How to celebrate the great Stephen Sondheim? Through his own words, of course.
On Sunday (after a much-chatted-about delay), the virtual 90th birthday concert “Take Me to the World” made its curtain call to a rapt audience. Featuring a roster of stars, the evening culled together a cast that included Meryl Streep, Nathan Lane, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bernadette Peters and many more to celebrate the composer through song and the spoken word.
While Sondheim’s actual birthday was March 22, the evening paid homage to another benchmark event: the 50th anniversary of the Broadway debut of “Company.”
“Right when New York went into lockdown, we were going to celebrate Stephen Sondheim — the 90th birthday of the most important musical theater composer of the second half of the 20th century,” host Raúl E. Esparza, whose feed was cut off shortly into the start of the production, said in a video on Twitter. “We didn’t get to do this.”
— Raúl E. Esparza (@RaulEEsparza) April 27, 2020
He continued: “So, we decided to try it online, and the idea for tonight, what you guys are watching, is completely simple. All we did was ask these amazing artists to submit music or think about songs they love; pick a Stephen Sondheim song that comforts or inspires them and share it. And they chose the songs they wanted to share with Stephen and with all of you guys.”
The show began with “Prologue” from “Follies,” played by Stephen Schwartz on the piano, followed by a performance of “Overture” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” performed by Broadway Musicians in a virtual orchestra. Sutton Foster gave the first vocal performance of the evening, singing “There Won’t Be Trumpets” (“Anyone Can Whistle”) in front of white fabric embossed with a subtle pattern.
Highlights of the evening (of which there are many) included an acapella performance of “No One Is Alone” (“Into the Woods”) by Broadway royalty Bernadette Peters.
“Not only is Steve Sondheim a genius, he’s a wonderful person, and I love him,” Peters said. “And when I was in ‘Into the Woods,’ this is the song I would hear when I was sitting in the wings, but I love this song.”
She added, after a crystalline rendition of the piece, that she “thought this might be the perfect song right now.”
A crowd favorite came by way of Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald, who all donned white bathrobes to sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” (“Company”) while guzzling drinks. When the virtual title card disappeared to reveal Baranski, she was comically sitting behind a wine glass that appeared to be almost as big as her head. “I say we propose a toast,” she rasped. Streep used her cocktail shaker as an instrument, later eschewing glasses all together to drink straight from the bottle. “I did it all wrong,” McDonald exclaimed at the end before her feed abruptly cut off, leaving Streep and Baranski laughing.
Immediately after the showstopping trio, Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal appeared on a split-screen to sing the duet “Move On” (“Sunday in the Park With George”). Before that, at about a little less than an hour-and-a-half in, Brian Stokes Mitchell (who survived COVID-19 and has since been singing songs from his balcony in tribute to health care workers) performed “The Flag Song” (cut from “Assassins”). Another highlight came from Beanie Feldstein and Ben Platt, who sang “It Takes Two” (“Into the Woods”) with gusto.
Mandy Patinkin stood in the middle of a grassy lawn, backdropped by a stream, to sing a heart-wrenching rendition of “Lesson #8” (“Sunday in the Park with George.”), ending with the particularly poignant line: “George would have liked to see people out strolling on Sunday.”
Besides stars belting from home, the concert also featured dispatches from luminaries that directly addressed Sondheim. After Patinkin’s performance, Steven Spielberg (who referred to himself as “Stephen number two”) wished the composer a happy birthday while extolling his photographic memory and love of movies. “What a blast it is to know you, and what an honor it’s been to work on ‘West Side Story’ with you this past year,” Spielberg, who is adapting the play for the screen, said. “For me it was like going back to school and meeting my most favorite professor.”
In addition to celebrating Sondheim, the event served as a fundraiser for Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP), which aims to provide opportunities for children through art. Though the livestream has concluded, organizers stated that donations are still being accepted.
Additional reporting contributed by Anna Campbell.
Top Image: Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald. Photo: Broadway.com.