So many technical snafus roiled and delayed the start of Sunday night’s starry 90th shebang for Stephen Sondheim that the venerable honoree probably contemplated just making a hot toddy and going to bed instead. So what if there were 100,000 Sondheim fans parked in the virtual lobby like Sweeney Todd looking to make port in London.
But once the celebrity-packed Broadway party, titled “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” finally cranked up on the YouTube live stream, the night turned out to be a consistent delight, packed not with sycophantic declarations of love for the great man (although there were a few of those), but richly prepared, thematically profound and deeply emotional renditions of his work. With very few exceptions.
The performers raising cash for ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty) were formidable of stature: Meryl Streep, Neil Patrick Harris, Bernadette Peters, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald, Josh Groban, Patti LuPone, Jake Gyllenhaal, Nathan Lane and Steven Spielberg, to name but a few. Bold-faced names working in their basements or, in the case of Mandy Patinkin, roaring Sondheim ditties at the trees in his backyard.
But here’s the thing about their material. Sondheim’s songs are so wise about the human condition, they always feel relevant to each and every human circumstance. And that includes the current state of locked-down stasis.
Anyone sitting alone in a Manhattan studio apartment with a glass of red wine — and the vestiges of hope for humanity — likely lost it completely when Peters, as unplugged as she ever has been, sang “No One is Alone,” a cappella for goodness sake.
“Who can say what’s true?,” she warbled, echoing the confusion of the moment. “Nothing’s quite so clear now.”
Tear ducts welled, threatening the sanctity of the keyboards of tens of thousands of MacBooks, Pro or otherwise.
Peters hardly kept the emotional moments to herself. Kelli O’Hara, ever the optimist, sang “What More Do I Need” from the early Sondheim musical “Saturday Night.” In that song, the singer counts her blessings as the song’s insistent melody starts to unspool: “My window pane has a lovely view. An inch of sky and a fly or two. Why, I can see half a tree. And what more do I need?”
What more useful question might one ask at present from the dining room table? Perhaps you don’t need as much as you think, if you and those you love all are feeling well.
Of course, Sondheim was still young when he wrote those lines, even if he hardly was unfamiliar with loneliness. The great man came to need a lot more company as life went on, hence songs like “It Takes Two,” an ode to partnership charmingly sung during Sunday night’s show by Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein, one of several split-screen duets forged across the internets.
Those things, common now, are always bittersweet: as you watch them, you go back and forth between admiring how humans find endless ways to connect and despairing that we just cannot long live this way, cut off in our own worlds. Our yearning for human connection is just too strong.
As a reminder, the songs on offer included such masterpieces as “Anyone Can Whistle” (“learn to be free”) sung by LuPone, and “Loving You” by Lea Salonga, enough to point out the human need for intense passion, alas poorly served by staying home with only your computer to adore.
Well, unless that’s Sondheim coming out of the speakers. That might help us all go another month or two.
The concert remains available for viewing at Broadway.com
©2020 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.