Sondheim’s 90th Virtual Birthday Celebration Brings the Feels

At the writer’s request and because we are all missing live theatre right now, THIS!

Reviewed online by Mary Paige Rieffelsondheim

On Sunday evening, via YouTube, presented a star-studded live-streamed extravaganza to celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday. Titled Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, the event was also a fundraiser for ASTEP, a program that brings the arts to children in poverty all over the world.

The event displayed how we can utilize technology to fill the void of live performance in the current times, which is really an amazing thing. However, it was not without technical difficulties. The live stream began a full half hour late, and the first six minutes consisted of the host, Raul Esparza speaking…without audio. It was not until after 9 p.m. that things finally started rolling. One of the evening’s performers, Judy Kuhn said after the event, “This is why nothing can replace live theatre…” While I do wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, once the show really began, it gripped me in an immediate and totally different way than any live show I have ever seen.

The show begins with two instrumental selections, absolutely appropriate for a celebration of Sondheim. While every layer of Sondheim’s work is impressive, his orchestrations are second to none. Stephen Schwartz plays the prologue to Follies, displaying how beautiful the melodies are just on their own. Next was the overture from Merrily We Roll Along. It was such a delight to see the faces of the conductor and the musicians. It sparked a real and sincere sense of respect to well up in me for musicians everywhere.

Another solid critique of this virtual format that I cannot omit from this review is advertising. ADS. The first half of the show had an ad in between every single song. Alas, realizing full well that ads are what make this sort of thing free to watch, I will leave my dismay there.

As an artist it was hard not to feel emotional as each guest spoke on the influence of Sondheim. And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly intimidated reviewing the roster of talent and musical selections that I am set to reflect upon. Sondheim is often compared to Shakespeare, and with good reason. There is a certain complexity and subtext to this body of work that nearly makes it it’s own genre. It takes a deep-seated love of musical theatre and a somewhat sophisticated ear to digest the work. It takes an even greater level of skill and talent to perform it. Technically, yes (Sondheim’s orchestrations are notoriously difficult for musicians and vocalists alike) but to speak the speech that is Sondheim is a unique skill that is hard to explain. You just feel it.

The performances were (pre-recorded) and submitted by Broadway heavy hitters from start to finish. There were no Hollywood stars thrown in to cast a wider and more appealing net as this was an event for theatre lovers! It was so great to see these stars in their home studios, bedrooms, and bathrooms even, with headphones in, emoting their faces off. For me, the greatest thing watching this as a performer was that it felt like a master class. Sondheim has a way of easily wringing out melancholy and longing, but to see the faces of experts up close, laser focused, telling a story, uvulas wagging, and perfect embouchure on display was fascinating and inspiring. If you have young performers at home or are currently studying voice or theatre, plan to watch this and take notes.

The first 45 minutes were full to the brim of the earnest ballads of Sondheim. Selections from lesser-known musicals seemed to be a popular choice for many of the artists, and I took many names down to further explore some titles. There was also a high volume of selections from Sunday in the Park with George, a very well loved musical by Sondheim purists, and while I understand why it is so cherished, it is not one that I personally hold so dear. Of course, this is coming from someone that would have been very content with two hours full of songs from Sweeney Todd and Assassins, selections from those musicals being smartly sparse and carefully chosen. I will say, though, not being a particular fan of Sunday in the Park… Mandy Patinkin casually singing “Lesson #8” acapella, outside, in a field, was pretty spectacular. In the back half of the show Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford’s duet of “Move On” was breathtaking and immediate. While everything was so expert in the front half of the show, at this point I was ready for a change of pace.

No sooner had I jotted down in my notes “ready for a change of pace” did Randy Rainbow burst into a delightful rendition of “By the Sea” from Sweeney Todd. There was also a back to back, one two punch of comic relief from Linda Lavin performing a nearly unknown spoof of sorts of “Girl from Ipanema” titled “The Boy From…” (listen to the song you’ll understand the ellipses) and “Buddies Blues” from Follies performed in a rolling office chair by Alexander Gemigani.

Arguably the climax of the entire event was “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, performed by Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald, which I am sure you have seen shared once or twice on your social media since Sunday if you surround yourself with theatre folk.

The event ended, appropriately with Sondheim’s muse, 72-year-old Bernadette Peters singing the all-purpose tearjerker, “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods…acapella of course.

As I mentioned previously, reviewing this incredible display of musical theatre talent, became increasingly daunting the more I sat with the work. But that is because it was all so accurately emotional. Sondheim has a way of writing songs that bring specificity and universality, at the same time. And that’s why we love it, study it, and produce the shows over and over again.

Take Me To the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration is available for free on YouTube and runs approximately two and a half hours, with an intermission whenever you like!

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