By Ron Fassler
There were tributes ready and raring to go in honor of Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday last month. For starters, the gender-bending revival of his 1970 landmark musical Company was scheduled to open on March 22nd at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre on Broadway, Sondheim’s actual birthday. But due to the Coronavirus crisis, all the events to mark this joyous occasion were put on hold, much to everyone’s sadness.
But what with Zoom being the new normal in ways we are getting our entertainment needs met while we’re all homebound, a group of friends of the master figured out a way to bring together some of the greatest artists in Sondheim’s orbit to celebrate the man and his work for a one-night only charity benefit for ASTEP, and it happened last night via Broadway.com. Established by the Broadway musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell and students at Julliard, ASTEP’s mission is to connect performing and visual artists with young people from underserved communities and break the cycle of poverty through the healing power of the arts (ASTEP stands for Artists Striving to End Poverty).
Hosted by Raúl Esparza, the evening featured a who’s who in the American theatre, who all (seemingly) produced their own at-home videos. Most sang, but some just talked. And it was heartwarming to see such an array of talent from the 11-year-old Iain Armitage to the seemingly ageless Chip Zien (A-Z alphabetically) who span generations as well. Among those offering birthday toasts were Jason Alexander, Victor Garber, Joanna Gleason, Lonny Price, Steven Spielberg, John Weidman and Nathan Lane. And (as only he can), Nathan drolly paid homage to Sondheim, saying “He’s been so under-appreciated all these years. I can’t believe there’s never been a tribute like this; a musical tribute. To this unsung genius of the American musical theatre. It’s about time. That’s all I can say… and not a moment too soon.”
Ah, Nathan. Love him, can’t get enough of him.
After getting off to a late start (and a number of false starts) the curtain didn’t actually rise till 9:07, sixty-seven minutes after it was supposed to. And oh, how the people commenting in the chat room on the right side of the computer screen were in a tizzy! Thousands of people abandoned the website in that time, as by my count, there were over 103,000 people at the beginning waiting for it to start at 8:00 p.m. During that time, I was checking my Facebook page to see if people were posting snide remarks—and of course they were. But the one that made me laugh out loud the most was when Chip Zien showed up in my feed: “It’s places and we’re holding cause they can’t find my apron. Damnit.”
When it finally began, it was with the composer Stephen Schwartz at his piano, sensitively playing the opening strains of the first notes of Follies, which then gave way to an opening credits sequence showing the titles of all of Sondheim’s shows and who would be performing (by the way, the illustrations were by Tug Rice and they were uniformly excellent). Then we were gifted with an actual Sondheim Overture, the tap-happy one from Merrily We Roll Along, as played by an array of gifted musicians all in their Hollywood Squares-like Zoom compartments. It was quite a sight (and sound).
Then the individual talents showed up and the show really got rolling. Here’s how it went:
Sutton Foster: “There Won’t Be Trumpets” from Anyone Can Whistle, which she nailed. Duh.
Neil Patrick Harris: “The Witch’s Rap” from Into the Woods, a noble experiment, if not quite to my taste.
Kelli O’Hara: “What More Do I Need?” from Saturday Night. Exquisite, as we’ve come to expect from her. Does she ever disappoint?
Judy Kuhn “What Can You Lose?” from Dick Tracy. Evocative and sad, and naturally, beautifully sung.
Katrina Lenk: “Joanna” from Sweeney Todd. Accompanying herself on guitar, she offered a pretty, yet hauntingly original rendition.
Aaron Tveit: “Marry Me a Little” from Company, which he sang the hell out of. No surprise there.
Beanie Feldstein and Ben Platt: “It Takes Two” from Into the Woods. Two real-life friends (they went to middle school and high school together) singing with enormous affection and joy.
Brandon Uranowitz: “With So Little to Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle. Touchingly pure.
Melissa Errico: “Children & Art” from Sunday in the Park with George. One of the best Sondheim interpreters out there (her album titled Sondheim Sublime is a must-own) was tender and true.
Randy Rainbow: “By the Sea” from Sweeney Todd. If you don’t know who Randy Rainbow is, I don’t have the space to write about him—but take it on faith, he’s wonderful.
Elizabeth Stanley: “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music. This could have been the most surprising song of the night. I’m familiar with her as an actress/singer having seen Jagged Little Pill the day before the shutdown. She is the lead—and a leading contender for a Tony if we ever have them, I might add. In this, one of Sondheim’s most wrenching and densely worded songs, Stanley gave an effortless, stunningly sung and acted version of it.
We then came upon the image of Mandy Patinkin out in a field with his dog at his side, which we can only assume is on his property outside the noise and bustle of New York City. He sang a cappella “Lesson #8” from Sunday in the Park with George, which allowed for the poetry of this superb song to be laid bare. Written late in previews for the original production, never underestimate Sondheim under the gun, when sometimes he delivered his best work.
