When the singers stood onstage with the crew in front of them, the shoes gleamed white and polished steel. They’d been planning an evening full of music and dancing; few had dared to miss the moment.
“Welcome to Sunday Night at the Stoop,” said host Bruce Cohen, founder of the annual fundraiser for the Public Theater. “I know we’ve been here before, but it’s about time, and you’re already familiar with the noise that can be produced when you’re on the Stoop. So you’re all meeting for the first time. I can’t wait to see you all come out.”
The host started to bring everyone together and was interrupted by the Eton Messengers, an ever-changing, half-throated band who made Satchmo look like Peter Allen. In earlier years, music may have been discussed onstage, but Sunday Night was all about the actual sound, as more than 200 musicians gathered for this year’s benefit concert. It would be nearly three hours of continuous sounds, when Cohen closed with “And Just Like That,” Aida’s nimble right foot as delicate as ever, the musicians becoming partners and allies, whispering and flying all over the stage, a little Greek chorus echoing through a theater the audience had seen time and again — and not seen since The Scarlet Pimpernel went off the air last season.
If “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” is about a baseball game, and “The Pirates of Penzance” is about a bad baseball game, then “And Just Like That” describes the first day of school. It makes you feel as though you were at someone else’s wedding. Singers and dancers lined up, backed by the orchestra, bobbing up and down as if they’d been told to go to the dance floor. Each was invited to stand up for the song’s chorus, as some shuffled off to the wings while others rushed back onstage. Cohen had waited for exactly this moment.
“And just like that, we’ll be in New York City for the next 10 years,” he told the audience, promising that The Public, the company he founded, would continue producing original plays and musicals at the Broadhurst and Bernard B. Jacobs theaters until, he vowed, “You’re on the Stoop all the time.”
But Cohen was far from the only one who looked forward to it. And soon enough, the hosts were asked about future plans. “We’re thinking about launching a public high school, a fancy hip hop school,” Cohen said. “I heard they have a great test prep program.”
“Plans. Planning,” sang Tamar Epstein as a lyric popped up on the jumbo screen.
Get out of the way, and The Stoop will be busy.
Last night’s concert, more polished and polished than in years past, had a social element and a political one, reflecting Cohen’s desire to use art to inspire social change. Throughout the evening, words from prerecorded tributes would be projected on stage. Here’s Sondheim: “Make it famous so people from such places as Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire will see themselves reflected and think ‘Why are they not just like that in the United States?’” Or Bono: “He dedicated his life to changing the world.” Eventually, an informal game of Twister was introduced to loosen the event up.
In the closing video, a projectors’ camera was pointed at Cohen, next to some prerecorded words that appeared on the screen, talking about his work with The Public. From the audience came the song “Smile,” recorded in the audience, performed by Lee Roy Reams, one of the singers. It had Cohen smiling at the audience as he had always done, arms outstretched and legs crossed. But now, as he spoke about what The Public was trying to do, Cohen’s eyes flickered and he turned toward the night sky, with the image of New York as it had appeared the day he founded The Public.