheim’s “photographic memory” when it came to old movies.
Before she sang “Broadway Baby,” Maria Friedman revealed that when she had first performed it, a man had shouted at her—then a young, nervous singer—“Get off, we want Elaine Stritch.” Yes, the experience was awful, but it also made her “dig deep” within herself, “and let the work do the talking.”
The roster of talent was a musical theater fan’s most delirious dream: Lin-Manuel Miranda sang “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods, Josh Groban “Children Will Listen” from Into The Woods and “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd, Lea Salonga “Loving You” from Passion, Laura Benanti “I Remember” from Evening Primrose, Michael Cerveris “Finishing the Hat,” and Linda Lavin “The Boy From…”
Joanna Gleason said that she told young people who asked her that appearing in a Sondheim musical was “not like anything else you ever know.” It may have been Sondheim’s 90th birthday, but he was “the gift to all of us,” she added. Jason Alexander recalled Sondheim crafting a song with “chromatics, sharps, and flats” after Alexander had told him he was weak on all the above. “He just looked at me and said, ‘You just have to learn.’”
Brian Stokes Mitchell sang “The Flag Song,” a standard written 30 years ago and ultimately excised from Assassins, but—as the actor noted—it is perfect for the moment we are in; a song that deconstructs our complicated relationship to patriotism and identity.
Alexander Gemignani provided the evening’s best performance from a chair, with excellent hand and arm choreography, with “Buddy’s Blues,” and Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh, and Thom Sesma performed “Someone in a Tree” as a kind of Brady Bunch, Zoom-ified quartet. Esparza himself sang “Take Me to the World,” and really, anyone watching would have gladly offered to do precisely that.
Then, well, the musical nerd rocket-ship accelerated into camp hyperspace. First, Donna Murphy sang the heart-rending “Send in the Clowns” as the much-delayed show’s now-perfectly and literally timed 11 o’clock number.
A magnificent gay asteroid blazed into life: Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and Christine Baranski sang “The Ladies Who Lunch” in bathrobes, wielding their finest drink glasses—the best Zoom party you could ever be invited to.
Reprising from the 2017 Broadway revival, Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal sang “Move On” from Sunday in the Park With George, reminding this viewer how Ashford had so commanded the stage as an absolute equal to Gyllenhaal, the movie star. Here, the diktat of social isolation—with the two actors singing in duet in different locations—emphasized their characters’ own internal journeys powerfully.
More treats to end on: Patti LuPone sang “Anyone Can Whistle,” and finally Bernadette Peters sang, a cappella, “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods. As she said in closing, “That might be the perfect song right now.”
At nearly 11:30 p.m., Esparza addressed viewers, either now passed out in ecstatic shock or gazing dreamily into the night sky, about what he saw as the key to Sondheim’s brilliance. “He never stops trying,” Esparza said, adding that if no work of art is ever finished the creative process is also in perennial flux, and so “everything is worth trying… That’s the biggest thing I know about Stephen Sondheim. You keep going on. You keep moving on.”
These stirring words were not the end. This was a show, after all. It needed an encore, and so it came—“I’m Still Here” from Follies, as sung by a multitude of Broadway performers including Tony winner André De Shields.
The song did not just encapsulate Sondheim’s long life of artistic ambition and innovation, but also the defiance to live, love, and create in all of us, especially in the topsy-turvy pandemic world of now. For all the “good times and bum times,” we are still here.