The parade included six scarlet-dressed divas, two Sweeney Todds and, for a staggering finale, the chorus lines of current shows, all singing "Sunday."
David Hyde Pierce hosted the affair with an impish intelligence. Leading off with Sondheim the lyricist only, he introduced Tony-winning "Karen Olivo and the multilingual ladies" of West Side Story (there are some Spanish lyrics added to the Sondheim-Bernstein score now at the Palace Theatre). This, he said, prompted him to suggest that the Philharmonic do the whole evening in different languages, not "dumb old English." The answer was no.
Mocking miffed, he turned that into a night-long comic riff. After a soaring duet of "Too Many Mornings" by Audra McDonald and Nathan Gunn, he noted that they perform at The Met where people sing in different tongues all the time. The often-overlooked love theme from the film "Reds" was presented by the American Ballet Theatre's Blaine Hoven and Maria Riccetto — in dance, "the universal language," he added.
Eventually, Hyde Pierce broke into song himself: "Beautiful Girls," peppering it with a splattering of foreign lyrics, to bring out a star-studded sextet all in elegant red gowns: McDonald, Bernadette Peters, Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie, Elaine Stritch and Patti LuPone. The latter gutsily sang "The Ladies Who Lunch" a few feet away from Stritch, who graciously gave her standing ovation. The two embraced on stage.
Stritch's revenge was to get the evening's biggest standing ovation by bulldozing her way through "I'm Still Here," which, coming from an indomitable 84-year-old, really does sound like an anthem of survival. The Passion stars did Follies songs: a blistering "Could I Leave You?" from Murphy, an anguished "Losing My Mind" from Mazzie. McDonald did the all-time best version of a Sondheim rarely heard outside of the movie version of A Little Night Music (for the record, it's an alternate "The Glamorous Life," as sung by daughter Fredrika in the film). And Peters' contribution was her exquisite rendition of "Not a Day Goes By." Much of the emotion of the evening came from seeing the original performers reprise their numbers. John McMartin bravely and successfully headed down "The Road You Didn't Take" for the first time since the 1971-72 Follies. The baker and his Tony-winning wife, Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason, got back together again for "It Takes Two." A gorgeously decked-out Peters came together with Mandy Patinkin to "Move On" after he had sung "Finishing the Hat." In the lyrics-only section, Mazzie and her husband, Jason Danieley, delivered a raunchier version of "We're Gonna Be All Right" than what made it into Do I Hear a Waltz? And Victoria Clark had a delightful time with "Don't Laugh," a specialty number Sondheim wrote for Judy Holliday and the short-lived Hot Spot.
|photo by New York Philharmonic, Richard Termine|
Other performers included Bobby Steggert, Jenn Colella, Matt Cavenaugh, Laura Osnes, Jim Walton and, performing a ballad from Sondheim's first show (Saturday Night, which took 50 years to reach the stage), Laura Benanti. Old Sondheim hands had places on the program. Paul Gemignani, his most trusted conductor, led the Philharmonic, and Jonathan Tunick, his longtime orchestrator, introduced a segment devoted to Sondheim's most creative and productive decade — the '70s, from which came Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.
The concert, taped for PBS's "Great Performance" series for airing during its 2010-11 season, will be repeated March 16. But the birthday beat will go on after that.
The Roundabout Theatre Company will salute Sondheim on his actual birthday, March 22, and New York City Center will honor him with its own Gala April 26. But the Philharmonic tribute set quite a high watermark. Sondheim walked on stage at the end, clearly overcome with emotion.
Get another perspective on the concert from Playbill editor Blake Ross, who writes about it in her About Last Night blog.