On Sunday night, stars of stage and screen gathered in their homes to put on a virtual concert in celebration of legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday. The concert, hosted by Raúl Esparza, was an intimate Zoom celebration. The party was periodically plagued by technical glitches — it started more than an hour late, after a long period in which no sound was audible — but in the end, it didn’t matter. The whole experience turned out to be perfect for this moment in time, whether or not you’re a musical theater devotee. Sondheim is our great bard of loneliness and alienation, and his birthday concert, officially titled “Take Me to the World,” makes a strong argument that he’s the de facto poet laureate of this social distancing moment.
Sondheim’s birthday was actually March 22, but Sunday night was a good time to celebrate nonetheless: April 26 also marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of Company, one of Sondheim’s most beloved shows. Company was on the cusp of a gender-bent revival on Broadway until the pandemic shut down the entire theater season; you could find its planned stars, Katrina Lenk and Patti LuPone, in Sunday’s tribute instead.
The full concert is nearly two and a half hours long, but it’s well worth watching on YouTube: You get to see Jake Gyllenhaal belting his way through a love duet with Annaleigh Ashford, Melissa Errico doing a stripped-down and lovely take on “Children and Art,” and Jason Alexander telling the story of how Sondheim wrote one of the songs in Merrily We Roll Along purely to mess with the actor. But if you don’t have a spare two and a half hours to spend today, we’ve assembled 12 highlights for you.
Pour yourself a glass of something, settle in, and prepare to feel some very cathartic feelings. As it turns out, no one is alone.
“Johanna” from Sweeney Todd — Katrina Lenk
“Johanna” is from Sondheim’s creepy, pulpy, pitch-black tragicomedy Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The musical itself features murder, cannibalism, and a very horny, rape-y judge. “Johanna” is a song about Todd’s estranged daughter, who’s now the ward of said judge, Judge Turpin. Turpin keeps Johanna locked up, in a scenario that’s more like a kidnapper keeping his victim captive than a fairy-tale princess in a castle.
Lenk’s performance, particularly in her vocals and inflections (she also plays the guitar!), divorced the song from its original context, removing the horror and generally unnerving tone. In doing so, Lenk made me appreciate how Sondheim acutely wrote this song about longing and love, and how fine the line is between those feelings and the darkness of obsessive lust. Sondheim was so aware of that threshold and tension throughout his work, but he best used it to create the surreal tragedy of Sweeney Todd and “Johanna.” —Alex Abad-Santos
“It Takes Two” from Into the Woods — Beanie Feldstein and Ben Platt
It’s become déclassé among Sondheim fans to express too much affection for the fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, arguably the most mainstream and commercially successful of all his work. But Into the Woods featured heavily in his 90th birthday concert, and the songs themselves made the case for why. “It Takes Two” is ostensibly about a husband and wife team trying to collect four magical items in three days’ time so they can feed a cow to heal a witch to get a baby, and — look, it’s complicated. But the song is really about the wonderful surprise of falling in love all over again with someone you thought you knew.
“It Takes Two” is so exuberant that you barely even have to sing it to sell it, but Feldstein and Platt sing the heck out of it and look like they’re having a blast. It’s a great moment that reminds us of the reason for Into the Wood’s relative commercial success: It’s vibrant, singable fun. For all we talk about Sondheim’s complexity, social themes, and cultural importance, there’s true joy, humor, and love behind everything he writes. —Aja Romano
“Lesson #8” from Sunday in the Park with George — Mandy Patinkin
Sunday in the Park with George takes place across two generations. The first act is about the 19th-century pointillism artist George Seurat, while the second act follows George’s great-grandson, also an artist and also named George. “Lesson #8” is from the second act, and it comes after 20th-century George’s grandmother dies.
In the song, George is going through his great-grandmother’s old French-to-English lesson book — hence “Lesson #8” — and he’s thinking about how he misses his grandmother and how he’s having trouble making art. And so I’ve always thought of it as a song about being artistically blocked and the depression that comes with it, about losing faith in one’s ability to see beauty in the world.
