Take Me To The World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration

Take Me To The World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim. Producer/Narrator: Raul Esparza. Director: Paul Wontorek. Musical Director: Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Streamed 27 April 2020, and available on broadway.com/YouTube

Technical hitches mired the first six minutes of this celebration which began half an hour after its advertised curtain time, but the edited version which can now be picked up on the net is a musical theatre aficionado’s delight. Musical geeks will salivate over the roster of Broadway stars who deliver their most intimate performances in their living rooms, studies and kitchens.

Stephen Sondheim has long been exalted for his defining and ground-breaking work in musical theatre which stretches from 1955’s Saturday Night, through Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd, to Into the Woods and beyond. There are songs from all of them, but not necessarily the most obvious, although there are plenty of favorites, especially toward the finale.

The tribute opened with Stephen Schwartz at the piano playing the “Prologue” to Follies, which was followed by 21 musicians on multiple-screens playing a blistering version of the brass-heavy “Overture” from Merrily We Roll Along.

Kelli O’Hara, whose career has taken her through the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon of heroines, claimed it was Sondheim who taught her as a performer emotionally. Singing “What More Do I Need” from the early Saturday Night, she effortlessly proved her point. A Little Night Music was represented by the profound “The Miller’s Son”, delivered with precision-point clarity by Elizabeth Stanley, and “Send In the Clowns” which in Donna Murphy’s hands was full of brooding introspection.

Meryl Streep, Christine Baransaki and Audra McDonald did a wonderful boozy split-screen rendition of Company’s iconic eleven-o-clock number “The Ladies Who Lunch”, whilst Linda Lavin repeated her original cast performance form 54 years ago in The Mad Show with “The Boy From…”, written by Mary Rodgers and Estaban Ria Nido, which was really an in-joke and pseudonym for Sondheim.

 

 

Whilst the program as a whole eschewed the political, Brian Stokes Mitchell sang “The Flag Song”, which was a timely take on patriotism. Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford recreated their affecting duet “Move On” from Sunday In The Park With George, whilst “Someone In A Tree” from Pacific Overtures became a quartet of split-screens for Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kevin Moon Loh and Thom Sesma, to deliver their viewpoints of East-West diplomacy.

Maria Friedman’s “Broadway Baby” (Follies) was a bit studied and not as gutsy and raw as others have performed it, but Alexander Gemignani did what was probably the most joyous and wacky version of I’ve ever seen of “Buddy’s Blues.”

My personal favorites were two songs from the ill-fated 9 performance flop Anyone Can Whistle – Brandon Uranowitz in a superb reading of the haunting “With So Little To be Sure of” and Patti LuPone doing likewise with the achingly beautiful title tune.

Although the concert officially ended with Bernadette Peters in a heartfelt a-cappella “No One Is Aline” (Into The Woods), there was an epilogue of the entire cast on a matrix of their individual screens singing “I’m Still Here”.

It was emotional, tear-inducing, and a most effective conclusion to this 90th birthday tribute to Sondheim. He deserved it.

Peter Pinne 

  

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