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The Sondheim All-Star Concert Showed How Virtual Musical Theatre Can Work


As a teen-ager in the nineties who obsessed over “Sweeney Todd” while my peers listened to “Nevermind,” I wore out a VHS tape of “Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall.” The broadcast, of a gala evening held in 1992, featured a parade of luminaries interpreting Stephen Sondheim songs: Madeline Kahn on “Getting Married Today,” Glenn Close on “Send in the Clowns.” At the end, Bernadette Peters led a choir (this being 1992, the members wore red AIDS ribbons) in a sublime rendition of “Sunday.” It was clearly the theatrical event of the season, and I felt no less elated for watching it on a screen.

Sondheim, the most important living Broadway composer, turned ninety last month, at a time when gala concerts are not just impossible but almost unimaginable: a thing New York once had, often in springtime, with audiences in their nice shoes and dresses, saving their programs for posterity. Poof! In lieu of a planned birthday concert, Sunday night brought us “Take Me to the World,” an all-star virtual concert filmed in the living rooms of the stars and streamed on YouTube, care of Broadway.com. Directed by Paul Wontorek, it was a benefit for Artists Striving to End Poverty. An expectant crowd gathered around their screens at 8 p.m.

Things did not start off promisingly. Technical issues delayed the concert for more than an hour, and when its host, Raúl Esparza, showed up, he was on mute. Theatre fans melted down on Twitter, and the YouTube comments section filled up with theatre-nerd anxiety (“okay thoughts and prayers with this tech crew”). Some filled in the gap themselves, including The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, who sang her followers a few lines of “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” When the concert finally got off the ground—with the brassy overture of “Merrily We Roll Along,” where, for once, you could see each individual musician—the tone seemed uncertain. The first two singers to appear, Sutton Foster and Neil Patrick Harris, gave cameos to their adorable children, lending the concert the vibe of a T.M.I. Zoom meeting. With apologies to the eleven-year-old Iain Armitage, who appeared later in the evening, Sondheim and plucky kids aren’t a great match. Where was all the disillusionment and bitterness?

Ah, there it was, when Judy Kuhn, a white headphone dangling from one ear, sang a doleful number from “Dick Tracy.” Katrina Lenk (who, in a pandemicless world, would have been starring in “Company” on Broadway right now) followed, with a gorgeous rendition of “Johanna,” from “Sweeney Todd,” accompanying herself on guitar. Virtual theatre is such a new and necessity-born medium that one hesitates to apply any critical pressure to it—nobody knows what’s going to work or not, either technically or emotionally. The experiments have been worthy. The 24 Hour Plays, which usually stages live plays and musicals that were written in a day, has been rolling out virtual monologues. Richard Nelson, who has chronicled the life of the fictitious Apple family in a series of intimate plays at the Public Theatre, is premièring a new installment, filmed over Zoom.

But can musical theatre, that most extroverted of forms, succeed under quarantine? As it turns out, Sondheim’s work lent itself to self-isolated introspection. Starting in the nineteen-fifties, when he wrote the lyrics to “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” he brought fresh psychological depth to musical theatre, often in the form of musical soliloquies. (As a boy, he wept watching “Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” an experience he has described as formative.) Sondheim’s characters exist, first and foremost, in their own heads. When Michael Cerveris appeared on camera, crooning “Finishing the Hat” into the pale light of a window, it made as much sense as anything. The song, delivered by Georges Seurat, in “Sunday in the Park with George,” is all about the painter’s inability to connect. “The Miller’s Son,” from “A Little Night Music,” also benefitted from its own rueful inwardness. As an imagining of the character’s possible marital futures, it could very well take place in a studio apartment or, as Elizabeth Stanley sang it, beneath a multicolored blanket that formed a little fort.

Certain lyrics cut deep, given the circumstances. When Mandy Patinkin, in a grassy yard, warbled, “Where are the people out strolling on Sunday?” it brought a pang. Two songs from the 1966 television musical “Evening Primrose” seemed designed for the social-distancing era. That show—a doozy—is about a poet who hides out from the world in a department store, where he discovers a secret community that has lived there for years, and emerges when the store is closed. Laura Benanti, in what looked like a tiled bathroom, sang “I Remember,” in which the heroine longs for the world outside: “I remember days, / Or at least I try / But as years go by / They’re a sort of haze.” I hear you, girl. And Esparza, returning after his silent intro, recovered beautifully with “Take Me to the World,” the song that gave the evening its title:

Let me see the world with clouds

Take me to the world

Out where I can push through crowds

Take me to the world

We’ve grown accustomed to awkward FaceTime glimpses into people’s homes, and the concert delivered on that front, too. Patti LuPone, who has been broadcasting wonderfully nutty dispatches from her basement, appeared upstairs, where she apparently keeps a marionette hanging from a bookcase, to sing “Anyone Can Whistle.” Donna Murphy, who got “Send in the Clowns” honors this time, sang in front of an upright piano and two lit candles. Melissa Errico, who sang “Children and Art,” scrunched in front of a bookshelf, and a volume entitled “Irish Erotic Art” became a subject of Internet fascination. The aesthetic was reminiscent of self-produced audition tapes, from performers who likely haven’t had to audition for years: the great equalizer!

Two numbers, though, were so well conceived for this strange new medium that they left what might be a permanent imprint on the songs themselves. “Someone in a Tree,” which Sondheim has called his favorite of his own songs, tells the story of a nineteenth-century diplomatic negotiation between American and Japanese officials, as observed by hiding civilians who can pick up only bits and pieces. Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh, and Thom Sesma performed it, in that now familiar “Brady Bunch” configuration, communicating through earpieces, and the song felt newly suspenseful and disjointed, like something out of a surveillance thriller. Not long after, a trio of high-powered ladies—Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald—showed up for an ultra-boozy version of “Ladies Who Lunch,” which Baranski kicked off with the perfect shot: her face refracted through a closeup of a wine glass, into which she emptied the last of a bottle of red. Streep guzzled Scotch from what looked like a little-used office space. It was camp heaven.



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