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Entertainment & Arts

Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday bash reminds us why his music remains so radical

Bernadette Peters from Sondheim 90th birthday tribute
Bernadette Peters appears in “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration.”
(Broadway.com)

Stephen Sondheim, once considered an acquired taste, has been inducted into the pantheon and worshiped as a font of classics.

The disrupter of the American musical, the man who reputedly drained show tunes of their romantic gaiety, is routinely heralded as our greatest living theatrical songwriter. Compared invidiously in his early years to the golden age of Rodgers & Hammerstein, he has raised the bar by which composers and lyricists are now judged.

This recognition that a legend hums among us, however belated, is just. But a good deal of history gets lost in the lionization. Sondheim is still a radical, and the American theater hasn’t lost its essential conservatism. But, boy, is it uplifting to honor a genius who taught us to listen to musical theater anew, even if ticket buyers continue to flock in droves toward brainless fare.

No other artist could have drawn together the theater community in this way. Sunday night’s tribute to Sondheim reconstituted the Broadway firmament, which has been in eclipse since the coronavirus crisis shuttered the theaters. “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” was a show queen’s dream assembly, a delirium of divas and a marshaling of Tony-winning sorcery.

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Stars performed from the safety of their basements, bathrooms, dens and foyers as fans hungrily took inventories of the books, knickknacks and showbiz memorabilia on display. Melissa Errico, whose incandescent rendition of “Children and Art” from “Sunday in the Park With George” was a highlight, later explained on Twitter that the tome visible behind her titled “Irish Erotic Art,” which provoked so much prurient drollery, was actually a gag book containing empty pages.

The event, a fundraiser for Artists Striving to End Poverty, was presented on Broadway.com and the Broadway.com YouTube channel. Produced by Raúl Esparza, who starred in the 2006 Broadway revival of “Company,” the show was delayed by technical difficulties. Twitter functioned as a lobby for anxious wisecracks, but nothing could dampen the sheer pleasure once the program finally began.

Theater critics, normally hardened judges of quality, gushed like buffs in an online Broadway chat room. Needing a few minutes to settle into the show after the prolonged holdup, I found myself melting as soon as Katrina Lenk, accompanying herself on guitar, appeared with a bracing interpretation of “Johanna” from “Sweeney Todd.”

No surprise that this musical celebration wasn’t a dutiful homage. Sondheim, always the strongest advocate for his collaborators, has a way of inspiring artists to live up to his uncompromising example. A restless innovator, he has refused to traffic in the formula Broadway producers know best: duplication of what worked last.

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Whether it was Mandy Patinkin standing in a field to deliver the lonely recitative of “Lesson #8” from “Sunday in the Park With George” or Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh and Thom Sesma exploiting Zoom to bring new perspectives to “Someone in a Tree” from “Pacific Overtures,” the performances were always imaginatively considered if not boldly conceived.

Given the embarrassment of riches, it’s doubtful my favorites will be yours. Linda Lavin, using all her lung capacity to reel off the unwieldy place names in “The Boy From …” from “The Mad Show,” gave us a priceless sample of her unerring comic timing. Chip Zien imbued “No More,” a song he sang in the original Broadway production of “Into the Woods,” with a haunting emotional quality that made time itself seem audible.

The intoxicating joy of Christine Baranski launching a hard-drinking rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” was compounded by the addition of a martini-swirling Meryl Streep, a pairing that caused Twitter to collectively seize its breath in a paroxysm of ecstasy. When Audra McDonald brought her own bottle to the party, there were rumors of fatalities across the internet. Cause of death: musical comedy bliss.

Patti LuPone, choosing the title song from “Anyone Can Whistle,” sang simply as her heart burst with gratitude and sorrow. Bernadette Peters, performing in crystalline fashion an a cappella version of “No One Is Alone” from “Into the Woods,” assured her audience that the solace of Sondheim’s art is with us in this period of draconian isolation — and therefore, truly, no one is alone.

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The songs, so full of beauty and intelligence, truth and yearning, wit and pathos, revealed the lie that their author is inaccessible and unconsoling. The depth of feeling was a balm for bruised souls, who for a few hours Sunday had an intimation of theater’s capacity to emotionally unite us into a single organism. The applause was delivered through texts and tweets, but the bravos could be heard by every enraptured witness of this Sondheim spectacular.


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