Carol Burnett, Sondheim pal and performer, receives the award named for him

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When Stephen Sondheim questioned his close friend Carol Burnett yrs back if she would appear to New York and sing “I’m Nevertheless Here” from “Follies,” she promptly agreed. Although by some means, Burnett had failed to soak up a person essential element: She would be demanded to belt the variety for, gulp, an viewers of 2,700 Sondheim freaks in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.

“He stated ‘a recording,’ ” Burnett recalled, laughing. “I’m imagining we’re gonna be in a booth, and I’m gonna have a microphone and the lyrics in entrance of me. I flew back again to New York, and I’m getting lunch with my darling Beverly Sills. And she mentioned, ‘Well, we’re heading to see you when you do “Follies.” ’ I mentioned, ‘Oh, you are likely to be in the booth?’ ”

That 1985 live performance — with the likes of Barbara Prepare dinner, Mandy Patinkin, Elaine Stritch, George Hearn and Lee Remick — is a milestone in the Sondheim annals. Burnett could nonetheless chuckle at the memory of her misapprehension as she reminisced previous Sunday in an tasteful conference room at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons in Northern Virginia. The following working day, Signature Theatre would bestow on her its Stephen Sondheim Award, whose previous recipients have involved Angela Lansbury, Harold Prince, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald.

The pandemic delayed the honoring of Burnett for two many years, and then in November the revered Broadway composer died, at 91. One particular poignant outcome is that Burnett — who achieved Sondheim six many years in the past, when both equally had just started to make their marks — is the past human being handpicked by Sondheim to obtain the award.

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Reminded of that truth, Burnett grew misty. Behind tinted eyeglasses, she teared up. “I know, and it just breaks my heart,” she explained of the transform of functions. “I’m thrilled about this award, since he picked me.”

At 89, Burnett — a Broadway baby to her core but far more lovingly remembered for “The Carol Burnett Present,” the hour-lengthy range exhibit she headlined on CBS for 279 episodes from 1967 to 1978 — remains as sharp and partaking as ever. For the tribute to her that Signature orchestrated Monday night time at the Money Just one Hall in Tysons, the performers included Peters, the initial particular person she at any time questioned to appear on the Television display, following seeing her in an off-Broadway musical, “Dames at Sea.”

“When no a single else would have me, you employed me,” Peters recounted from the phase, following serenading Burnett with “Old Friends” from Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Together.”

Buddies of extra current classic showed up, much too: Tony-profitable actor Santino Fontana, for whom Burnett flew in from California for his opening night in the phase variation of “Tootsie,” and political satirist and social media sensation Randy Rainbow, with whom Burnett grew to become electronic mail friends in the course of the pandemic — and eventually met him (and his mom, Gwen Rainbow) in human being Monday evening.

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

Burnett has an impressive trophy circumstance loaded with Emmys and Golden Globes and Kennedy Heart Honors, but a Sondheim Award justifiably pegs her as in that inner circle of performers and directors and musicians whom the composer cherished. She famously emerged as a musical theater star in 1959, actively playing Princess Winnifred in “When Upon a Mattress,” a spoof of “The Princess and the Pea” fairy tale, with songs by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard. Her trademark music was the risible “Shy,” a misapplied adjective to each Winnifred and Burnett. (It was reprised Monday night time by D.C. actress Awa Sal Secka.)

Burnett advised me a tale about just how not shy she was. Back again in the mid-1950s, after she landed in New York, fresh from UCLA with the title of one Broadway actor with a tangential individual relationship, Eddie Foy Jr., she showed up at the phase door of the St. James Theatre, exactly where Foy was showing up in “The Pajama Match.” She talked her way in and after Foy finished the curtain contact, achieved him and spelled out she would like to get an agent.

Foy politely indulged her, she recalled. “He stated: ‘What do you do? Do you sing?’ I claimed, ‘Yeah, I’m loud.’ He said, ‘Do you go through audio?’ I reported, ‘No.’ He stated, ‘Do you dance?’ ‘I can jitterbug.’ He stated, ‘Maybe I could get you the chorus.’ I said: ‘I’m truly not fantastic ample to do that. I believe I’d have to have a featured function.’ ”

Her to start with encounter with Sondheim was in 1960. Burnett was rehearsing for a Thanksgiving Television distinctive with Dick Van Dyke — she sang a amount as a character who would become her trademark, the charwoman. “And this youthful person came up to me and introduced himself and explained, ‘I’m Stephen Sondheim, and I genuinely appreciated what you were being undertaking.’ I had no thought who he was.” Only later on would she comprehend that he wrote the musical whose run-as a result of she and other Broadway actors had been invited to the past calendar year. That demonstrate was “Gypsy,” and he was its lyricist.

Their paths would converge to mutual advantage on her selection show, which she frequently used to attribute his get the job done. She sang “Broadway Baby” from “Follies” on a single celebration on an additional, she performed an 11-minute mini-musical developed all-around “Side by Side by Side” from “Firm” with Peters and Tony Roberts. Burnett finished that elaborate manufacturing variety, established in a diner, with a spotlight on a significant, autographed image of Sondheim.

“It was not like, ‘I’m gonna do this so you will know who Stephen Sondheim was,’” she defined. “I just did it for the reason that I appreciate what he did.”

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About the several years, their friendship deepened. Courtesy of that 1985 shipping of “I’m Continue to In this article,” Burnett sealed a status as a main Sondheim interpreter, a standing reaffirmed by her casting, at the composer’s ask for, in the 1999 Sondheim revue “Putting It Alongside one another.” Staged by Signature’s former creative director Eric Schaeffer, it ran on Broadway for 101 performances. Then yet again in 2005, she obtained the plum (and demanding) assignment of singing the eternally tongue-twisting “Getting Married Today” from “Company” at the star-studded 75th-birthday celebration for Sondheim at the Hollywood Bowl.

“It was tricky, but I had time to discover it,” Burnett explained of the music. “So that at the time you get it proper, it’s in there. I even do it often when I simply cannot go to snooze.”

You can notify that committing Sondheim’s lyrics to memory has been for Burnett a side of a a lot more profound dedication — just as he was dedicated to her. He spelled that out in a 2019 letter he experienced penned to Signature in guidance of Burnett’s entry into the pantheon of Sondheim Award recipients, a letter go through Monday night time:

“We all know, Carol Burnett is a multitude of skills. To get started with, she can sing, and I signify sing! Her singing in simple fact is the most underrated reward she has. Then she can act, and not only that, sing and act at the very same time, which is not as effortless as it sounds. Specifically if you also materialize to be just one of the funniest gals alive. And then, of program, there is her graciousness, which is a single of the good reasons that folks adore her as much as they do.”

Currently, Burnett’s public existence has shifted from overall performance to reminiscence: Several situations a 12 months, she excursions with a exhibit that involves the query-and-respond to format that memorably began each individual episode of “The Carol Burnett Exhibit.” Remarkably, she mentioned, YouTube and reruns on cable have kept her aged Tv set show alive.

“A pair of several years in advance of the pandemic, there was a little boy in the 2nd row who elevated his hand that I referred to as on,” Burnett recounted. “I reported, ‘What’s your name?’ He claimed, ‘Andrew.’ And I said, ‘How outdated are you, Andrew?’ He explained, ‘9.’ And I mentioned, ‘You know who I am?’ And there was a pause, and he explained, ‘Surprisingly, indeed.’ ”