Never mind that the composer’s milestone actually occurred on March 22 — congrats, Steve! — or that the homemade concert, on Broadway.com and YouTube, started more than an hour late because of technical issues. In the floating reality of our shapeless days, what’s another 60 minutes of limbo?
Because when the circuits finally connected for “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” we lovers of musicals were instantly back where we belonged: in our theater seats. Bernadette Peters sang a warm, a cappella version of “No One Is Alone” from “Into the Woods.” Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald appeared Zoom-style as a trio of tipsy Joannes from “Company,” singing “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Standing at a piano, Donna Murphy delivered a delicate “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music.” And the evening’s host, Raúl Esparza, contributed a vibrantly emotional rendition of the song that gave the concert its title, a number from Sondheim’s 1966 television project, “Evening Primrose.”
As with so many Sondheim compositions, the one Esparza chose, with its elegiac melody and wistful lyric, seemed uncannily on-point:
Let me see the world with clouds
Take me to the world
Out where I can push through crowds
Take me to the world
A world that smiles
With streets instead of aisles
Where I can walk for miles with you
The unvarnished litany — with simple accompaniment, or none — was as touching and soul-filling as one might want, in a world in which musical stages have gone silent.
The pretaped numbers were assembled by director Paul Wontorek and music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell, and rolled out with short introductions. Lin-Manuel Miranda sang the vocally challenging “Giants in the Sky” from “Into the Woods,” a Jack merrily raising his voice from atop his own personal beanstalk. Best friends Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein, separately and together, pulled off an adorable “It Takes Two” from the same show. Sweetly, too, Chip Zien, the original Baker of “Into the Woods,” displayed the pointy green peasant cap he wore in that musical of fractured fairy tales, as he sang the Baker’s exasperated anthem, “No More.”
It was an evening of stirring solos, made all the more personal by the odd circumstances the actors are sharing with the rest of us. The stars — singing as a benefit for Actors Striving to End Poverty — planted themselves in front of makeshift backdrops of fabric or flowers, some in front of mics and some giving us a tantalizing peek into their lives. Laura Benanti sang “I Remember” from “Evening Primrose,” her elbow leaning on what looked like her bathtub — confirming a universal faith in bathroom acoustics. Neil Patrick Harris, in yet another “Into the Woods” selection, executed the Witch’s proto-rap song, casting his young son and daughter in supporting roles.
The songs often seemed to reflect our uneasy national mood. Sondheim may be celebrated for his wit, but the choices often veered toward the plaintive and consoling.
Brian Stokes Mitchell offered a number cut from “Assassins” — “The Flag Song”; Patti LuPone sang the moving title song from “Anyone Can Whistle”; Melissa Errico contributed a serenely intoxicating version of “Children and Art” from “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford, who led a 2017 Broadway revival of the Pulitzer-winning musical about pointillist painter Georges Seurat, reprised their velvety rendition of the inspirational “Move On.” And the original George, Mandy Patinkin, posed by a river for an unaccompanied version of “Lesson #8” from that show.
A comedy song can be tougher without the amplifying energy of a crowd, but the lighter entries provided the production with some necessary variety. Kelli O’Hara’s “What More Do I Need?” from a young Sondheim’s “Saturday Night” was infused with a vivacious urbanity. Linda Lavin performed “The Boy From . . . ,” a parody of “The Girl From Ipanema,” which she first sang in “The Mad Show” in 1966. Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Mary Rodgers’s music; Lavin supplied the hilariously clueless expressions. No contribution, though, felt more up to the minute than Randy Rainbow’s scrumptiously embellished “By the Sea,” a music-hall pastiche from “Sweeney Todd.”
There was hardly a moment not to cherish in this mini-marathon, and the offerings were eclectically representative enough for a seminar on all the corners of Sondheim’s expansive imagination. (The composer himself never appeared in this presentation, by the way.) The virtual conjuring of one of his most remarkable songs, “Someone in a Tree” from “Pacific Overtures,” sung by Ann Harada, Thom Sesma, Kelvin Moon Loh and Austin Ku, revealed how technology can be a friend with a tune of multiple narrative layers.
The best thing that can be said, though, is that this was a tribute in the truest sense — to a great architect of the form, whose buildings will endure. The song arrangements were pure, familiar and respectful of this artist’s love of specificity and emotional clarity. As we struggle through this period of cold-turkey deprivation of many kinds, our appreciation deepens for the kinds of beauty that seem frustratingly out of our reach. You’re immensely grateful for opportunities like this one, to be taken back to the world you love.
Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration is viewable online at broadway.com.