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Everybody Rise and Discuss Sondheim’s 90th Birthday Livestream

Audra, and Meryl, and Christine! Oh my! Photo:

On Sunday evening, Stephen Sondheim’s fans — both famous and not — gathered at their computers at 8 p.m. to celebrate the Broadway legend’s 90th birthday. And then they sat there for a long time because the live feed was delayed for half an hour or so, then briefly started, then saw its host Raúl Esparza’s audio cut out, and then stopped and rebooted half an hour after that. And then, once it started … it couldn’t be stopped. Stars from stage and screen — Streep! Patinkin! LuPone! Peters! Zien! — all paid tribute. They were doing so, in many cases, to a friend, to a mentor, to the man who had given them the roles of their lives. But for the rest of us, Sondheim is the hyperclever Bard of Loneliness, the writer whose music implies, in every note, that being isolated and confused can actually have its upside. That makes him not just the birthday boy but the man of the moment.

Madison Malone Kircher: Okay, so, where should we begin? There’s just so much to discuss!

Helen Shaw: There was the delicious pause, 8 to 8:30, which was some of my best time spent in quarantine. And we had a learning moment! Raúl told us that shows used to start at 8:30, which is why 11 o’clock numbers are called that.

Kircher: Try as they —’s Paul Wontorek — might, those clowns just did not want to be sent in on time.

Shaw: The immediacy of the “curtains start late” jokes were so delightful.

Christopher Bonanos: What time did they actually get going — it was well after 9, wasn’t it? There were multiple stages of reaction: ten minutes of “Oh, fun, this is like a real opening night,” then “Huh, this is a real screwup,” then “I wonder if they’re going to abandon the whole thing.”

Jackson McHenry: I did enjoy spending my time gazing at the photos of the Zoom call everyone was apparently on before the show started, and wondering if they all continued to text — and if so, what? — throughout said delay.

Bonanos: We had an elaborate discussion in our house of whose Zoom setups had been named by assistants and which ones people had done themselves.

Shaw: My top two: obviously Lin-Manuel Miranda as “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and whatever the heck Audra was doing.

Bonanos: Some portmanteau of first names, I was guessing. Plus “Swenson,” her husband Will’s name.

Kircher: The space between the M and the S in “M S’s iPhone.” Iconic.

Bonanos: I was sure I was the only person who spotted Meryl’s M-S space, and of course I was not.

McHenry: I love the directness of Victor Garber’s “Victor’s iPad.”

Shaw: See, I spent that time reading the increasingly unhinged YouTube comment stream, of (a) people trying to hack a stream that was, in some crucial way, hacking itself; (b) people screaming their throats out for Meryl; and (c) the dawning realization that 100,000 people had gathered and the show would not go on.

McHenry: But, eventually, it did go on! And we got the same little Stephen Schwartz piano introduction all over again, minus Raúl’s presence in his little gray box in the corner, and on to Sutton Foster, etc. It quickly became clear these were pretaped segments, and they’d originally intended some live Esparza enthusiastic commentary to stitch it together. But that only came after the first attempt went south.

Bonanos: As Raúl muttered into a microphone that he clearly did not know was live. And then, when the stream cut over to him at full-screen size, his sound immediately disappeared. Did you find yourselves screaming, “CLICK UNMUTE IN THE CORNER, RAÚL”?

Kircher: I think I tweeted it, in fact.

Shaw: You were trying to help.

Bonanos: Okay, Zoomer?

Kircher: No.

Bonanos: No. You’re right.

Shaw: I have spent many Zoom calls muted myself because my headphones were accidentally plugged in, and I once sat through an entire show at City Center with a Walkman (it was another time, okay?) playing the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? while I looked around annoyed that some jerk had left their Walkman on, so I am very understanding of that moment.

Kircher: Raúl’s refusal to fully cede his role as host after it became clear it wasn’t going to work and instead livetweeting videos of himself reacting to the stream. That’s commitment. I respect it. Also, I’m jumping ahead, but my God, as always, his voice!

