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Hundreds of Broadway’s best gathered in New York’s Duffy Square on Sunday to honor the singular talents of Stephen Sondheim, who passed away Friday at age 91.
“No speeches today, just some words from Steve, book two, page 430,” announced Lin-Manuel Miranda upon stepping to the microphone shortly after 12 p.m. while holding a copy of Look, I Made a Hat, the second collection of Sondheim’s lyrics, this installment featuring works from 1981-2011. Miranda got choked up as he read and during the performance that followed — of “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park With George — there were tears rolling down the cheeks of many of the Great White Way’s biggest stars, insiders and performers.
The program was a brief one as many of those in attendance were due to be onstage for matinee performances and there will no doubt be many tributes, concerts and memorials in the days, weeks and months ahead. But Sunday’s outing was a necessary one, says actor, performer and the event’s producer Erich Bergen who got the ball rolling on the plan only 24 hours before. On Saturday, while waiting for a train to Westport, Connecticut, to visit his mother, Bergen, like countless others this weekend, was listening to Sondheim. “It was the cast album of Sunday in the Park With George,” says Bergen, a self-described “Sondheim fanatic,” who credits his time at Stagedoor Manor and the theater camp’s Michael Larsen for introducing him to the legendary Sondheim’s oeuvre. “Sondheim is our Shakespeare, and we quote him like English teachers quote Shakespeare.”
Sondheim was also an ever-present force in the community, engaging with vets and newbies alike. “He saw everything, and if you wrote a letter, he wrote back. If you wanted notes on your work, he would advise you and tell the truth. This is a man who dedicated his life to musical theater, not only creating it but teaching it. You just felt like he would live forever,” continues Bergen, whose only personal tie to Sondheim was starring in a Los Angeles production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. “His connection to the community was an active, vibrant heartbeat, and even though we were all aware he was 91 and wouldn’t live forever, there was something about Friday that just we just weren’t ready for.”
So, by the time his train pulled into the station in Connecticut, Bergen had reached out to Dan Gross, executive director of citywide events for New York, someone he got to know while helping shepherd We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert alongside Clive Davis and Live Nation. Though he was hoping the event could be in Central Park, planning and permits for that location proved to be too challenging, so another contact, Gabrielle Fialkoff, commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, suggested Times Square.
She helped make the connection to officials at the Times Square Alliance, who immediately approved the request, and “three calls later, we were on our way,” Bergen notes. He added that another call went to notable Broadway publicist and New York insider Rick Miramontez, who opened up his Rolodex to spread the word, as did another key contact, Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin. “Within six minutes, the calls started coming in from Broadway producers and publicists.”
He then called his “superpower and partner in crime,” Michael J. Moritz, who agreed to serve as the conductor. The two have worked together on a number of concerts, events and projects as of late as Bergen, well known for work on the stage (like Waitress) and on the small screen (like Madam Secretary) suddenly found himself with a surprising new business producing virtual (and eventually live) events during the COVID-19 pandemic through his 6W Entertainment.
“Michael knows that when I call him and say, ‘Cancel your plans,’ he’s going to be working his face off but it will be worth it,” Bergen says of Moritz, who recently landed a Grammy nomination for best musical theater album for Stephen Schwartz’s Snapshots. “He put together the music side of it and recorded a track. Then it was a snowball; we put together an order for equipment and I sent emails and made phone calls from the guest room in my mom’s house for the next few hours.”
Bergen believes Sondheim somehow was watching over the process as it came together seamlessly, especially the soundcheck. “Michael and I have done concerts before, and we’ve had five-hour soundchecks and when the show starts, something didn’t work. That didn’t happen Sunday; we pulled it all in and it just worked — the setup, all the microphones.”
Bergen is quick to push credit off of himself and toward the “whole list of invaluable people who helped make this happen,” including co-presenters the Broadway League, the Times Square Alliance and Playbill. And, of course, Sondheim, who left a legacy that makes something like this not only a possibility but a necessity. “We all needed a place to go,” he explains. “We needed a place to be together to mourn and celebrate together.”
Gathered on the iconic red steps in Duffy Square were Bergen, Miranda, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Sara Bareilles, Raúl Esparza, Stephen Schwartz, Laura Benanti, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Josh Groban, Lonny Price, Jim Walton, Tom Kitt, Reeve Carney, Eva Noblezada, Marc Shaiman, Lauren Patten, Kathryn Gallagher, Abby Mueller, Judy Kuhn, Brandon Uranowitz, Adam Chanler-Berat, Tavi Gevinson, Erin Davie, Bryan Terrell Clark and more.
“Every single Broadway cast was represented in one way or another,” notes Bergen. “It was endless and incredible. It’s like church. I’m not a churchgoer, but what I felt in that moment was as close to a religious experience as I will ever feel.”
So, what would Sondheim say if he could have experienced Sunday’s tribute? “He would probably cry as he was known to do, and then, maybe, he’d ask us to work on some of our cutoffs a little better.”
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