How the Sondheim 90th-Birthday Concert Came Together

Raúl Esparza, at full volume.
Photo: Broadway.com

There have been plenty of celebrations of the music of Stephen Sondheim, but staging one remotely in the middle of a pandemic was uniquely challenging. That’s what a group of actors and musicians and musical-theater fans managed to do on Sunday night with a charity concert for Artists Striving to End Poverty, through Broadway.com. Yet “Take Me to the World,” hosted by Raúl Esparza, did not air without a hitch. The program, intended to start at 8 p.m., was meant to contain a series of live segments with the hosts, each of which would introduce a set of prerecorded singers. Instead, the broadcast was delayed until about 8:30, then began with Stephen Schwartz playing the piano as Esparza inadvertently spoke on a live mic — after which he appeared onscreen, speaking for several minutes with no sound at all. After a pause to regroup, the whole thing finally restarted and rolled out, sans live sections, more than an hour late. But once the tech nightmare was semi-resolved, the show’s performances — including a jaw-dropping trio of Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald singing “The Ladies Who Lunch”[1] — were enough to win audiences over[2] and break hearts in that typically Sondheim joy-with-melancholy sort of way. To quote the man himself, art isn’t easy. To hear just how not easy it was, Vulture spoke with Esparza, music director and ASTEP founder Mary-Mitchell Campbell, and Broadway.com editor-in-chief and livestream director Paul Wontorek.

The Idea: “Hey, Old Friend”

Raúl Esparza: I had the idea right around the time that Broadway closed down, and it was clear that we were not going to celebrate Steve at the opening of Company [on his 90th birthday]. My first idea was: What if we did a series of viral videos? Then I thought, What if it’s a concert? I called Mary-Mitchell first, and I said, “What if it’s a benefit for ASTEP, because I always associate Steve with teaching and with children?”

Mary-Mitchell Campbell: I was on board instantaneously. Of course, I never could have imagined what it turned into. I think we had a goal of ten performers, 90 minutes.

Paul Wontorek: I think it was right after I had directed the Rosie O’Donnell livestream[3]. My initial reaction was that I knew Raúl had a great relationship with Sondheim, so I knew that it would immediately have a classy sheen on it and that we’d be able to get great people.

RE: We compiled a list of ten or 11 Sondheim performers to reach out to — the ones that we idolize, the ones we think of as the classics. That was also based on people we thought we could reach. 

PW: There were like four or five weeks of phone calls with me, Raúl, and Mary-Mitchell where we just kept adding people.

RE: Who do you think has the best Rolodex of all of us? Stephen Sondheim. So I reached out to Steve, explained why ASTEP might be a nice connection, and he said, “Ask me if you need any help.”

PW: I remember saying, specifically, “Let’s ask about Mandy [Patinkin],” because he was so important.

RE: Meryl said yes in five minutes. Christine said yes a few minutes later. She had told me about this dinner she’d had with Audra, Meryl, and Steve, and said, “What if we re-create that dinner somehow?”

PW: So much happened in the last seven days. I remember the Monday morning before, calling Raúl, and being like, “Are we really going to do this for Sunday? Because we don’t have much yet.”

RE: When the press release went out on Tuesday, people we hadn’t reached out to reached out to us. Among them were people whom we’d tried, but through the wrong channel.

Song Selection: “In Comes Company”

Ladies who lunched: Streep, Baranski, and McDonald.
Photo: Courtesy of Broadway.com

RE: I wrote an email to everybody, talking about ASTEP and then saying, “Choose a song that you love by Steve — maybe something that gives you comfort, inspires, or brings you joy. Mary-Mitchell Campbell will create a piano track for you, and you can sing to it, and we’ll edit it together.”

RE: The very first person to get back was Patti [LuPone], and she said, “Yes — ‘Anyone Can Whistle.’” The next one was Michael Cerveris, and he said, “I’m thinking ‘Finishing the Hat,’ unless somebody’s taken it.” Almost nobody doubled up, because people weren’t doing the major songs — nobody was saying “Being Alive,” and nobody went to Gypsy and West Side Story. Bernadette [Peters] gave me a call and said, “I think it’s ‘No One Is Alone,’ don’t you?” Mandy was one of the last to come aboard, because my email to him disappeared, and as soon as he said yes, the next email from him was “Lesson #8.”