Shaw: I found his being a little (hotly) annoyed and then moving into acceptance to be the Aristotelian definition of theater, thank you very much.

Bonanos: The Twitter commentary was such an awkward choice because you can read tweets while you’re watching the simulcast, but you cannot watch a video while you’re listening to a singer! (At least I can’t.)

McHenry: True, I had to give up and then read through all of what he had to say after the fact, which was very good. Teach this little treatise on Marry Me a Little in schools.

Shaw: If we haven’t learned from Merrily that things can happen out of order and still make sense, then we … haven’t … been … watching Merrily?

Kircher: I think — this thing went on for so long that my brain is now soup — Sutton Foster went first? With a strange camera angle looking down from above, but a nice rendition of “There Won’t Be Trumpets” nonetheless.

Bonanos: Funny, crinkly white backdrop, but not bad.

McHenry: Plus a cameo from her daughter singing “Happy Birthday,” one of many appearances from small children in a night celebrating a composer I’d most associate with “serious adult feelings.” But I liked that a lot more than Neil Patrick Harris’s odd cuts to his kids during our next song, the witch’s rap. Did no one consider the sexuality of the whole rooting through rutabagas shtick?

Kircher: It was a CHOICE. I am convinced he thinks that song is literally about vegetables. That is the only possible explanation.

Bonanos: You should see his nectarines! I spent quite a bit of time considering NPH’s wall of windows, which are the kind of extremely expensive custom millwork that a long-running sitcom role can buy.

Shaw: There are mansions in the wooooooods, great, big, echoey mansions in the Hills.

Kircher: Kelli O’Hara. Judy Kuhn. Victor Garber. The list of names just kept growing after that.

Bonanos: Did anyone note who sounds best via Zoom? Like, did Kelli’s soprano come through cleaner than some of the midrange voices? Though I suppose it also depends on who has a good microphone setup.

Shaw: I thought it was more about whether or not you could sell looking into the distance.

Kircher: There were a few people who clearly had the lyrics just behind the camera, and, uh, you could tell. All of Twitter was off-book and ready for this moment, and you needed a prompter?

Shaw: Mandy didn’t need the lyrics.

Bonanos: Or music. Or a set. Or a computer or camera? Frankly, I think he just sang and it made its way to YouTube by sheer force of emotional will.

Kircher: Do pets count as props?

Shaw: I bet Mandy does that every day. That dog has heard him do that before, you can tell.

Kircher: There were so many great performances — by people, I mean — last night, but I think we should get into some of our personal favorites. Oh, me? Sure, I’ll start. I would die for Katrina Lenk. The acoustic cover of “Johanna” was both beautiful and original. I know she is busy with the gender-swapped Company and all, but when that (hopefully) opens and she’s done … do Sweeney next.

Bonanos: Katrina as Sweeney, Cerveris as Mrs. Lovett this time?

McHenry: In terms of inventiveness, I loved the bits of choreography and camera placement that stitched together Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh, and Thom Sesma’s “Someone in a Tree,” an all-time great Sondheim song, but also one that really moved me in the moment. It’s all about assembling one moment from shattered places and times, somehow both a song about a moment lost to history and about what it’s like to try to comprehend the world right now from your laptop screen.

Bonanos: Completely. You know, I’ve seen Pacific Overtures staged only once, and it’s the one show of Sondheim’s that I never quite got. I also didn’t know at the time that Sondheim considered “Someone in a Tree” his best work, and even that song left me indifferent. But I think this performance, of all things, changed my mind. I finally got it this time around.

Shaw: I think in terms of emotional wreckage, I’m going to vote for Judy Kuhn doing “What Can You Lose?” Or maybe Victor Garber telling us that in the ’60s he was a folk singer in Canada, which makes … so much sense. Or Chip Zien embracing the baker’s hat!

McHenry: In terms of song choice, Lea Salonga’s straightforward deployment of “Loving You” cut me, a Passion fan, straight to the bone. On a completely different emotional plane, it was a delight to witness Elizabeth Stanley revel in “The Miller’s Son.” There’s so much texture in a song like that, and it’s just fun to see someone unravel them (as opposed to something like Randy Rainbow’s “By the Sea,” which tried some wink-wink updates to the original — never wink-wink update Sondheim).

