Monday, April 27, 2020

Take Me to the World: Sondheim, Off the Cuff

Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration is currently streaming at

After technical screw-ups that delayed the show for a little more than an hour, last night carried a virtual concert in honor of Stephen Sondheim’s ninetieth birthday to benefit Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP). A plethora of (practically all) Broadway performers, most of whom have Sondheim shows on their résumés, sent him birthday wishes, conveyed their gratitude, and performed his songs from their living rooms – or, in the bizarre case of Mandy Patinkin, outdoors, a capella, with his dog in tow. (His choice of song was “Lesson #8” from Sunday in the Park with George: he was the original Georges Seurat, in 1984. It sounded awful.) The title of the improvised revue, cleverly alluding to the circumstances that made its catch-as-catch-can circumstances necessary, was Take Me to the World, from one of the handful of tunes Sondheim wrote for an obscure 1966 television musical, Evening Primrose. Well, relatively obscure, since in the world of Sondheim lovers no treasure remains to be unearthed; you can watch the DVD of Evening Primrose (which is based on a story by John Collier), and many people have recorded both this song and the other rapturous ballad from it, “I Remember.”

Taken together, the speeches, however earnest, sounded like the kind of banal gush you hear at a wedding rehearsal dinner when the M.C. makes the fatal error of making it an open-mike event; only Victor Garber’s brief reminiscence of playing Anthony in the first Broadway mounting of Sweeney Todd in 1979 stood out. And many of the musical performances were ill-advised – kitschy, cutesy, overplayed, poorly chosen, or perplexing. Sutton Foster’s rendition of “There Must Be Trumpets” (from Anyone Can Whistle) was so zealous it might have been aimed at an audience of bored kindergarteners. Neil Patrick Harris’s “The Witch’s Rap” (from Into the Woods) came across like a private joke. Beanie Feldstein and Ben Platt’s “It Takes Two” (also from Into the Woods) was an example of show-biz fakery at its most insufferable. Maria Friedman, the show’s only West End representative, and the parodist Randy Rainbow were the most embarrassing participants, with “Broadway Baby” (Follies) and “By the Sea” (Sweeney Todd) respectively, unless you count Meryl Streep’s contribution to “The Ladies Who Lunch” (Company), which was performed as a trio with Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald. (Soloing on the first verse, Baranski brought the lyric just the right dry-martini high-comic approach, and then it all went to hell.)

Victor Garber in Take Me to the World.

A couple of gifted singers sang as if they didn’t understand the lyrics. Aaron Tveit’s “Marry Me a Little” (cut from Company) was tenderly wistful, but the song is about a desperate, terrified bid to carry on a relationship without true emotional commitment. Michael Cerveris performed “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park, perhaps Sondheim’s most personal song – his apologia for the artist who privileges his art over his personal life – as a torch song. And the evening’s host, Raúl Esparza, that prince of over-under-acting – of playing “real” so it comes across as utterly phony – sang the shit out of “Take Me to the World,” when what it requires is the virtue of simplicity. Esparza is the most exasperating of musical-theatre actors. He’s monstrously talented, and he’s his own worst enemy.

The best moments came almost entirely from the women, especially the seasoned pros whose shows I try never to miss – singers with magnificent instruments who know how to move unobtrusively into a lyric and liberate the beauties of the melody without falsifying any of the emotion. Kelli O’Hara sang “What More Do I Need?” from Sondheim’s first (unproduced) work, Saturday Night; Laura Benanti offered “I Remember”; Donna Murphy gave a reading of “Send in the Clowns” that would never have worked in a production of A Little Night Music (too tragic) but gave it touching resonance as an art song. Patti LuPone confessed that she’d always been deeply moved by the title tune from Anyone Can Whistle and then, without straining an inch, showed us exactly why. I liked Judy Kuhn on “What Can You Lose?” (from the movie Dick Tracy) and Melissa Errico on “Children and Art” (Sunday in the Park). Linda Lavin recreated “The Boy from . . .,” a Sondheim-Mary Rodgers collaboration that she’d introduced off-Broadway in The Mad Show in 1966, and she was really funny. Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford got together to reproduce their second-act duet, “Move On,” from the 2017 Broadway revival, reminding those of us lucky enough to see it of what a great evening in the theatre it was. And surprisingly, Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh and Thom Sesma, four members of the cast of John Doyle’s production of Pacific Overtures at Classic Stage Company the same year, which I’d found underbaked and tedious, did a lovely, pared-down version of “Someone in a Tree” that appeared to be buoyed up by their own happy memories of performing the song – a small masterwork – together.

Into the Woods was the hands-down favorite among the cast, with a half-dozen of those pushy, homiletic songs. Bernadette Peters made “No One Is Alone” an explicit reference to living through Covid 19. She was also the only other performer besides Patinkin to sing a capella, but in her case it was clearly a dramatic choice. As a friend put it to me after the show, if anyone might have gotten away with it, it was Peters. But she didn’t quite: the preachy lyric, the deliberate lack of musical embroidery, the naked allusion to the way we live now – it was all too much. The song was, as one might have expected, the finale of the evening. I wish that “Anyone Can Whistle,” which preceded it, had been.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. The story Evening Primrose is based on is by John Collier, not John Cheever.