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Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall (Highlights) – June 10

Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall (Highlights) – June 10, 1992

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Synopsis

Klieg lights criss-crossed the heavens, signaling to the gods of culture that their presence was requested on 57th Street in Manhattan. A mob of mortals dressed in their best evening clothes politely pushed their way through the chaos on the street. Benefit patrons arrived in a steady stream from a party at Tavern on the Green, smiling the smiles of good food and even better seat locations. Police on horseback redirected the traffic as the crowd spilled onto the street. Even New York pedestrians – known for their ability to hurry past invaders from other planets – stood and stared at the commotion in front of Carnegie Hall. On 56th Street, at the back of the building, trailers formed a barricade at the stage entrance. Television trucks, tethered to the building with long cables, kept photographers and fans at bay. Only delivery boys with boxes of flowers and telegrams got the nod from security. Inside the building technicians dressed in uniform black darted in and out of backstage shadows. There were hundreds – maybe even thousands – of them, although it was hard to tell. They were never in the light long enough to count. Upstairs in the dressing rooms the air had gotten very thin. Nearly two hundred performers powdered their nerves in preparation for the evening’s performance. The level of excitement began to cross over the pain threshold. Performers stumbled into the green room, their laughter betraying their attempt at calm. The reason for the excitement had been chronicled in the papers for weeks. Tickets had disappeared within hours of going on sale. In minutes the evening would begin. Over two thousand people – performers, technicians and audience members alike – had gathered together for one reason: A salute to Stephen Sondheim at Carnegie Hall. It was an impeccable match. Two New York icons. Two names synonymous with perfection brought together for the first time. The music of this American original would be performed on the stage of this American landmark. Few places in the world – let alone New York – inspire such reverence. Carnegie Hall is to the music world what the Acropolis must have been to ancient Greece. It is filled with myth. It is fired with memories. It is a temple built to celebrate the mortal muses of music. Now, on a blustery spring evening, it was Stephen Sondheim’s turn to be honored at Carnegie Hall. Sondheim has been writing for Broadway for the past thirty-seven years, longer than almost any other living composer, He has provided continuity for the American musical during four decades of turbulent change. Yet his prominence is hardly due to his longevity. Nor is his contribution calibrated by past achievements. Instead, it is measured by his ability to break new ground. He constantly provokes and challenges his audiences with new ideas, new sounds. At every Sondheim show audiences have come to expect the unexpected. Not surprisingly, that standard applies to Sondheim tributes as well. Many are remembered as a rite of passage for those who attended. The highlights of those evenings still reverberate in the heavens above Broadway. On June 10, 1992, that thought didn’t escape a single performer at Carnegie Hall getting ready for the event. Everyone wanted to make this one-night-only evening live up to expectations. Everyone wanted to do their best for a man who has changed the course of the American musical theater. For nearly a year Scott Ellis, Paul Gemignani, Susan Stroman and I had navigated through the scores of eleven Broadway shows and several films, carefully selecting the songs that would take the audience on a journey into Sondheim’s world. In order to make this truly a Sondheim celebration, we decided to focus only on the material for which he wrote both music and lyrics. That eliminated West Side Story, Gypsy, Do I Hear A Waltz? and Candide. What remained, however, was clearly an embarrassment of riches with the songs of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday In The Park With George, Into The Woods, Assassins and Dick Tracy. As we created the evening, the songs we chose – as well as the performers – changed countless times. The event became a Rubik’s cube of variables. Our goal, however, remained constant: to show that Sondheim’s music crosses all boundaries, transcending the traditional barriers of musical theater. He is one of the few composers whose music is performed in theaters, opera houses, films, jazz clubs and the pop world. His diversity was the fundamental touchstone for the evening and was reflected in the music and performers on the program. Our challenge was to showcase that diversity in the most seamless way possible. The American Theatre Orchestra played a sweeping symphonic arrangement of Sweeney Todd. Liza Minnelli tap-danced on the piano while jazzman Billy Stritch scatted to Back In Business. After Robert LaFosse and Leslie Browne danced a lyrical pas de deux to Barcelona, Patti LuPone stopped the show with Being Alive. Bill Irwin was unleashed on the orchestra as he conducted Comedy Tonight. Karen Ziémba, masquerading as a concert pianist, seduced him as she sang Sooner Or Later. The Boys Choir of Harlem and Betty Buckley brought new meaning to Our Time and Children Will Listen; Dorothy Loudon did the same with Losing My Mind. There was the close-harmony jazz of The Tonics. The crystalline voice of Harolyn Blackwell. The unabashed romanticism of Jerry Hadley and Carolann Page. The downtown attitude of BETTY. The theatrical intensity of Glenn Close. The heartbreaking beauty of Bernadette Peters. Opera singers, jazz performers, pop stars, musical theater actors all took turns interpreting Sondheim’s music. The highlight of the evening, however, was the moment Sondheim walked onto the stage of Carnegie Hall. For the first time the audience could truly show their appreciation for a man who has made such an enormous contribution to the world of music. All decorum, all restraint was put aside, and the audience stood and roared. The ovation was deafening. It was a very public display of affection for a very private man. Following Sondheim’s gracious and heartfelt thank you, fifty Broadway performers – chorus gypsies, leading men and women alike – filed onstage as the orchestra played the opening chords to Sunday from Sunday In The Park With George. Beginning softly and simply, the song built in intensity until it exploded in a glorious outpouring of emotion. The song became the defining moment of the event. After an evening that had celebrated Sondheim’s musical diversity we returned to his point-of-origin just a few blocks away from Carnegie Hall: Broadway. The evening had come full circle. And the gods of culture, clearly close personal friends of Sondheim’s, looked down from above and smiled. – David Thompson

