Raúl Esparza thought he would die of embarrassment when the much-touted April 26 90th birthday concert for Stephen Sondheim didn’t launch on time. The two-and-a-half-hour video file of pre-recorded songs was so huge that it took 45 minutes for Broadway.com to upload. There was nothing the concert host and Broadway theater star could do but wait for the event to be ready to blast out to the world. If anything, the technical glitch, which instantly built into a social media hailstorm via such #Sondheim90 tweeters and concert participants as @Lin_Manuel and @RandyRainbow, increased viewership when “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration” finally hit YouTube.
So far, the concert held on the 50th anniversary of the opening of Sondheim’s original Broadway production of “Company” has been viewed 2.2 million times and raised over $500 million for ASTEP (Artists Striving To End Poverty). And now it’s up for Emmy consideration for Outstanding Variety Special.
Meryl Streep wrote Esparza the next day, saying: “If it proves anything, keep them waiting baby!” Sondheim called Esparza and said: “You know, during those first 45 minutes I wouldn’t want to be Raúl Esparza for all the money in the world!”
Esparza had worked for a month to put the sprawling benefit together. All seemed to be going well, even though “it was hard, running a production company with four people on laptops,” he said. “It was like a three-act film. It worked well in rehearsals early in the day: I was going to introduce the songs and tell [the audience] the artists had chosen the songs they wanted to sing, to provide context. When the feed had frozen, that was when things started to become terrifying.”
The show’s director, Broadway.com Editor-in-Chief Paul Wontorek, was in the Catskills and had to reboot his laptop in order to stream the show; music director Mary Mitchell-Campbell was in Montana; and Esparza was in New York City, curled up in a fetal position on the floor after trying to talk to the audience without sound. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “It’s every actor’s worst fear, being caught in public, not knowing your lines and not wearing any clothes. I’m on camera in front of 100,000 people and I don’t know what part I’m playing. If Broadway doesn’t kill you, nothing will.”
Once the technical glitch rectified itself, Sondheim fans all over the world were watching, and peaked at the show’s most viral moment: “The Ladies Who Lunch,” starring a mighty trio of Broadway veterans: Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, and Meryl Streep.
Lining them up was the night’s big get. Esparza had costarred with Christine Baranski on “The Good Fight,” and had known Streep for a long time; she had known Sondheim since college. “I wrote to her on the off-chance she might say ‘yes.'” Next in was McDonald. They stuck to one goal: to make Sondheim laugh. They tossed around wearing baseball caps and wound up swigging from liquor bottles in fluffy white bathrobes.
And for Sondheim, they and the other stars had to get over the fact that they might not look their best. “Bernadette Peters, Donna Murphy, Mandy Patinkin, Sutton Foster or Judy Kuhn were up there doing this; they’re used to having a support team that makes you look and sound really great,” Esparza said. “You can’t be perfectionist in this environment. You let go of all these things and trust it will be good enough.”
That’s one reason the concert is so beautiful to watch; everyone is up close and vulnerable, filmed in their homes. “They’re sharing something personal they love with Steve,” Esparza said. “They wanted to share something that meant something to them, with the cracks showing. That’s powerful. You never get to see performances of his work with this kind of intimacy. It’s not a good thing to be stuck at home without your support systems in place, but that limitation became an asset. We made something that couldn’t have been made if we were not in quarantine. Steve’s music was placed in an intimate context in relation to the camera and the computer screen.”
Theater stars used to belting to the balcony had to figure out how to perform these songs to no audience at all. “The camera can read your mind,” Esparza said. “You have a mystical association, it knows what you’re thinking. It isn’t easy for a stage actor to trust that. When you’re singing you make funny faces. Everybody is home, not on a big soundstage. It ended up leading to more subtle performance. That was a nice plus, as we were each performing alone in our living rooms, hearing music through headphones. That keeps you from getting too big.”
Performers like Elizabeth Stanley (“The Miller’s Son”) kept their performance simple. “It has to be contained, emotional but available,” Esparza said. “Lizzy gives you the subtle nuance of her thought process, knowing the camera picks it up, without blowing it out.”
Finally, performing on video worked for Sondheim’s always challenging songs. “With Sondheim, music is where emotion lives and the lyric is where the mind interacts with it,” Esparza said. “If you as an actor deliver the lyric cleanly, he takes care of everything for you. His music is always about ambivalence and things that can’t be expressed. It’s about the things you can’t name, but experience, that are not straightforward up-and-down, happy-sad emotions. The audience is seeing characters in conflict. This weird in-between thing lent itself to Steve’s subtlety.”
The only way to create a concert performance during quarantine was to record the music and video separately, so they could be post-synced. “There’s too much lag on Zoom and other streaming platforms,” Esparza said. “You end up with egg on your face.”
The Sondheim veteran reached out to the musical theater community and asked them to pick the song they wanted to sing for the composer on his birthday. The first one to write back was Patti LuPone, who wanted to sing “Anyone Can Whistle,” followed by her “Sweeney Todd” co-star Michael Cerveris (“Finishing the Hat”), Judy Kuhn (“What Can You Lose?”), Donna Murphy (“Send in the Clowns”), Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford (“Move On”), and Beanie Feldstein and Ben Platt (“It Takes Two”).
Mitchell-Campbell asked each singer to choose from three or four piano takes in different keys. Then she sent a cleaned-up version for the singer to listen to on one headphone, while performing to the camera. Each artist chose their setting, set up the camera on their device of choice, and deposited their videos onto Dropbox. And a sound engineer mixed together each audio and video.
Mandy Patinkin sang “Lesson Number 8” a capella outdoors in a park, and coincidentally, his “Sunday in the Park with George” co-star Bernadette Peters ended the night with “No One is Alone” a capella, in her apartment, which “might be just the perfect song right now.”
In the end, Broadway.com uploaded all the songs into the full feature. Esparza, Wontorek and executive producer Bill Curran moved around the running order on an online poster board to create an emotional story arc. From the beginning, they had wanted to start with Steven Schwartz playing the prelude from “Follies” on the piano, followed by the tour-de-force of a full orchestra of Broadway pit musicians performing the overture to “Merrily We Roll Along,” listening from their homes to a piano click track while watching their conductor on video. “It sounded like it was recorded in a recording studio,” said Esparza. “It was overwhelming. It gave me chills. I didn’t know we could pull it off.”
How will theatre survive the pandemic? “The economic model has to change entirely,” Esparza said. “First, we can’t get people into the houses, and if you are playing, you cannot play at capacity. You can’t make the money back for the cost of real estate in Manhattan. The producers and real estate have to come together to figure out a new way to produce shows and still make a profit. It’s not the same as seeing a filmed version of anything, like ‘Hamilton.’ It’s about the communication between the audience and actors. Filming it kills it in a way, but we have to look at integrating things that are happening now. Maybe we play at not full capacity, and we pay for streamed shows.”
But the unions that handle Broadway still have a lot of control over those decisions. For now, maybe there’s some way to make available, for a larger audience online, as the National Theatre Live has done, shows that many people can’t travel to Broadway to see.