Did you give up on the glitchy, hour-late “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration” on Sunday night? It could be argued that you made the right call.
When it finally started, the concert from the home computers of Broadway stars was packed with retweet-worthy performances, particularly in its final 30 minutes. But the tribute remains available on YouTube without the hour of reloading, checking social media for updates from host Raul Esparza (whom the show ended up ditching, although he posted intros on Twitter), searching for a new link, being told the upload had been removed, etc.
As a composer not named Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “It’s not where you start/ It’s where you finish,” and “World” had an extraordinary finish. If you only watch part of it, start at around the 1:41 time stamp, when the cast of a 2017 off-Broadway revival of “Pacific Overtures” performs “Someone in a Tree.” Sondheim’s favorite song he ever wrote, it rarely appears in tributes because it’s seven minutes long, tells a complex story that requires visuals and doesn’t make a ton of sense out of context. If you’re a Sondheim nut, you’ll dig how Ann Harada and three other actors guide you through a song that is practically a play in itself.
That’s followed by Esparza’s assured “Take Me to the World” (pretaped, unlike his aborted intro) and by Donna Murphy, a Tony winner for Sondheim’s “Passion,” doing his money song, “Send in the Clowns,” with “Passion” memorabilia arrayed behind her.
Then there’s a diva pileup that’s hard to imagine ever being topped. Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and Meryl Streep (using a cocktail shaker as a maraca) acted the hell out of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a “Company” song. They may even have upended the definitive performance by originator Elaine Stritch.
Jake Gyllenhaal (like many performers, way too close to his computer) and Annaleigh Ashford paused the Divapalooza to reprise a powerful “Move On” from their 2017 “Sunday in the Park With George,” but the show concluded with two great ladies of the Broadway stage.
Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters both avoided the showstoppers they’ve belted in separate “Gypsy” revivals. After more than two hours of performances that swung for the fences — and mostly cleared them — LuPone cooed the hopeful “Anyone Can Whistle,” and canny Peters opted to be the lone performer to sing a cappella, the better to hear the isolation-appropriate message of her number from “Into the Woods”: “Someone is on your side/ No one is alone.”
Viewers could debate song choices (No “Being Alive”? No “Losing My Mind”?), and I’d recommend skipping over the part that begins at the 36-minute mark: Brandon Uranowitz’s pretentious “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” Melissa Errico’s well-sung but awkward “Children and Art” and Randy Rainbow’s dopey “By the Sea.” But there also were unexpected highlights, including Katrina Lenk’s folky, unorthodox “Johanna,” from “Sweeney Todd.”
Tech issues aside, the event, which raised funds for Artists Striving to End Poverty, was an inspired success, one that, because it was streamed rather than televised to a wide audience, made as few concessions to celebrity or accessibility as the uncompromising Sondheim did.
Some may wonder why it wasn’t on TV — Sondheim’s 80th birthday was a PBS special — but that would have required Hollywood names, as opposed to Broadway names, and the latter makes more sense. Assembling the tribute to a legend by computer, in isolation, felt more appropriate for this moment, anyway, and it assures that “World” will live as long as musical theater does. In other words, it will allow us to salute our greatest living dramatist the way we should: All day. Every day. Forever.