PW: Linda Lavin actually reached out to us. I remember Raúl and I both fanboyed out about that song [“The Boy From …”].

RE: The original title for the evening was “Children and Art,” and as things kept going longer and longer, we changed it to “Take Me to the World.” Every time I’ve sung [that song], it’s moved me profoundly. I love the desperate hopefulness in it.

MMC: The idea of doing “I’m Still Here” — I thought it would be really beautiful if we saw a lot of people from the community and their resilience, [saying] that we are not gone even though we are not together. Paul suggested getting somebody from every show, and so it just grew and grew.

PW: Late in the process, we were like, Are we getting too many ballads? Let’s get some up-tempos.

RE: It was my idea to put Iain Armitage in the “I’m Still Here” video, based on a joke from Paul.

PW: Raúl was like, “What should Iain do?” And I was immediately like, “Liaisons!”[4] We wanted to do something tongue in cheek, but Raúl was right that that joke would be dead after a minute.

Recording: “Side by Side”

Brian Stokes Mitchell
Photo: Courtesy of Broadway.com

PW: From the first minute, it was like, If we’re going to do this, let’s actually prerecord the songs and produce it beautifully.

RE: We asked our editor to explain how the best sound could happen, which involved GarageBand, pillows, and the smallest room in your house, and we sent it out to everyone, and they all went, “What?!” Some performers were really adept. Katrina Lenk put everything on “Johanna” together herself. Michael Cerveris put everything together himself. Chip Zien does voice-over work, so he had a setup.

MMC: Things like “Send in the Clowns” are very hard, because there’s no tempo that’s particularly constant and no way to do a click track. Sometimes we would find recordings of the performer doing their song somewhere, and we’d base it off that, and then we’d go back and forth until we got something we were happy with.

RE: These are people who work to the highest possible standards for themselves. Lin-Manuel [Miranda] said he sent me his 90th take. [Miranda says[5] it was only his 30th.]

MMC: We were going to do a piano version for Bernadette, and we talked to her about it, and then she ended up doing an a cappella version and we were like, “We don’t want to touch that.”

RE: It took me eight hours [to film my take]. Later that day, I was on a Zoom call with Audra and Meryl and Christine for edits. Christine had sent in 32 takes. Audra had sent in ten or 12. Meryl had sent one, not because she only did one, because she was like, “This is the only thing I can bear to look at.” I said, “I am so sorry that I put you through this.” Meryl said, “… uh-huh.” Christine’s comment was, “Oh, honey. I love that you look so wild and overgrown. I feel much better now.” Audra goes, “We are all in the same boat, baby.”

MMC: We got really ambitious [with the group numbers]. For “Someone in a Tree” and the “Ladies Who Lunch” trio, to ask an actor to do a part that depended on hearing other parts was incredibly unfair. I ended up doing voice recordings of me doing every part, and we would make versions of it — one with all the parts, one with everybody but one person. They could pick whatever information they wanted to perform with.

RE: “Someone in a Tree” is one of my favorite songs, and I know it’s one of Steve’s. Thom Sesma said, “What if we did it?” I wanted to do this Brady Bunch idea, because it’s on Zoom, and we thought we should storyboard the idea with where to look to clarify the story points. It was like a short film. I also had the idea to do the Merrily overture inspired by the “Boléro” from the NY Phil[6].

MMC: For the “I’m Still Here” number, I spent two days talking so many actors through Dropbox.

PW: Most of the material came in from Thursday on. That’s ultimately what made my weekend hellish. I had three different editors working, and I edited some things myself, and then there were a couple of others that took individual pieces.

RE: We had a cocktail party[7] beforehand so that everybody could see each other. The best part about that call was Iain Armitage cheering every time someone else would appear.

PW: I was piecing together all the different elements in my house in the Catskills, which has turned into my livestream office. I have nowhere near the computer I should have to be exporting these, like, 40-gigabyte files. We did a test run of Raúl speaking so that we could hear his audio — that went great, and I streamed it to a private page on YouTube. Everything was fine.

