Sondheim: The Birthday Concert

In 1992 I sat on the screened-in back porch of my grandparents' mobile home in Ocala, FL, and watched the PBS broadcast of Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall on a rickety rabbit-eared black & white TV. It was hot and late and I had to keep the volume low since everyone else was sleeping. It was not a highlight of my life.

Monday night I sat in the front row of the second tier mezzanine at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City and watched a live performance of Sondheim: The Birthday Concert—scheduled to air on PBS' Great Performances next season—and it was one of the highlights of my life.

There were:

» Performers recreating roles they originated in the 70s and 80s

First John McMartin sang "The Road You Didn't Take" from Follies. A show that opened 39 years ago.

The Baker and His Wife: Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason did "It Takes Two" from Into the Woods, which was sweet as pie. Even knowing how that turns out in the end.

And then—holy moly—Mandy Patinkin sang "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George—!!!!!—followed by me slugging SarahB in the arm as I spied Bernadette Peters entering stage right for a duet of "Move On."

A DUET OF "MOVE ON." Have you heard these two sing this song? You should **listen to this song.**

» But I started crying way before that

That would be when Audra McDonald sang "Too Many Mornings" with Nathan Gunn. Two of the prettiest people on earth singing one of the saddest songs. Ugh, Ben and Sally, that relationship is a disaster from start to finish, but then there is the oboe at 4:14. Followed by the violin at 4:29.

Patti LuPone sang "A Little Priest" with both George Hearn and Michael Cerveris—two Sweeneys and a Lovett—which is a double reunion of great personal significance to me. By which I mean joy everlasting.

George Hearn and Michael Cerveris played the demon barber and baritone in a duet of "Pretty Women."

Victoria Clark did a song written for Judy Holliday in the 1963 flop Hot Spot called "Don't Laugh," which started with a laugh and ended with something else, a slender little thread of plucky apprehension that she sold phenomenally well. But I should've known by now what to expect from Margaret Johnson (it seems safe to say that Sondheim's major key is "rueful").

» Then came the second act

David Hyde Pierce entered singing a multilingual version of "Beautiful Girls" as a parade of hardcore Broadway broads—LuPone, Peters, McDonald, Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie, and Elaine Stritch—marched down the center of the stage, in two aisles separated by the orchestra, primping, preening, and posing when they hit their mark. (As who wouldn't? asks Queen Hot Dog.) Each was dressed in scarlet, thanks to Diane von Furstenburg, who had a sharp eye for exactly who should be wearing what and how much of it (including Stritchie, who had on what can only be described as head-to-toe velveteen, complete with blazer, stirrup pants, and a jaunty newsboy cap).

They were followed by six men carrying six chairs, so they sat in a tight little semicircle facing the audience, and watched each other as we watched each of them sing.

Patti LuPone sang "The Ladies Who Lunch," and at the end received a proverbial tip o' the hat and standing ovation from Elaine Stritch.

Marin Mazzie sang a stunning "Losing My Mind," which frankly is a song I can live without. But as I say, she was stunning.

Audra McDonald sang "The Glamorous Life" from A Little Night Music (the movie version). Did you know that's my... oh! I'm sorry, I'm saving that post for Monday. Let's just call this a highlight for me.

Donna Murphy sang "Could I Leave You?" as a reprise of her triumphant Phyllis at Encores! three years ago, and Donna is divine but I wish she'd done "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" instead. Or she could've given us a preview of Cora Hoover Hooper, for heaven's sake, or even one of those awesome power ballads from Passion.

Bernadette Peters sang "Not a Day Goes By," and is officially the only person I enjoy hearing sing it. At one point the orchestra takes over and she lowers her eyes and sort of drops her head, and you can feel the weight of the music spreading out across her shoulders.

Then Elaine Stritch stepped up to the foot of the stage to deliver "I'm Still Here," which was funny and brave and unexpectedly sad, and I could go on about about all the things it did and didn't do, but all you need to know is that hers was the only number of the night that brought the audience to its feet. I don't care how you feel about the performer or the performance, on a night like this, when you're honoring the life's work of an incomparable talent, you had better appreciate the ones who were there to see it and breathe it, and especially the ones who put their own indelible mark on it and lived to tell the tales.

Let's just say this mascara is worth its weight in both gold doubloons and teardrops.

At the end, David Hyde Pierce said a simple thank you to Sondheim, from the audience and the actors. And you can't even imagine how many inches I was floating above my seat as the doors to the auditorium opened and body after body after body after body filed in, a chorus of Broadway actors from across the city gathering on stage and in the aisles and in the mezzanine and in the boxes to sing "Sunday" to this man, finally to this man, sitting in the orchestra far below and right before my eyes.

He took the stage then, and he was crying, and everybody was crying, and all he said was this: "Alice Longworth Roosevelt said, 'First you're young, then you're middle-aged, then you're wonderful.' This was wonderful—thank you all." Which is perfect, because everything else is already in the music.

My grandparents are both gone, the mobile home is gone and one presumes the TV is gone, as well. Everything goes. But the Carnegie Hall DVD sits on a shelf five feet away, and I remember. Stephen Sondheim is turning 80 years old this year and I was there to celebrate that, and I will always remember.

(See the NY Phil for a full song list from both nights—they were slightly different—because I skipped things.)