Kircher: Stanley, we should probably note, pulled double duty and appeared over on GLAAD’s competing livestream with the cast of Jagged Little Pill. Brian Stokes Mitchell doing a cut number from Assassins was also a treat. The “Oh yeah, you’re a Sondheim fan? Name three of his albums” flex of the event.

Shaw: Who was saying — was it Raúl, on Twitter? — that the number was originally supposed to be the opener of the musical, everyone at a parade, watching the flag go by, and then gradually spectators would be replaced with assassins, which is chilling.

Bonanos: As all of them mutter, “What time is this thing gonna start streaming anyway?” Speaking of slayings: We should discuss the three ladies doing “Ladies Who Lunch.”

Kircher: Let me open a bottle of gin, and then I’ll be ready to process it. Also, this is me refusing to acknowledge that murder joke.

Shaw: Christine Baranski moved that glass out of the way to reveal — such glamor! Best hair and makeup of the night. Who is her glam squad?

Bonanos: I spent a few minutes wondering if she had one of those giant Olivia Pope wineglasses or if it was just foreshortened by the webcam.

Kircher: I’m thinking one of those Amy Schumer–size ones that hold an entire bottle of wine.

McHenry: The escalating series of reveals was delightful. Christine … Then Meryl! … Then Audra, with Audra vibrato! My roommate wandered into our living room at that point and made fun of me for cackling like a small child at the glee of it.

Kircher: I love that she did not hold back a bit.

Shaw: That’s when I started wondering about microphones, actually. Because hers could handle it. There were mics and MICS last night.

Kircher: She’s had some time to troubleshoot since that first appearance on the Rosie O’Donnell show [checks calendar because time is a construct and who knows what day it is anymore] a month ago.

Shaw: Every day is Caturday.

Bonanos: It occurred to me that Christine Baranski has never appeared in any Sondheim musical on Broadway, which is frankly absurd. For heaven’s sake, sign her up for something!

Shaw: What’s the fantasy casting for her? The Witch?

McHenry: She at least did Sweeney in D.C., but bring her to Broadway! Company replacement Joanne? Alternating with the other two members of her Zoom call?

Bonanos: Put her in Sweeney, opposite Katrina Lenk.

Kircher: At this point, I think the only Sondheim casting I’ll accept is a show with every person from last night’s concert in the cast. The bar has been set too high.

Bonanos: Side by Side by Side by Everyone Good Who Was Ever in Anything.

Shaw: Frankly, I’m surprised that Jake’s Sunday in the Park didn’t run for 1 million years.

Kircher: Annaleigh! Ashford! That’s it. That’s the tweet.

Bonanos: Oh God, yes. Also I’d seen her barely 24 hours earlier in HBO’s Bad Education, doing that fantastic, over-the-top-yet-entirely-on-the-nose Long Island accent, and last night confirmed for me that you cannot overdose on Annaleigh Ashford.

Shaw: How did you guys feel about the Beanie Feldstein–Ben Platt moment? Good Lord, Aaron Tveit, Brandon Uranowitz … I’m looking at my notes and I kind of can’t believe that I saw all of this last night.

Kircher: They were really lovely. Beanie calling him “Mr. Sondheim!”

Shaw: “Who Gets to Call Him Steve: A Spreadsheet.” One thing I noticed, man, there was a lot of Anyone Can Whistle and Evening Primrose … not exactly the shows that leap out of the catalogue.

Bonanos: That was the only quasi-downside for me: I was a little puzzled to see so many of those and no “Sunday,” for example — especially because that was the song that, in the 80th-birthday concert from 2010, completely destroyed everyone in the room.

