Here’s a piece of pop culture that we would kiss if we could.
Bingeing Stephen Sondheim songs on YouTube
I see Christine Baranski — stage legend; prime minister of distinctive laughs; star of "The Good Fight," "Mamma Mia!" and most other campy things I like to watch — wearing a white bathrobe. She is pouring herself red wine in quarantine quantities. Her iPad camera is angled low. She is singing Stephen Sondheim’s classic "The Ladies Who Lunch" from the musical "Company," a song that Elaine Stritch made famous. I think, "What could be better than this?"
The universe picks up the phone to answer my question. I am not expecting it; I did not have the universe in my contacts list. The only thing better, I learn: that same scene, plus stars Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald, also in white bathrobes and drinking various alcoholic beverages, all performing the song together on a videoconferencing app.
» MORE FROM AUSTIN360: Miss Moontower Comedy Fest? Check out SiriusXM this week
I was having trouble sleeping last week (no big deal, just anxious about the pandemic out in the streets), but not even in my most unhinged late-night thoughts could I have thought up that moment from "Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration." The star-studded musical revue in honor of the legendary composer and lyricist was livestreamed Sunday on YouTube.
Listen, I am not going to pretend to be the drama club president of the world. (I was, however, the drama club president of Crockett High School, which is definitely something a drama club president would point out.) No one would confuse me for a Sondheim expert, but believe me when I tell you that a binge of various Broadway luminaries performing some of his best songs will be grist for your in-isolation feelings mill.
In the 90th birthday special alone, there was Bernadette Peters singing (a capella; you could never) "No One Is Alone" from "Into the Woods." The classic tune hits different these days, of course. "Nothing's quite so clear now" — check. "Someone is on your side" — God, we wish. "No one is alone" — I really hope.
Then there was Donna Murphy, another Sondheim player, with a rendition of all-time weeper "Send In the Clowns," writing a check for melancholy that it had no problem cashing. The candle in the background of the livestream was key to this one’s ambience.
Those two examples can shoulder the point — Sondheim’s songs aren’t showtunes in the way any of us typically think of them. They crack into the big anxieties that take shelter in the smallest parts of us. They give full, resounding notes to the innermost thrills we can’t talk about, unless we’ve thrown back a vodka stinger or three. They’re also funny enough to give Meryl Streep the opportunity for a sight gag with a cocktail shaker.
» MORE FROM AUSTIN360: Happy 87th birthday to Willie Nelson: Edie Brickell salutes him with a duet
The birthday celebration didn’t lack stars — dig through more than two hours with Patti LuPone, Ben Platt, Beanie Feldstein, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lea Salonga, Mandy Patinkin, and OK, I’ll stop, because I could really keep going.
Before that Sunday broadcast, though, I’d already been on a Sondheim jag. Specifically, the YouTube clips from Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert in 2010, featuring the New York Philharmonic. Peters, LuPone and more are all there, but Stritch’s rendition of "I’m Still Here" is an anthem for your pandemic days and nights.
And because I went deep so you don’t have to, I’m also fond of Jonathan Groff’s 2017 performance of "Being Alive" at the Hollywood Bowl and Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing 2017 rehearsal performance of "Finishing the Hat." If you are tired of YouTube, there’s always the excellent "Six by Sondheim" documentary streaming on HBO Now.
But if you’re not ready to feel the deepest aches of your being laid bare onto your laptop screen, pour a drink and stick with Christine, Meryl and Audra. Drama club membership card not required.