NEW YORK — On a remarkable evening of Broadway music, the most enthralling moment was provided by the maestro of the form himself.
Stephen Sondheim, at 89 a bit uncertain of step but still secure in the notes, sat at a Steinway to play one of his poignant melodies, “Good Thing Going,” from his 1981 show, “Merrily We Roll Along.” Even more beguilingly, he sang.
For Sondheim acolytes, this interlude Monday night on the stage of Town Hall — where one of musical theater’s all-time great composers was the guest star of a concert hosted by fellow composer Jason Robert Brown — was akin to a religious experience. Sondheim lovers can spend a lifetime memorizing the scores of his shows and never get to hear him sing live renditions of any of the tunes that populate his ultra-intelligent musicals.
So, bravo to Brown, a songsmith with his own ardent following by virtue of a rich stock of show tunes (via “The Last Five Years,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Parade,” etc.), for coaxing his idol to this rare public performance. It gave the evening an emotional climax, but it wasn’t the concert’s only triumph. A roundel of the songs of Sondheim and Brown yielded some stirring renditions of their work, by such standout Broadway actors as Katrina Lenk, Shoshana Bean, Joshua Henry and Rob McClure.
As a surprise bonus, Brown was joined in a version of Sondheim’s “Franklin Shepard Inc.” from “Merrily” by another composer, one who is these days tantamount to the mayor of Broadway: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Brown organized the two-hour-plus concert as part of the SubCulture Residency, a series he has been hosting and curating since 2014, that has featured dozens of Broadway singers and songwriters. This latest program, Brown’s 50th, was a benefit for Brady, the anti-gun violence organization, and raised $300,000 for the cause, the composer announced.
Many events of this kind unfold as reliably supportive talent showcases, but Monday night’s concert invited a more intense response. The intriguing song selection played a part: a warm version of Brown’s “The Next 10 Minutes” from “The Last Five Years,” a duet he performed with Bean, and Lenk singing a denunciation of sexism from an as-yet-unfinished Brown musical, “The Connector,” showed off the composer’s emotional and topical range. Under the direction of Brown’s longtime collaborator, Daisy Prince, and with the accompaniment of a 15-member orchestra conducted by Brown’s wife, songwriter Georgia Stitt, the singers infused the program with uncommon technique and personality.
Among the standout moments: Lenk, a Tony winner for “The Band’s Visit,” infused the Witch’s “The Last Midnight” from Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” with buoyant mischievous spirit, and Henry — Billy Bigelow in last year’s Broadway revival of “Carousel” — joined her for an extraordinary “Move On” from “Sunday in the Park With George.” (Henry’s high vocal belt was the best I’ve ever heard for that difficult song.) McClure was on hand to sing the screwball “I Love Betsy” from Brown’s “Honeymoon in Vegas” — a song Brown said Sondheim told him was his favorite of his music. “And I thought: ‘That’s the one?’ ” Brown recounted. It is merely a list song, after all, of the many things that McClure’s character likes.
And how about this deposit in the memory bank? Lenk singing “Not While I’m Around” from “Sweeney Todd” — as both Sondheim and Brown accompanied. While he played, you could see Sondheim mouthing the words to his song, with that beatific look we all get when being swept up in an irresistible melody and singing along in our heads.
“Performing in public is not what I like to do,” Sondheim acknowledged, during a conversation onstage with Brown. “It’s always perfect in my living room.”
He talked about having acted in college in “Night Must Fall” — “a play about a serial killer” — and Clifford Odets’s “Waiting for Lefty.” In a nifty little exercise to illustrate the importance of harmony, Brown gave Sondheim the melody line of one of his songs, “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart” from “Parade,” and asked him to write a new harmony of his own. Together they unveiled the resulting Brown/Sondheim hybrid.
But the concert’s moving centerpiece remained Sondheim peering at the sheet music for “Good Thing Going” and offering his best, raw execution of a number he’d written long ago. “It started out like a song,” he sang, raspily striving for perfection and reminding us of the albums full of other captivating melodies he started, and thankfully, as in the case of this lovely ditty, finished.