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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Take Me To The World - A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration
YouTube Spring 2020

The very model of what a lockdown entertainment can be, this salute to the masterful Broadway composer-lyricist is made up of dozens of musicians and singers each performing in their own homes, brought together through some brilliant editing and split-screening.

The packaging is minimal, with each performer just introduced in print and then performing, perhaps with a “Happy Birthday Steve” appended. The whole is produced by Broadway.com and the charity ASTEP (Artists Striving To Eradicate Poverty), which makes a few low-key support requests.

The comments below the YouTube screen show that just about every performer delighted his or her fans, so what I list or omit may tell more about my tastes than their objective merits.

Highlights for me include Elizabeth Stanley making full use of a close-up to flirt outrageously with the camera for the best version of The Miller's Son I've ever seen. Alexander Gemignani matches her a half-hour or so later with a fully-choreographed-in-a-swivel-chair version of Buddy's Blues that is the best version of that that I've ever seen.

Separately, Mandy Pantinkin and Bernadette Peters give master classes in a capella singing, he doing Lesson #8 in a field, she No One Is Alone in her kitchen. With the aid of some clever and sensitive screen-splitting Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh and Thom Sesma make Someone In A Tree crystal clear and crystalline in its beauty.

And then. And then Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald just sweep everyone out of the way with a take-no-prisoners Ladies Who Lunch that you will want to pause and replay before moving on.

Elsewhere, Randy Rainbow camping his way through By The Sea, an uncredited little kid doing Finishing The Hat far better than Michael Cerveris, a song cut from Assassins that is better than any of the songs left in that show, Donna Murphy doing Clowns, Patti LuPone, – you get the idea.

Of course, as with any anthology, you will have your own complaints about what was left out. Why Buddy's Blues (as brilliant as it is) and not In Buddy's Eyes or Losing My Mind? Why Marry Me A Little instead of Being Alive? Why so much from Into The Woods?

I've mentioned the skilful editing, which visually enriches several of the performances. To those already listed I'd add the mosaic effect of the orchestral sequence and the post-final-credits (wait for it) Still Here. I'm sure there were also a lot of technical challenges in reconciling performances sent through various programs and methods, all beautifully met.

It may well be that the lockdown production is a whole new art form we are watching being born. Certainly this salute to Sondheim sets the bar for such projects very high.

PS. YouTube's 'If you liked this' algorithm sent me next to Elaine Stritch doing Still Here at the Sondheim Eightieth Birthday show. Watch it – you'll thank me.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Sondheim Birthday Tribute 2020