Carol Burnett, friend and performer of Sondheim, receives the award that bears her name

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When Stephen Sondheim asked his friend Carol Burnett years ago if she would come to New York and sing “I’m Still Here” from “Follies,” she immediately agreed. Although, somehow, Burnett failed to assimilate a crucial detail: she would be required to belt the number to, swallow, an audience of 2,700 Sondheim freaks in Avery Fisher Hall. of Lincoln Center.

“He said ‘a recording,'” Burnett recalled with a laugh. “I think we’re going to be in a booth, and I’m going to have a microphone and the lyrics in front of me. I flew to New York, and I’m having lunch with my sweetie Beverly Sills. And she said, ‘Well, we’ll see you when you do “Follies”. ‘ I said, ‘Oh, are you going to be in the cabin?’ ”

This 1985 concert – featuring Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin, Elaine Stritch, George Hearn and Lee Remick – is a milestone in Sondheim’s annals. Burnett could still laugh at the memory of her misunderstanding as she reminisced last Sunday in an elegant meeting room at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons, Northern Virginia. The following day, Signature Theater would present him with their Stephen Sondheim Award, whose past recipients included Angela Lansbury, Harold Prince, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald.

The pandemic delayed Burnett’s honor for two years, and then in November the revered Broadway composer died, aged 91. A poignant result is that Burnett – who met Sondheim six decades ago when the two were just starting to make their mark – is the latest person Sondheim handpicked to receive the award.

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Reminded of this fact, Burnett became hazy. Behind tinted glasses, she tore. “I know, and it breaks my heart,” she said of the turn of events. “I am delighted with this award, because he chose me.

At 89, Burnett — a Broadway baby at her heart but most fondly remembered for “The Carol Burnett Show,” the hour-long variety show she headlined on CBS for 279 episodes from 1967 to 1978 – remains as crisp and engaging as ever. For Signature’s tribute to her on Monday night at Tysons’ Capital One Hall, performers included Peters, the first person she asked to appear on the TV show, after seeing her in a musical off -Broadway, “Ladies at Sea”. .”

“When nobody else wanted me, you hired me,” Peters recounted from the stage, after serenading Burnett with Sondheim’s “Old Friends” and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”

Friends from a more recent vintage also showed up: Tony-winning actor Santino Fontana, for whom Burnett flew in from California for his opening night in the stage version of “Tootsie,” and political satirist and sensation of social media Randy Rainbow, who Burnett became messaging pals with during the pandemic — and finally met him (and his mother, Gwen Rainbow) in person on Monday night.

“We bonded,” Randy Rainbow told the crowd, “over our shared love of Sondheim and cats — the animal, not the musical.”

Burnett has an impressive showcase filled with Emmys, Golden Globes and Kennedy Center Honors, but a Sondheim Award rightly places her in that inner circle of performers, directors and musicians the composer cherished. She became a musical theater star in 1959, playing Princess Winnifred in ‘Once Upon a Mattress’, a parody of the fairy tale ‘The Princess and the Pea’, with music by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard. His trademark song was the laughable “Shy”, an adjective misapplied to both Winnifred and Burnett. (It was reprized on Monday night by DC actress Awa Sal Secka.)

Burnett told me how she was not shy. In the mid-1950s, after landing in New York fresh out of UCLA with the name of a Broadway actor with a tangential personal connection, Eddie Foy Jr., she showed up at the stage door. of the St. James Theatre, where Foy appeared in “The Pajama Game”. She made her way through and after Foy finished the curtain call, met him and explained to him that she would like to have an agent.

Foy politely indulged her, she recalls. “He said, ‘What are you doing? Do you sing?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m loud.’ He said, ‘Do you read music?’ I said no.’ He said, ‘Do you dance?’ ‘I can jitterbug.’ He said, ‘Maybe I can find the chorus for you.’ I said, ‘I’m really not good enough to do this. I think I should have a starring role. ”

Her first encounter with Sondheim was in 1960. Burnett was rehearsing for a Thanksgiving special with Dick Van Dyke – she sang a number as the character who would become her trademark, the housekeeper. “And this young guy came up to me and introduced himself and said, ‘I’m Stephen Sondheim, and I really liked what you were doing.’ I had no idea who he was. It wouldn’t be until later that she would realize that he had written the musical that she and other Broadway actors had been invited to the previous year. show was “Gypsy”, and he was the lyricist.

Their paths would converge to mutual benefit on her variety show, which she often used to showcase her work. She sang “Broadway Baby” from “Follies” on one occasion; on another, she performed an 11-minute mini-musical built around “Side by Side by Side” from “Company” with Peters and Tony Roberts. Burnett finished this elaborate production number, set in a restaurant, with a spotlight on a large autographed photo of Sondheim.

“It wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to do this so you know who Stephen Sondheim was,'” she explained. “I just did it because I like what he did.”

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Over the years, their friendship deepened. Through this 1985 delivery of “I’m Still Here”, Burnett sealed a reputation as a premier Sondheim performer, a status reaffirmed by his cast, at the composer’s request, in Sondheim’s 1999 review” Putting It Together”. Directed by former Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer, it ran for 101 performances on Broadway. Then again in 2005, she got the plum (and difficult) assignment to sing the perennial tongue twister “Getting Married Today” from “Company” at Sondheim’s 75th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl.

“It was tough, but I had time to learn it,” Burnett said of the song. “So that once you get it right, it’s in there. I even do it sometimes when I can’t fall asleep.

You could say that memorizing Sondheim’s words was a facet of a deeper commitment for Burnett – just as he had committed to her. He made that clear in a 2019 letter he wrote to Signature supporting Burnett’s entry into the Sondheim Award recipients’ pantheon, a letter read Monday night:

“We all know Carol Burnett is a wealth of talent. For starters, she can sing, and I mean sing! Her singing is actually the most underrated gift she has. Then she can play, and not only, sing and play at the same time, which is not as easy as it seems. Especially if you are also one of the funniest women in the world. And then, of course, there’s his kindness, which is one of the reasons people love him as much as they do.

Lately, Burnett’s public life has shifted from performance to reminiscence: Several times a year, she tours with a show that includes the question-and-answer format that memorably started every episode of “The Carol Burnett Show.” Remarkably, she says, YouTube and cable reruns have kept her old TV show alive.

“A few years before the pandemic, there was a little boy in the second row who raised his hand and I called,” Burnett recounted. “I said, ‘What’s your name?’ He said, ‘Andre.’ And I said, ‘How old are you, Andrew?’ He said, ‘Nine.’ And I said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And there was a pause, and he said, “Amazingly, yes. ”

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