McHenry: I liked the deeper cuts. I was bracing for a lot of Sunday, Into the Woods, etc. (so much Into the Woods! Chip Zien, break my heart with your hat), but I liked the journey into some curiosities, too. Give me Saturday Night, Evening Primrose (twice! We’re all trapped in our own department stores now), The Frogs (only in a passing reference from Nathan Lane, but still!). Speaking of curiosities, Linda Lavin pulled up “The Boy From …,” which gave you some perspective on his career and her breath control, but which feels so dated in its jokes about Brazil and Latin America.

Bonanos: Did anyone else cringe a little at the pidgin-Spanish-Portuguese-whatever in that one? I know, it’s old, different era, but …

Shaw: It was an uncomfortable reminder of the, uh, diversity issues.

McHenry: Those felt stark in the group “I’m Still Here,” too, with a bunch more Broadway performers from shows that would currently be running, including André De Shields — who I wished had gotten to do the whole song himself — and a group of performers that, even if it was still very white, was noticeably less white than the rest of the lineup.

Kircher: At the very least, give him more bars than Iain Armitage!

Bonanos: And then it came down to Broadway’s two most recent Mommas Rose at the end.

McHenry: Patti LuPone, making a surprise trip aboveground, with “Anyone Can Whistle.” Bernadette Peters, stunting in her own way: “No One Is Alone,” sans backing track.

Kircher: A casual a cappella cover. “No One Is Alone” except for me, Bernadette Peters, who needs absolutely no accompaniment.

Bonanos: As Benjamin Dreyer noted on Twitter, Bernadette looks great for 34.

Shaw: I aged more during the livestream than she has in the past 40 years.

Kircher: It’s all those push-ups she does.

Shaw: You realize we haven’t talked about Benanti in the bathroom? Or STOKES and his oxblood wall?

Bonanos: When I profiled Laura Benanti a few years ago she was staying in a hotel while she was renovating, and when I saw that bathroom, I immediately thought, Oh, huh, it came out great.

Kircher: I’m still thinking about Donna Murphy’s single lit candle.

McHenry: Donna Murphy’s beautifully arranged tableau, with her tulips, her Passion sheet music on the piano, her innate sense of drama.

Shaw: I AM IN A HIRSCHFELD, you noobs, but tastefully. So, speaking of tasteful segues, I hope that ASTEP actually made some money out of this thing. At least by my eyeball estimate, it went from 100,000 viewers to around 25,000 during the kerfuffle. I really hope everyone gave four times as much as they were planning to.

McHenry: The rebooted livestream also lacked the “click to donate” mechanisms you’d see on other fundraising concerts like this, which may have been a sad casualty of the tech issues. I do hope Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s simple and direct speech on the cause helped, and wondered if it was something Raúl was meant to bring up from his little gray box if it had all gone on as planned, but it did feel like the message to donate could get lost amid the fanfare elsewhere.

Shaw: I feel we’re starting to see these cracks more and more — doing these things for charity gets you around and under various union issues (and is hugely meaningful for a lot of people participating), but sometimes you can see the fissure between what the charity wants and what the artists are doing. Over on the GLAAD livestream, every single interview Billy Eichner did was about the mission — and while that really hammered it home, it also meant it wasn’t pure entertainment. I watched GLAAD until Sondheim came back, and then … well … Melissa Errico and Nathan Lane! How could I click away?

Bonanos: I wish Nathan Lane had been able to just riff on just random topics for the dead hour at the beginning. I’d have watched that regardless of what came after.

Shaw: It was smart to have everyone pretape, which is what saved the night. But it also meant they couldn’t “throw to Lane” and vamp entertainingly while raising thousands. A live disaster is better, isn’t it? I know I tip like a Medici whenever something goes wrong in a restaurant. Spill a glass of wine on me? That’ll be an extra 40 percent, automatically.

Kircher: After the false start, I really thought they’d just hold off and do it another night. Essentially all of it was taped, anyway. Not that I’m complaining: I got five hours of entertainment on Sunday night for the price of three.

Bonanos: On an ordinaaaaaary Sunday!

Kircher: AND … SCENE!

Everybody Rise and Discuss Sondheim’s 90th Birthday Concert