Though unused for the past 18 months, Radio City Music Hall’s 6,105 red velvet chairs will likely need a tune-up by the end of this week thanks to Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, and the 27 standing ovations the pair received during their miraculous, magnificent concert there on Thursday night (August 5).
It was the second and final performance of “One Last Time: An Evening With Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga,” and the sold-out audience had come to pay their respects — and in their sequined, bedazzled best. Many dressed for the occasion in ball gowns, tuxedos, and gemstone-drenched smoking jackets; masks were sparse (though attendees were required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter the venue), but there were even a few rhinestone-studded face coverings spotted in Radio City’s teeming lobby beforehand. When Gaga made her entrance just after 9 p.m., in a sparkling white ball gown, and struck a pose, the crowd — which included Hillary and Bill Clinton, who received a shout-out from the mistress of ceremonies — leapt to their feet and cheered. When the curtain rose an hour later to reveal Bennett for the first time, standing by the piano with his arms outstretched in elated greeting, they stood — clapping and waving, this time as if facing an old friend for the first time in years — until he picked up his microphone and began to sing. The vast majority of those present for Bennett’s final performance at Radio City Music Hall understood the assignment: We were here to watch a beloved New York icon say good-bye to the stage, with his decorated protégé giving him a proper send-off.
“One Last Time: An Evening With Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga” was as much a festive homecoming as it was a poignant farewell. This week’s shows marked the first time Bennett, who turned 95 on August 3, performed in public since his family revealed his Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis in February. Last night’s show was also, as the program’s title suggests, a coda for the singer at the end of a seven-decade career that began across the East River, where a teenage Anthony Benedetto worked as a singing waiter in his native Astoria before his smooth tenor won over fans across geography and generations. Though Bennett’s early fame in the ’50s and ’60s earned him deserved accolades, his first Grammy awards, and the praise of Frank Sinatra, Bennett enjoyed an unusual resurgence in his senior years, when he continued to sing the standards of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and the rest of the Great American Songbook with renewed fervor thanks to 1994’s successful MTV Unplugged special, which restored his relevance. A handful of albums featuring collaborations with contemporary chart-toppers — from Billy Joel and Sheryl Crow to Amy Winehouse — followed, reinvigorating the elder statesman’s career.
One collaboration — with another Italian American, jazz-worshipping native New Yorker — has proven to be more fruitful than the rest. Lady Gaga, like Bennett, grew up with an affinity for the Great American Songbook classics, and was thrilled when he wanted to meet her after watching her croon Nat King Cole’s “Orange Colored Sky” at a 2011 benefit concert in their hometown. (In Gaga’s opening solo set at Radio City, she introduced “Orange Colored Sky” by recalling how she briefly panicked that night ten years ago and demanded her crew “make me look like a lady, damn it,” changing from latex stagewear into a more subdued outfit to meet Bennett.) Later that year, she joined him to sing a duet of “The Lady Is a Tramp” for his Duets II: The Great Performances album, kick-starting a prolific, chart-topping friendship in the decade since; they released and toured behind Cheek to Cheek, their love letter to their beloved standards, in 2014, which debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart.
The duo had been working on Love for Sale, Cheek to Cheek’s follow-up due out October 1, after Bennett’s 2016 Alzheimer’s diagnosis. When AARP first reported that Bennett had been declining in recent years due to the neurodegenerative disease, it was noted that he often seemed bewildered and confused while trying to communicate in the studio, but that singing remained a grounding constant in his life. Music is remarkably therapeutic for Alzheimer’s patients, in that it’s been known to miraculously, though temporarily, retie the broken threads of memory: Gayatri Devi, Bennett’s neurologist, told AARP that performing “kept him on his toes and also stimulated his brain in a significant way,” a fact apparent to the Radio City crowd six months after the news of his diagnosis. Bennett did, indeed, appear lucid and downright jovial at Radio City: He scatted in time; his vibrato rarely warbled off-pitch. He rolled through 17 songs in total, including a trio of rousing numbers with Gaga, his moving rendition of Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” and an encore of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” his career-defining single, with hardly a stumble over a single lyric. The only reminders of Bennett’s condition came in his sparse stage banter between songs and his occasional lean on the piano for support: The swells of applause were often met with a “Wow!” or “Beautiful!” and nothing more, save for one heartfelt thank you for the “beautiful audience” or a triumphant fist raised in the wake of a spirited trumpet solo from Brian Newman, a longtime friend and collaborator of Gaga’s. The set list offered bittersweet echoes of the significance of the evening as well. “This Is All I Ask,” a 1958 ballad by Gordon Jenkins that Bennett recorded for his 1960 album Alone Together (and again with Josh Groban for Duets II), struck a tear-jerking chord, especially in its final words: “Let the music play, as long as there’s a song to sing / And I will stay younger than spring.”
But the tears were kept mostly at bay, as “One Last Time: An Evening With Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga” was, undoubtedly, a celebration of a life and legacy that hasn’t seen the curtain just yet. Gaga, the hostess of the evening, made it very clear throughout her set this was all for Bennett. She shared personal anecdotes at any given opportunity, noting before singing Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” that the ballad was written in 1926, the year of Bennett’s birth; she added that the tune has become a difficult one for her to sing, though every phrase that followed was as lovely and heartfelt as the sentiment that introduced it. She added that “La Vie en Rose,” an Edith Piaf standard she stunned with in 2018’s A Star Is Born, is in her repertoire because of him: “I never would have sang this song if Tony didn’t tell me to.” She encouraged the audience to make Bennett smile and laugh before grabbing a top hat and roaring through “New York, New York,” an extravagant and appropriate warm-up for Bennett’s final act. And after she made way for Bennett to savor his own spotlight, she returned, first to sing with him, and later to escort him from the stage — slowly, so he could wave back at the sea of hands that were waving him good-bye.