Ray Rackham reviews Take Me To The World, a streamed concert celebrating Stephen Sondheim’s 90th Birthday presented by Broadway.com on YouTube.
Take Me To The World
Streaming Via YouTube
26th April 2020
Watch it online
Another year another Sondheim musical tribute so goes the well-worn joke. The first occurred forty-eight years ago when the then toast of Broadway invaded the set of the original production of A Little Night Music to sing the then back catalogue of the Master (which was rich with treasures even before the world had Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park et al). Sondheim has been celebrated at the Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, even the Hollywood Bowl (maybe as a ploy to guarantee Streisand would appear). Indeed, it seems the greatest living Broadway composer simply cannot blow out his candles and make a post-pension wish without an accompanying orchestra wanting to play along.
For a while, however, it looked likely that we were not going to get that big, brassy, star-studded affair for this year’s significant 90th birthday; perhaps because what else could there possibly be left to celebrate after so many before; but then a global pandemic occurred and Broadway decided to send in the A-list to mark the occasion.
Trust Broadway to do it better than anybody else! Almost all of the biggest names of the Broadway stage came out for “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration”, and by “came out”, they actually “stayed in”. Perhaps for the first and only time, the glitterati of the American Musical Theatre were seen crouching in their acoustically beautiful bathrooms, taking selfie videos in their beautifully appointed homes, sat beside their own practice pianos, or standing (rather aptly) by a ‘river on a (not so) ordinary Sunday’. Children and pets and AirPods featured heavily in this social distance triumph that was so magnificently epic in its simplicity. Maybe Sondheim’s 90th will be regarded as ‘one peculiar passing moment’ when the great and the good welcomed us into their homes, dressed in their loungewear, and delivered not only a night to remember but reminded us truly that ‘no one is alone’. This was superbly demonstrated by Melissa Errico – having just confirmed her position as Barbara Cook’s successor as both a foremost interpreter of Sondheim’s work and a master of the art of acting through song with her version of ‘Children and Art’ from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE – rushed off to make her family some dinner. Artistry and domesticity, in a musical marriage, that only Sondheim’s work could imagine.
Technical glitches aside (the world is in chaos if we can’t forgive delays, streaming difficulties and some dodgy lip-syncing we need to take a long hard look in the mirror) this musical tribute was an embarrassment of riches; from Stephen Schwartz opening the show with a beautiful rendition of the ‘Prologue’ from FOLLIES, to Bernadette Peters’ touchingly elegant acapella version of ‘No One Is Alone’ from INTO THE WOODS. Two moments of pre-recorded wizardry were real standouts, where skilful editing and multiple split screens really did make the contributions leap from the screen. The first was the MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG Overture, which naturally followed Schwartz’s Prologue; in a feat of technical brilliance, dozens of Broadway musicians came together in a thrilling and frenzied start to the evening that set the bar high. Then, Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh and Thom Sesma gave a unique performance of ‘Someone in a Tree’ from PACIFIC OVERTURES, complete with looking up and down and around the screen like an impeccable Brady Bunch; effortlessly animating the song and moreover tapping into the quarantine zeitgeist in such a way that – for a moment -isolation suddenly felt ok.
There were moments of cuteness (I think Beanie Feldstein and a moustached Ben Platt, bedecked in dungarees and singing ‘It Takes Two’ from WOODS nabbed that prize), intelligent song choices (unsurprisingly Judy Kuhn and Brian Stokes Mitchell sang little known or cut songs that – through both song choice and their performances – will leave indelible memories for any viewer), and understated brilliance (Aaron Tveit standing by a window and singing COMPANY’S ‘Marry Me a Little’ to a deserted New York City guaranteed a sob or two, worldwide).
The big songs were reserved for the big hitters: Jake Gyllenhaal reprised ‘Move On’ through a split-screen with Annaleigh Ashford and made any Londoner fear the impending cancellation of The Savoy’s SUNDAY; whilst Patti LuPone stood in front of her bookcase and sang perhaps Sondheim’s most autobiographical song, ‘Anyone Can Whistle’.
Without doubt Chip Zein singing ‘No More’ some 34 years after he originated the song on Broadway; Donna Murphy, framed by a piano, a bunch of tulips and an original Al Hirschfeld, singing ‘Send in the Clowns’; and a surprise entry of Elizabeth Stanley singing ‘The Miller’s Son’ were the true artistic highlights of the evening. But, then again, who couldn’t fail to be moved by the subtle artistry of Mandy Patinkin being filmed standing next to a river and singing Lesson #8 from Sunday in the Park with George?
These tributes always have that one moment everyone then talks about the day after, and Sondheim’s 90th birthday party was no exception. Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald – each in a white robe and with their personal choice of hard liquor – gave an acute and piercing performance of Ladies Who Lunch that transcended the zoom meeting set up and became (in the words of the much-missed Elaine Stritch) the three-act play we had all been waiting for. This reviewer gave it a standing ovation in his living room, as McDonald could be heard in the outro playfully exclaiming that she had “got it all wrong”.
Like any other tribute concert, the trick is in balancing the hosts and the performers. The quarantine star wattage of those who were there to simply say some nice words was, to put it mildly, off the charts. Produced and hosted by Raul Esparza (not himself a stranger to a leading role or two in a Sondheim musical) the talking heads throughout the evening gave less of the typical “brava” moments one might expect, but a refreshingly more direct, honest and intimate message to both Mr Sondheim and the
rest of us. Be it Joanna Gleason confessing “its your birthday, but you are the gift”, or Nathan Lane‘s insight that “he’s a nice genius”, the wow factor arrived when Steven Spielberg (whose remake of West Side Story was in post-production when lockdown happened) conceded that Sondheim’s film knowledge exceeded his own. And Victor Garber’s spoken voice could still melt butter!
Playful, wistful, and fully aware of itself (rather like the canon of work it celebrates) Take Me To The World more than earned its place alongside the birthday tributes that will be talked about – and replayed millions of times on YouTube – for years. For two hours or so the world listened, really listened, to each other and to ourselves. When Ms Peters sang “sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods” this reviewer openly sobbed; almost as if hearing that lyric for the first time all over again. Bravo, Steve, see you next year.