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Stephen Sondheim's Star-Studded 90th Birthday Salute Made For Perfect TV


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. I've watched many broadcast and streaming specials since the coronavirus began affecting our lives, but one in particular really got to me. It was the recent 90th birthday salute to Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, featuring performances from an array of musical theater stars. This is Donna Murphy.


DONNA MURPHY: (Singing) Isn't it rich? Are we a pair? Me here at last on the ground, you in midair - send in the clowns.

BIANCULLI: Nothing I've seen on TV since the pandemic hit has impressed me quite like "Take Me To The World," the star-studded 90th birthday salute to Stephen Sondheim. It was shown April 26, is still available for viewing and will be for some time. Aimed to raise funds for a favorite charity of his, Artists Striving To End Poverty, "Take Me To The World" was presented on YouTube and Broadway.com. It began as a technical fiasco, with Stephen Schwartz playing piano from "Follies" while the evening's host and producer Raul Esparza and others accidentally spoke over the music trying to make sense of the wayward audio and video feeds.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. (Unintelligible). Paul, can you see Raul on the screen?

RAUL ESPARZA: Can you see me? Were you able to see me?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. We can see him in the bottom right - left of the screen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What's happening? It's lagging.

BIANCULLI: Nothing worked, and the whole thing crashed for more than an hour. But then the pre-recorded sequences minus the planned live hosting bits started rolling out, one sequence after another sent in by a talented friend colleague or admirer of Sondheim and his work. The performances in total ran for the length of an average Broadway musical but were much better than average.

As a TV show, it was up close and very personal. These people were singing for the most part in isolation with minimal musical accompaniment, and sometimes none at all, unless you count the birds in the nearby stream that could be heard as Mandy Patinkin stood in his spacious backyard and sang an acapella version of "Lesson #8," a song from "Sunday In The Park With George."


MANDY PATINKIN: (Singing) George is afraid. George sees the park. George sees it dying. George, too, may fade, leaving no mark, just passing through, just like the people out strolling on Sunday. George looks around. George is alone. No use denying George is aground. George has outgrown what he can do. George would have liked to see people out strolling on Sunday.

BIANCULLI: Most people sang to piano tracks recorded for the occasion, and that austerity only added to the emotional weight. The singers ranged from Lin Manuel Miranda and Neil Patrick Harris to Josh Groban and Kelli O'Hara. Victor Garber and Jason Alexander told stories about Sondheim but didn't sing.

And there were some relative rarities. Brian Stokes Mitchell did a haunting song that had been cut from "Assassins." And four singers from a 2017 production of "Pacific Overtures" did a beautiful rendition of "Someone In A Tree" that required them to pretend to look at each other in various quadrants of the screen Brady Bunch-style. It was one of the two most ambitiously visual presentations of the evening, not counting the finale. The other was an all-out dynamic diva moment - splitting the screen three ways to give Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald the chance to take on "The Ladies Who Lunch" individually, then collectively.


CHRISTINE BARANSKI: I'd like to propose a toast. (Singing) Here's to the ladies who lunch. Everybody laugh, lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch on their own behalf. After the gym, then to a filling, claiming they're fat then looking grim because they've been sitting choosing a hat - does anyone still wear a hat?

BIANCULLI: Each of them wore a comfy bathrobe and had a drink in hand.


BARANSKI: (Singing) I'll drink to that.

MERYL STREEP: (Singing) Here's to the girls who stay smart - aren't they a gas? - rushing to their classes in optical art, wishing it would pass. Another long, exhausting day; another thousand dollars; a matinee; a Pinter play; perhaps a piece of Mahler's - I'll drink to that. And one for Mahler.

AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) Here's to the girls who play wife. Aren't they too much?

STREEP: (Laughter) Yeah.

MCDONALD: (Singing) Keeping house, but clutching a copy of Life just to keep in touch...

BARANSKI: (Laughter).

MCDONALD: (Singing) ...The ones who follow the rules and meet themselves at the schools...

STREEP: Fools.

MCDONALD: (Singing) ...Too busy to know that they're fools - aren't they a gem? I'll drink to them. Let's all drink to them.

STREEP: I'm already drinking, dear.


BIANCULLI: "Ladies Who Lunch" is a show-stopper from Sondheim's "Company," the musical I saw as part of a visiting high school theater group on the first night of my first trip to New York and to Broadway. Fifty years later, on the second Monday in March of this year, I saw "Company" again, this time in previews with Katrina link playing a female Bobbie. She was terrific, by the way, so was the production. But the lights went out on Broadway that Wednesday. And I feel very lucky to have seen it.

In between those two "Company" productions, for me, is a lifetime of lovely Sondheim-related memories, not only seeing "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd" and "Sunday In The Park With George", and getting to interview Sondheim onstage a few years ago, but taking my kids to their first Sondheim show, which was "Into The Woods," starring Bernadette Peters. On the Sondheim 90th birthday salute, Peters had the final solo number, acapella like Mandy Patinkin, and sang a song from that musical. It made me cry the first time I saw it in the theater. And watching it on my screen at home, with my kids all grown up with kids of their own, all of us sequestered in our respective homes, it got to me all over again.


BERNADETTE PETERS: (Singing) Hard to see the light now - just don't let it go. Things will turn out right now. We can make it so. Someone is on your side. No one is alone.

I thought this might be just the perfect song right now.

BIANCULLI: It is - and the perfect TV show, too.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show - we've already seen disruptions and delays in primaries across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic. We'll look at how voting in November could be affected by the pandemic, and at the financial and political obstacles that may prevent people from voting by mail. We talk with Emily Bazelon, whose article "Will Americans Lose Their Right To Vote In The Pandemic?", is appearing in The New York Times Magazine. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.