“If we had known what we were taking on, we never would have done it,” jokes Raúl Esparza. The four-time Tony Award nominee serves as executive producer and host of “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Concert.” In a post-pandemic world, where the Broadway community has found unique ways to stream content, this celebration of legendary composer Stephen Sondheim is perhaps the biggest and boldest attempt at virtual theatre. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
“When Broadway closed, it really hit me hard,” admits Esparza. “It’s been home for so long.” A 90th birthday party for Sondheim was to be held at the current revival of “Company,” but those plans were soon scuttled as the pandemic worsened and theaters shuttered. Esparza thought “we should do something” to honor the legend, and originally planned on a simple set of videos. Music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell mentioned a charity she worked with, Artists Striving to End Poverty, was in need. And so the virtual event became a fundraiser. Then more and more performers chimed in that they wanted to be a part of the event. “It just ballooned!” the actors exclaims, “it went from ten [people] to what you saw.”
What viewers saw was a whopping 32 musical numbers from nearly every Broadway icon. Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Lin-Mauel Miranda, Mandy Patinkin, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and more eagerly added their voices. “People just kept saying yes,” explains Esparza. “It’s a testament to how much they love him.” Indeed, the desire to participate became so great that some performers didn’t make it into the special.
The number which garnered the most attention is a rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” delivered hysterically by Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and Meryl Streep. “Christine had told me about a dinner that she had with Steve and Meryl and Audra,” recounts Esparza. They revisited that moment as a way to make Sondheim laugh and present an often-performed number in a new way. See Esparza jokes that when he saw the final product he thought: “If this goes right, it’ll play in every gay bar in perpetuity.”
When it came time for Esparza’s performance, the host chose not to perform his signature rendition of “Being Alive,” but instead chose a delicate take on “Take Me to the World” from “Evening Primrose.” “I find the song sort of desperately hopeful,” he says. “It’s one of the Sondheim songs that has moved me most.” Not only is it a number with great tension, but Esparza notes that it had a literal connotation: he could not go out into the world like normal because of the pandemic. With the singers scattered around the country and turning in a vast array of performance styles, it made sense to title the evening after that song.
Esparza has been nominated for a Tony Award four times and is one of just five performers to be nominated in every acting category for which a performer can be cited. This includes nominations for Featured Actor in a Musical for “Taboo,” Lead Actor in a Musical for “Company,” Featured Actor in a Play for “The Homecoming,” and Lead Actor in a Play for “Speed-the-Plow.”
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