Brow Beat

At the Sondheim Tribute, Necessity Was the Mother of Invention

Everyone sang from their homes, but no one was alone.

Audra McDonald, Meryl Streep, and Christine Baranski on three separate video chat screens, wearing bathrobes and holding up glasses of alcohol while singing
The ladies who lunch. Still from YouTube

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Nothing brings people together like live performance, or, in the case of Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, waiting for it. The tribute to the greatest living composer of musical theater was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. Sunday night, and fans both rabid and casual gathered around their variously sized screens to share the closest thing we’ve got to a collective experience right now. As the livestream on failed to appear on schedule, breathless anticipation turned to jokes about how, just like a real Broadway show, the online tribute would start a few minutes after the hour, then passing around word that it would be more like 8:30. But social media didn’t really explode until composer Stephen Schwartz finished his solo piano rendition of the prologue to Follies and the stream cut to what was meant to be a live introduction from Raúl Esparza. Esparza, who starred in the 2006 revival of Company, started off with an impassioned speech about the vitality of Sondheim’s work and the importance of live theater—or at least, he seemed to, as far as anyone could make out. For minutes that seemed like hours, Esparza kept talking while viewers heard nothing. As we waited for someone, anyone, to let him know, the mood went from anxious to perplexed to desperate. “RAUUUUL,” Lin-Manuel Miranda yelled at him on Twitter. “NO SE OYEEE.” No one can hear.

While you always hope for perfection, the potential for such screw-ups is what makes live performance … live. It hurt to see the look on Esparza’s face change as he realized he wasn’t getting through, to see his camera fall sideways and stare at the floor before the stream cut away, again. But during this moment when every video link broadcasts evidence of how even in quarantine the famous are living better lives than ours, Esparza’s apparent inability to make a Zoom call work was the most “Stars—they’re just like us!” moment imaginable.

While we waited, and waited—How late is this thing going to be? Could it actually just … not happen?!—would-be viewers killed time on Twitter, cracking jokes until we cried. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom and Pulitzer-winning critic Emily Nussbaum chimed in with their own tributes, and their followers followed suit. Let a thousand Sondheim tributes bloom!

After a few more false starts, Take Me to the World began airing in earnest shortly after 9. I held my breath through Schwartz’s by-now-familiar intro and the opening credits, finally exhaling when we slid right into the next pre-taped segment. (Esparza, who finally showed up to sing later in the broadcast, started posting videos to his Twitter account rather than hosting live.) By then, the viewers had been bound together, not just by their shared love for, or even just curiosity about, one of musical theater’s great geniuses, but the collective anxiety and disbelief of watching the whole thing almost slide off the rails, and the sense of relief when it didn’t. We had become, in short, an audience, and while the tributes weren’t unrolling in real time, our reactions to them were. You can still watch the entire thing on YouTube—and make a donation to Artists Striving to End Poverty, its beneficiary, while you’re at it—but you might not share the same astonishment of watching Katrina Lenk—who had just started playing the lead in a new production of Company when COVID-19 shut Broadway down—pull out an acoustic guitar for “Johanna” and turn Sweeney Todd’s lovesick belter into a lilting ballad of same-sex longing. (Comedian Randy Rainbow later gender-flipped Sweeney’s “By the Sea” in the opposite direction, after expressing mock irritation that Sondheim reserved so many of his best songs for women.)

A tribute concert conducted via video chat doesn’t have the same sense of purpose as gathering all those artists together under one roof, but the singers self-taping from quarantine added a new element. It wasn’t just the way they sang Sondheim’s songs that put them across, but the settings they chose: Elizabeth Stanley seated in front of a woven blanket and bathed in afternoon sunlight for “The Miller’s Son,” Chip Zien singing “No More” with the baker’s hat he wore during the original production of Into the Woods placed prominently on the piano behind him. Although Sondheim didn’t perform himself, most tributes ended with a “Happy birthday, Steve”—or sometimes “Mr. Sondheim,” or even “sir”—as if we were intercepting a personal transmission from one artist to another. Some tributes were staged more carefully than others: Donna Murphy placed the libretto for Passion atop her piano, with candles flickering in the distance, while Jake Gyllenhaal, backed by louvered closet doors in dim lighting, looked as if he was shooting in a college student’s apartment. But the sound was good, and the performances often stunning. Often, that was because of their simplicity. Mandy Patinkin took his version of Sunday in the Park With George’s “Lesson #8” out on the grass near a running brook. Bernadette Peters sang “No One Is Alone” a cappella, the slight cracks in her voice rendering the message of reassurance more beautiful in its fragility. Brian Stokes Mitchell needed only an old-fashioned microphone and a bright red backdrop to belt out “The Flag Song,” a number cut from Assassins whose battered patriotism felt tailored to a moment when the American ideal and its reality seem so far apart.

Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, most of Take Me to the World’s songs were solos. But in the spirit of live theater, where necessities of circumstance are often converted into artistic statements, two of the broadcast’s highlights turned the conference call grid into a stage. Pacific Overtures’ “Someone in a Tree,” which Sondheim has called the best song he’s ever written, filters history through the lens of differing perspectives, and those were here made literal by the separate spaces its singers inhabited. And “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which is normally a solo number, became a sozzled group chat between Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald, swilling booze in their bathrobes as they ride out the storm. Stephen Sondheim’s songs have plumbed the depths of the human heart, but that might be the most relatable they’ve ever been.

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