Maria Friedman: A veteran actor (and director) of many Sondheim shows in their London productions, sang a gorgeous “Broadway Baby” from Follies.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods. Fully committed, he sang it more fearful than any Jack I’ve ever seen play the role. Maybe it had something to do with all of those high notes?
Lea Salonga: “Loving You” from Passion. A very difficult song, which she sang with grace and ease—and emotion.
Laura Benanti “I Remember” from Evening Primrose. Perfect. Like everything she does.
Chip Zien: “No More” from Into the Woods. The original (and only) Baker, Chip absolutely killed with this. Sounding little different than when he sang it on the cast album thirty-three years ago, he had me at hello… but when he took his little green hat off the piano and hugged it to his chest at the end, that was it for me. I was a goner (and I don’t think I was alone).
Josh Groban: Singing “Children Will Listen/Not While I’m Around,” Groban proves again that having started singing Sondheim’s songs on stage at an impossibly young age, he will be around to sing them for many years to come.
Brian Stokes Mitchell: Choosing to sing “The Flag Song” cut from Assassins, Stokes is never less than 100%. This song (entirely new to me) lent itself to his rich baritone, and it was a welcome addition to the evening.
Michael Cerveris: “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George. Perhaps the placement of this coming after already having heard Mandy sing a song from the score was ill-advised, but Cerveris gave it his all. In truth, it may be one of the hardest songs in Sondheim’s entire repertoire to get right.
Linda Lavin: “The Boy From” from The Mad Show (an off-Broadway revue to which Sondheim contributed these hilarious lyrics to Mary Rodgers melody) was first introduced by Lavin early on in her long career. The years melted away as she sang it with the same wide-eyed innocence as I’m sure she must have back in 1966.
Alexander Gemignani: “Buddy’s Blues” from Follies. Again, memories of Mandy, as Gemignani did the song as it was once performed by Patinkin at the 1985 Follies in Concert, playing Buddy as well as the two women in the song. Spinning in his chair at the computer, he was very funny and pulled it off with enormous flair (and great pipes).
I was very happy not only to see Pacific Overtures represented (I feel it’s one of Sondheim’s very best scores), but also to have such a fine quartet perform “Someone in a Tree,” long mentioned by Sondheim as his favorite amongst all he’s written. Ann Harada, Thom Sesma, Kevin Moon Loh and Austin Ku reunited from the 2017 Off-Broadway revival to sing it, and it truly moved me (especially Sesma’s wonderful Old Man).
Raúl Esparza: “Take Me to the World” from Evening Primrose. His unique voice fit well to this melody and lyric. It’s usually sung by a woman, and he made it sound fresh and new.
Donna Murphy: “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. One of the best singing actresses there is, this was one of the evening’s highlights. As familiar as this song is, she made it heartbreaking. It also marked a turning point in the show… we were definitely heading into the home stretch. Time to bring out the big guns.
Next up came Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald singing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. I mean… what is there to say except you will undoubtedly watch this one twice (if not many more times than that). Just check out how each of them handle their props! Only one word to describe their shenanigans: divine.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford: “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George. Having done it so well in the recent revival, I was as gobsmacked as I was when I saw them do it in the theatre in full costume. Such a sensational and soaring work. One of my absolute favorite Sondheim songs, the last line had exceptional resonance as it is “give us more to see.” Is there anyone out there who still doesn’t crave more from Sondheim, even at age ninety, and after he’s already given us so much? Just goes to show what a selfish bunch we are.
Patti LuPone: Choosing to sing the gentle title song from Anyone Can Whistle, the full-throated Patti took the night off and easily showed off an enigmatic simplicity with this, one of the most deeply personal of all Sondheim’s songs.
It was then left to the luminescent (is there any other word for her?) Bernadette Peters to end the night with “No One is Alone,” a song she didn’t sing in Into the Woods, but only got to hear every night from the wings. Like Mandy, her Sunday co-star, she did it with no musical accompaniment… and it was magnificent. She said, “I thought this might be the perfect song right now.” And oh, was she right.
Mention should be made of the director credited with pulling this together, Paul Wonterek, as well as Mary-Mitchell Campbell for the overwhelming job of musical directing.
Not sure how long it’ll be up, but here’s a link to the whole show, in case anyone missed it (or wants to watch it again): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A92wZIvEUAw
And if you like what you see, please see contribute anything you can to ASTEP, a most worthy charity: https://www.classy.org/give/282849/#!/donation/checkout
And Happy 90th Birthday, Stephen Sondheim.
P.S. Be sure to stick around till after the end credits for a bonus number. Enjoy.