But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear this song now without thinking about Mandy Patinkin standing in his backyard with his dog, near tears as he sings a cappella, “Where are the people out strolling on Sunday?” Patinkin made it a song about loneliness and isolation, which is to say he made it a song about this particular moment in time. It’s an enormously warm and vulnerable performance, and right now, it’s incredibly cathartic to watch. —Constance Grady
“Loving You” from Passion — Lea Salonga
One of the most effective moments of the evening was the hard cut to Lea Salonga — Broadway legend, owner of the world’s most perfect voice, and objectively the best Disney princess — singing “Loving You” from 1994’s Passion. Passion is perhaps Sondheim’s most challenging show within a long career of challenging shows. In Passion, a manipulative woman falls in love with a young soldier and proceeds to slowly pry him away from his current, passionate love affair. It’s a portrait of love as dark, ugly, possessive, jealous, bitter, and unapologetically intense, all accompanied by some of Sondheim’s most lush and soaring music.
Donna Murphy originated the difficult onstage role of Sondheim’s obsessive antihero, but in this moment, Salonga owns the song. Her tremulous warble and the dark edge she gives to wryly simplistic lines — like “loving you is not a choice and not much reason to rejoice” — embody both her mesmerizing talent as an actress and Sondheim’s genius at manifesting characters through their songs. “Loving You” sounds like a simple love song, until you look more closely and realize the singer is grimly vowing to stalk the object of their affection until they die. By the time you get to the line, “Loving you is not in my control,” you realize that “love” in this framing is dangerous and sober. Salonga sells it with quiet determination, and it’s enthralling. —AR
“I Remember Sky” from Evening Primrose — Laura Benanti
The title of Sondheim’s birthday show was “Take Me to the World.” Not only is the title itself apt for quarantine, but so is the show from which it came. Few people outside of Sondheim obsessives know about Evening Primrose, the 1966 television musical Sondheim wrote starring his bestie Anthony Perkins as a poet who becomes trapped in a department store overnight and discovers a commune of people hiding from the world there. If you want to know more about it, the full version and numerous clips are scattered across YouTube, featuring the many great songs this hour of TV gave us, including “Take Me to the World.”
The Evening Primrose story and its theme of trapped refugees longing for the larger world made for an unexpectedly sweet refrain throughout the evening. Of the multiple Evening Primrose performances, Benanti’s haunting, melancholic performance of “I Remember Sky”— sung flawlessly while leaning against her bathtub, no less — made us yearn for the lost art of going outside. —AR
“No More” from Into the Woods — Chip Zien
“No More” comes during Into the Woods’s darker, heavier second half, as the fairy-tale frolic of the first act is starting to fall apart. It’s the cri de coeur of the Baker, the show’s protagonist, as he realizes that life is full of terrible obstacles from which there is no escape — and if he tries to run away, he will lose the good things in his life as well as the bad.
Chip Zien, who originated the role of the Baker on Broadway in 1987, knows how to go straight to the meat of the song just as well now as he did 33 years ago. And in the final moments of his performance, he added a lovely and tender grace note when he picked up the hat he wore to play the Baker on Broadway. It’s a nod both to his own show and to Sondheim’s other iconic James Lapine collaboration: Look, he saved the hat. —CG
“The Flag Song,” cut from Assassins — Brian Stokes Mitchell
Assassins is perhaps Sondheim’s best and most upsetting musical — a devastating postmodern critique on the hollowness of the American dream, explored through the lives of the oft-marginalized men and women who have tried or succeeded at killing US presidents. With its nonlinear narrative and mix of the blackly comedic with the too-close-for-comfort — one character delivers a drunken rant while dressed as Santa Claus before flying a plane into Nixon’s White House — Assassins offers such a sharp condemnation of American politics that it took three tries to bring the show to Broadway. The first attempt, its original 1990 off-Broadway outing, was stymied by the advent of the Gulf War. The second attempt was originally slated to open on Broadway in September 2001. It finally opened there at last in 2004.