Credits

KEVIN ANDERSON GEORGE LEE ANDREWS RON BAKER BETTY HAROLYN BLACKWELL PETER BLANCHET THE BOYS CHOIR OF HARLEM BETTY BUCKLEY PATRICK CASSIDY GLENN CLOSE DAISY EAGAN VICTOR GARBER JERRY HADLEY BILL IRWIN MARK JACOBY MICHAEL JETER MADELINE KAHN BEVERLY LAMBERT JEANNE LEHMAN DOROTHY LOUDON PATTI LUPONE CAROL MEYER LIZA MINNELLI MAUREEN MOORE RICHARD MUENZ JAMES NAUGHTON CAROLANN PAGE EUGENE PERRY HERBERT PERRY BERNADETTE PETERS BILLY STRITCH SUSAN TERRY BRONWYN THOMAS THE TONICS BLYTHE WALKER KAREN ZIEMBA The Broadway Chorus: Jon Adams, David C. Anderson, Douglas Anderson, Randl Ash, Seda Azarian, Michael Babin, Donald Bradford, Jonathan Brody, Larry Cahn, Susan Cella, Marianne Challis, James Clow, Robert Daye Jr., Erick Devine, Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Robert DuSold, Ellia English, Tim Fauvell, Mary C. Fitzpatrick, Joy Franz, Joanna Glushak, Maggie Gorrill, Steven Hall, Paul Harmon, Ira Hawkins, John Jellison, Christine Kahler, Peter Kapetan, Pamela Khoury, Gary Kirsch, Eddie Korbich, Ann Marie Lee, Joseph Locarro, James Mahady, Charlotte Maier, Lora Martens, Lauren Mitchell, Jeanine Morick, Marty Morris, Denise Nolin, Jeannette Palmer, Michael Paternostro, Edward Prostak, Cheryl Stern, Susan Terry, Melanie Vaughan, John Weiner, Monica Wemitt, Sally Wilfert, Robert Wrenn. The American Theatre Orchestra conducted by Paul Gemignani