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Entertainment & Arts

How Christine Baranski pulled off her viral Sondheim song with Streep and McDonald

Actress Christine Baranski
Actress Christine Baranski.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The stars showed up in full force for Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s virtual 90th birthday bash, which has wracked up nearly 800,000 views on YouTube in less than 24 hours.

The nearly 2 1/2-hour-long concert and fundraiser featured Tony winners Lin-Manuel Miranda, Neil Patrick Harris, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. But one of the night’s standout moments was a Zoom-like rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the 1970 musical “Company” sung by Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and Meryl Streep.

Equipped with a large glass, Baranski opened the performance before being joined by Streep, who sang while mixing a martini, and McDonald, who sipped a cocktail — all three donning white bathrobes.

Although the rendition was a hit among viewers, Baranski said in a Monday interview with The Times that the trio was anxious in the days leading up to the performance, worried about how it would be received.

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Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was honored with an online birthday concert full of his songs but delayed by technical difficulties.

On a Zoom call last week, “We were all saying, ‘Oh, my God. Are we out of our minds to do this?’” she said. “‘This could end our careers.’”

Baranski came up with the idea after reflecting on a dinner with Sondheim last year.

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“The three of us took Steve out to dinner at an Italian restaurant and we had a fantastic evening,” she said. “When he turned 90 on the day, I wrote him and I said, ‘We’ve really got to have another dinner like that,’ and he said the only way to do it is virtually.”

The trio rehearsed and recorded their parts separately at home, a frustrating and intimidating process, Baranski said.

“We all agreed we weren’t going to try and be glamorous divas in front of our cellphones,” Baranski said. “I said why don’t we just either have baseball caps and sweats on. Then we decided on a bathrobe — like ladies drinking at home, either during the day or at the end of the day.”

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Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration
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The gamble paid off. After reading a glowing review in Variety, Baranski forwarded the story to McDonald and Streep with two words: “mission accomplished.”

“Last night was very special to watch all those great performers, one after another,” she said. “I mean just breathtaking skill of those performers doing glorious music. It was just incredible.”

The best performances in “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration” showed how the composer doesn’t traffic in formulas.

Near the end of the performance, Baranski raised a toast to Sondheim, wishing him a happy 50th anniversary of the opening of “Company” on Broadway.

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It was the first of several Sondheim musicals in which Baranski has performed, including “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

“I always feel when I work on his music that I — like so many of the performers who spoke about the influence on their lives — have to go to a higher ground to match his intelligence, his incredible musical sophistication, the depth of his lyrics, the precision with which you have to deliver them,” Baranski said. “I was reliving a lot when I was working on the song.”


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