Assassins remains a very necessary show, and the scathing “Flag Song,” the show’s original opening number, shows us why. Its narrator wryly breaks down the lure of the American Dream: “You think, ‘Why try?’ and you want to cry / Then that flag goes by, and you think, ‘That’s why: ’cause of that idea, that incredible idea.’” In the hands of national treasure Brian Stokes Mitchell, it practically becomes a cautionary tale delivered by Uncle Sam himself — of the glamour, and the danger, of America as a construct. —AR
“Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George — Michael Cerveris
“Finishing the Hat” is perhaps Sondheim’s most emblematic song, so the question wasn’t whether or not it would appear in this concert — it was who would get to sing it. And somewhat surprisingly, it went not to Mandy Patinkin, who originated the role of George on Broadway in 1984. It went to Michael Cerveris instead.
Cerveris has played George before, in an Illinois revival in 2004, but his best-known Sondheim collaborations are his work as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins on Broadway in 2004 and as Sweeney Todd in the 2005 Broadway revival. In many ways, he’s an ideal Sondheim actor: His voice is so velvety and rich, you feel as though you could wrap yourself up in it. But he’s also able to make his presence chilly and isolated in a way that’s perfect for Sondheim’s lonely, withholding heroes.
Here, gazing out of a window and staunchly refusing to make eye contact with the camera, Cerveris finds the aching loneliness that hides below George’s cold exterior. He’s isolated even from us — but look, he made a hat, where there never was a hat. —CG
“Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures — Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh, and Thom Sesma
Sondheim once famously said that “Someone in a Tree,” from his 1976 flop Pacific Overtures, was the best song he ever wrote, and it’s hard to argue with him. The lush ensemble number, performed here by cast members of the 2017 Classic Stage Company production, takes the dry subject of the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa between Commodore Perry and the Japanese shogunate and, instead of recapping it, turns the moment into a rich treatise on memory and historicity itself. Through the disjointed perspectives and fading recollections of a few unrelated bystanders to the event, the song explores the fragmentation of memory, showing us that the power of an event is often much more about the feeling and the spirit of the moment rather than the actual things taking place.
“Someone in a Tree” is also a beautiful look at the experimental range of much of Sondheim’s work. It’s a mini-version of Pacific Overtures itself: a very postmodern, meta-textual study of time and culture and the way that history gains meaning through incremental individual moments. It was a theme Sondheim and his librettist for the show, John Weidman, would return to again for his much darker 1990 show Assassins. And while both shows were challenging and controversial, each went on to become cult favorites and are now widely considered to be among Sondheim’s best musicals. When he was writing the libretto for Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda consulted Weidman specifically to gain insight into how to write such unreliable yet relatable narration into his own work. “Someone in a Tree” is a short master class in how satisfying such an unsatisfying form can be. —AR
“Send In the Clowns” from A Little Night Music — Donna Murphy
“Send In the Clowns” is my favorite Sondheim song because of its ability to somehow tell the entire story of someone’s life in just four minutes. Sondheim wrote the song specifically for Glynis Johns, who portrayed Desiree in A Little Night Music on Broadway. It’s about a woman reflecting on the regret and disappointments of her life and realizing the painful truth of it all: If she had done something differently back then (in Desiree’s case, realizing she was truly in love with a man she previously rebuffed), they would be in a much more contented present.
“Send In the Clowns” isn’t meant to be splashy or a showstopper. It’s meant to be a quiet contemplation of a better life. And while she’s not Glynis Johns, Donna Murphy gave it the touching, somber dignity it deserved. —AAS
“Ladies Who Lunch” from Company — Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald
Is there a more iconic quarantine mood than Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald, all wearing white bathrobes and clutching enormous bottles of their alcohol of choice, slur-belting their way through “Ladies Who Lunch”? Of course there isn’t. We stan these three icons, and we hope and pray this means Audra and her immaculate range will be joining Christine and Meryl in Mamma Mia 3. —CG
“No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods — Bernadette Peters
“No One Is Alone” is Bernadette Peters’s traditional concert closer, and it’s only fitting that it brings this virtual Sondheim concert to an end, too. Like her Sunday in the Park co-star Mandy Patinkin, Peters chose to go a cappella, sitting alone in her apartment and appearing to blink back tears now and then. “I thought this might just be the perfect song right now,” Peters says earnestly as she finishes up, and she’s right.
Hard to see the light now. Just don’t let it go. —CG
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