A correction was made to this review on July 14, 2005.
Aiming to please nearly 18,000 listeners, tributes at the Hollywood Bowl lean toward the populist: If we’re hearing “Summertime,” it must be a Gershwin night. To celebrate Stephen Sondheim, however, a parade of Broadway and Hollywood stars executed what one must assume are personal favorites drawn from the composer’s staggering body of work rather than a night of first-act closers and 11 o’clock numbers.
The Bowl’s belated party for the composer’s 75th (similar tributes were paid in Gotham days before his March 22 birthday) was a night to revel in landmark performers revisiting works seemingly tailored to bring out their best.
Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou returned to roles they created in “Sweeney Todd” and were just as delicious and devilish duetting on “A Little Priest” as they were 25 years ago. Barbara Cook was her usual captivating self, wrapping her worldliness around “Move On” from “Sunday in the Park With George” and absolutely possessing “Losing My Mind” from “Follies.”
The surprise, however, was Cook’s partner on “Move On,” Josh Groban. The made-by-PBS star exhibited an emotional command of a lyric that he generally doesn’t display on his records, on which his perfs are loaded with bombast and unnecessary trills. At the Bowl, the duo put the “Harold and Maude” reality in their back pocket and addressed each other as peers.
Evening opened with Krusty the Clown from “The Simpsons” onscreen warbling a screwy version of “Send in the Clowns.”
Screen also was used to display Sondheim in interviews over the years, usually talking about his music; wisely, there were no clips of perfs that might have overshadowed the live event.
Relegating “Clowns” — and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” by Ethel Merman (from “Airplane!”) — to the screen was an omen: The night would not include those hits, nor “Not While I’m Around,” “Somewhere” or “Comedy Tonight.”
Sondheim tunes bring out the actorly qualities in singers and vice versa; each tune was a scene unto itself. And while it might have been handy to have a screen to inform the aud from which musical a piece came, the absence of information let the songs play unadorned, giving the works from lesser-known tuners a chance to play just as strongly as the oft-heard numbers from “Follies,” “Sunday in the Park,” “West Side Story” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
As revues go, it was a combo of character studies and life lessons: “Joanna,” featuring an underutilized Jubilant Sykes, and “In Buddy’s Eyes” provided the former; “I’m Not Getting Married,” with Carol Burnett articulating well through the whip-fast lyrics, and “Children Will Listen,” buoyed by a dazzling Bernadette Peters, supplied the latter.
Peters and Elaine Stritch swapped signature numbers. Peters delivered a splendid “Being Alive” from “Company”; Stritch stormed the stage to open the second act and belted out “Broadway Baby.”
Appropriately theatrical, Jason Alexander was the amusing producer in “Merrily We Roll Along”; Audra McDonald beamed in a duet on “Tonight” with Vanessa Williams and pulled out the rarity “I’m Breathless,” performed by Madonna in pic “Dick Tracy.”
Some of the night’s proceeds went to the ASCAP Foundation’s new Sondheim Children Will Listen program, which Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty and ASCAP prexy Marilyn Bergman intro’d at evening’s end along with more than 100 children onstage to sing the “Our Time” closer. Sondheim was on hand to accept a plaque.