The Crisis: “Losing My Mind”

Closing, en masse, with “I’m Still Here.” (That’s André De Shields in the gray jacket and plaid shirt in the lower left.)
Photo: Courtesy of Broadway.com

PW: The original plan was that there would be four live sections — three with Raúl and one with Mary-Mitchell Campbell talking about ASTEP. In between those, there were chunks of video that were about 40 minutes. I never livestream files that large, and I was nervous about it not matching up. If Donna Murphy’s gonna sing “Send in the Clowns,” you want it to look correct. I did a test around six, and it was not good. I went into a panic mode, and I started to break things up into multiple pieces. I would have to go in every ten minutes and play the next one, but I thought that was the best solution. If one starts to lag, the next one will be fresh.

RE: To be safe, Paul decided to wait until it was totally uploaded, which was the first delay for ten minutes. Then he needed to reboot, because we didn’t want the audio to un-sync. Then, suddenly, the sound. I still can’t tell you what happened.

PW: I still don’t know what happened.

RE: Friends are texting me — Lin, Donna, like, “Honey, your mic isn’t on!” Once we realized it, I just froze.

PW: I do know from producing these live things that all kinds of weird tech things just happen unexpectedly.

RE: All hell starts to break loose. I basically slid to the floor and ended up in the fetal position by the refrigerator, swaying back and forth.

PW: It was panic. It was dry mouth.

RE: I have a recurring nightmare over the years where I’m in Solvang, California, and I’m asked to perform Mrs. Lovett in a production of Sweeney Todd, and I say yes, but it turns out I don’t know it at all. It was like that. It was like standing naked in front of 100,000 people who were slowly leaving.

MMC: I’d never seen a virtual mob before. I was like, Wow, 100,000 people who are starting to lose their minds? It reminded me of live theater, which was sort of exciting, of something like the set breaking. I’m gonna make some tea and wait to see what happens.

PW: I immediately got on the phone with Raúl and we started being like, “What do we do?” We briefly were like, “Should we do it tomorrow?” My boyfriend said, “What are you talking about? You do it now!” Then we decided: Okay, cut the first monologue, upload the pretaped material.

RE: If we’d been in a theater, someone would have come out and talked. But live was no longer an option, because what the fuck? What if it happens again?

PW: Once it was running and people were watching it, I reached out to Raúl and Mary-Mitchell, and we decided that they would record videos of what they were going to say live and send me the file.

MMC: Priyanka [Patil] and I had planned to go live in our kitchen, and we made a video really quick.

PW: Luckily, since I had broken up the show into pieces, so by the time I got to the spot where Mary-Mitchell was going to speak, I could play it — without even looking at it [beforehand], by the way.

MMC: It didn’t go as planned, but we still had lots of people being very generous. We’re still tallying things, but last count, we were over $350,000 in donations [according to a rep, the effort is now “closer to $400,000”].

RE: Lin and Iain tweeting nonstop, the whole group of them, getting the word out and supporting it. I tried to put out videos on Twitter to fill it in and keep talking, but I couldn’t keep up, so I just started live-tweeting.

MMC: We met up on Zoom after it was over, and we were like, Okay, I think my blood pressure’s coming down again.

RE: The act starting with Nathan Lane was the last big chunk of digital information that had to travel. I knew Donna’s performance was basically a sacred moment and then we knew we were going to break the internet [with “The Ladies Who Lunch”]. I started to relax.

PW: My heart rate only went down by Tuesday morning. It was one thing for something to not go right, and another thing for every musical-theater idol to be watching. By the time I went to bed Sunday, everyone loved the show. On Monday, a friend of mine said to me, “It was so brilliant that you delayed it,” and I was like, “It is so amazing that you think we did that on purpose.” Maybe years from now that will be the story.

MMC: We’ve heard back from [Sondheim] and he was very happy, and I think quite moved by everybody’s love for him. Now I can definitely consult for anyone who needs to know how to do this.

RE: Steve actually said to me afterward that, when he was watching the start, he thought, I wouldn’t want to be Raúl up there for all the money in the world right now. And yet I wonder if something of that disaster feeling isn’t part of the Mickey-and-Judy-let’s-put-on-a-show theater story. There’s things you can’t control that sometimes might add to the wonder of it all.

References

  1. ^ singing “The Ladies Who Lunch” (www.vulture.com)
  2. ^ enough to win audiences over (www.vulture.com)
  3. ^ Rosie O’Donnell livestream (www.vulture.com)
  4. ^ “Liaisons!” (www.youtube.com)
  5. ^ says (twitter.com)
  6. ^ “Boléro” from the NY Phil (www.youtube.com)
  7. ^ had a cocktail party (twitter.com)

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