Review: For Sondheim’s 90th Birthday, a Collage of Aching Voices

Review: For Sondheim’s 90th Birthday, a Collage of Aching Voices

Review: For Sondheim’s 90th Birthday, a Collage of Aching Voices

Review: For Sondheim’s 90th Birthday, a Collage of Aching Voices

Hosted by the actor Raúl Esparza, this compilation of songs and reminiscences — and a fund-raiser for the youth arts-oriented organization Artists Striving to End Poverty — looked like a nonstarter at first. The show, which streamed on Sunday night on YouTube and, began half an hour after its official 8 p.m. curtain time. Even then, it continued for only a fitful, embarrassing six minutes or so, which found Esparza speaking animatedly without sound, before shutting down again.

The annotative YouTube chat scroll was devastating in the way that only a collection of disappointed hard-core fans can be, with posters gleefully using Sondheim lyrics to vent their frustration. (“Agony,” a song title from “Into the Woods,” was a succinct and repeated declaration. Also popular were variations on the lyric “And do they know I’m losing my mind?” from “Follies.”)

On Twitter, the exasperated annotation included posts from stars participating in the show. “This is why nothing can replace live theater,” wrote Judy Kuhn, who memorably appeared in a revival of Sondheim’s “Passion.” And who, at that moment, was going to disagree with her?

But, at long last, some time after 9, the cavalcade of illustrious performers began to make their appearances, song by song, in simply presented segments that appeared to have been recorded in their bedrooms, bathrooms, studies and kitchens. (The unobtrusive, effective accompaniment was overseen by the show’s musical director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell; the show’s director was Paul Wontorek, editor in chief of

Nothing, of course, can match the thrill of watching such skilled performers live. Yet there was a steadily increasing feeling that the songs of Sondheim, who turned 90 last month, were more than ready for their close-ups.

Staring into a single, usually unmoving camera, many of the singers — who included the likes of Meryl Streep, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mandy Patinkin and Neil Patrick Harris — created the illusion that they were thinking out loud. The intricately crafted melodies and lyrics of Sondheim improbably felt like ideal vehicles for the most disparate and individual interior musings.

Anyone who has cultivated the fine art of introspection amid the silence of sheltering in place — and I imagine that’s most of us — would likely have found a mirror in this collage of voices. The ache of both longing and fear to enter a pulsing, human world that feels tantalizingly distant pervaded not only the show’s title song but the production as a whole.

That song, from the 1966 television musical “Evening Primrose,” was performed by Esparza, with a nuanced interpretation in which passion warred with caution, and hope with a draining fatalism. The same contradictory current flowed through Aaron Tveit’s rendering of “Marry Me a Little,” from “Company,” as both his face and voice seemed to melt between eager expectation and self-sabotaging confusion.

“The Miller’s Son,” an ostensibly jubilant paean to seizing the day from “A Little Night Music,” was rendered by Elizabeth Stanley with a sobering awareness of life’s transience and the impossibility of so many dreams. The same ghostly anxiety crept into even the showbiz anthem “Broadway Baby,” from “Follies,” artfully and originally delivered by Maria Friedman.

Kelli O’Hara, a Tony Award-winning star primarily associated (as she noted) with the more unconditionally exultant work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, said she had cut her teeth as a performer emotionally on Sondheim. “He gave us the words for our feelings,” she said. “He named them for us.” And then she sang, with a pristine clarity that allowed for shadows of doubt, “What More Do I Need?” from the seldom-performed “Saturday Night” (1955).

That choice wasn’t an obvious one. The well-known classics were fewer, and included Donna Murphy’s quiet, brooding “Send in the Clowns.” Patti LuPone did not do the angry anthem “The Ladies Who Lunch” — which she was to have sung in this season’s revival of “Company” — but the searching, tentative title number from “Anyone Can Whistle.”

“Ladies” was given its due, with gusto, by not one but three formidable women: McDonald, Streep and Christine Baranski, who blearily toasted one another as if during a Zoom happy hour, each looking gloriously disheveled in a bathrobe, with glass (or bottle) in hand.

Split screens were also memorably deployed to allow Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford to affectingly recreate the duet “Move On” from “Sunday in the Park With George.” A multiplicity of screens allowed four separate performers — Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh and Thom Sesma — to reflect wittily on the prismatic nature of memory and history in “Someone In a Tree,” from “Pacific Overtures.” And in what was perhaps the evening’s most charming vignette, the young stars Beanie Feldstein and Ben Platt delivered “It Takes Two,” from “Into the Woods,” achieving a sweet symbiosis from their respective, self-contained chambers of isolation.

Unexpected novelties included the blissfully silly “The Boy From…,” written by Sondheim with Mary Rodgers for the antic revue “The Mad Show,” deliciously undersold by Linda Lavin, who appeared in the original production 54 years ago. Katrina Lenk, who was to have starred in this season’s “Company,” sang the love ballad “Johanna” (from “Sweeney Todd”) with a sly, smiling steeliness, accompanying herself on the guitar.

The performances that touched me most, though, came from the original stars of “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984), Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Both sang a cappella, with voices that had the hushed intimacy of private reflection. Patinkin, standing in a wintry bucolic landscape, did the self-questioning “Lesson 8,” in which the title character, the painter Georges Seurat, catalogs regrets of a life and career he worries may be coming to an end.

Peters ended the show on a seemingly less elegiac note, with “No One Is Alone,” from “Into the Woods.” It was a song, she said, she felt we needed to hear now. And, yes, there was reassurance in her gentle, probing soprano as she sang the title lyrics. But there were also glimmers of uncertainty and apprehensions as she added: “Believe me. Truly.”

She wasn’t going to lie to us. Sondheim’s songs never do. And the night concluded with the strangely consoling affirmation of a great artist’s ambivalence.

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