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For Carol Burnett, the Sondheim award is personal

Signature Theatre bestows its honor on the legendary performer, who was the last person to be handpicked by Sondheim to receive it

Carol Burnett and Randy Rainbow at the May 16 gala at which Burnett received Signature Theatre's Stephen Sondheim Award. (Margot Schulman)
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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 instantly agreed. Though somehow, Burnett had failed to absorb one crucial detail: She would be required to belt the number for, gulp, an audience of 2,700 Sondheim freaks in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.

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

That 1985 concert — with the likes of Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin, Elaine Stritch, George Hearn and Lee Remick — is a milestone in the Sondheim annals. Burnett could still chuckle at the memory of her misapprehension as she reminisced last Sunday in an elegant meeting room at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons in Northern Virginia. The next day, Signature Theatre would bestow on her its Stephen Sondheim Award, whose past recipients have included Angela Lansbury, Harold Prince, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald.

The pandemic delayed the honoring of Burnett for two years, and then in November the revered Broadway composer died, at 91. One poignant result is that Burnett — who met Sondheim six decades ago, when both had just begun to make their marks — is the last person handpicked by Sondheim to receive the award.

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Reminded of that fact, Burnett grew misty. Behind tinted glasses, she teared up. “I know, and it just breaks my heart,” she said of the turn of events. “I’m thrilled about this award, because he picked me.”

At 89, Burnett — a Broadway baby to her core but more lovingly remembered for “The Carol Burnett Show,” the hour-long variety show she headlined on CBS for 279 episodes from 1967 to 1978 — remains as sharp and engaging as ever. For the tribute to her that Signature orchestrated Monday night at the Capital One Hall in Tysons, the performers included Peters, the first person she ever asked to appear on the TV show, after seeing her in an off-Broadway musical, “Dames at Sea.”

“When no one else would have me, you hired me,” Peters recounted from the stage, after serenading Burnett with “Old Friends” from Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”

Friends of more recent vintage showed up, too: 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 social media sensation Randy Rainbow, with whom Burnett became email chums during the pandemic — and finally met him (and his mother, Gwen Rainbow) in person 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 trophy case filled with Emmys and Golden Globes and Kennedy Center 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, playing Princess Winnifred in “Once Upon a Mattress,” a spoof of “The Princess and the Pea” fairy tale, with music by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard. Her trademark song was the risible “Shy,” a misapplied adjective to both Winnifred and Burnett. (It was reprised Monday night by D.C. actress Awa Sal Secka.)

Burnett told me a story about just how not shy she was. Back in the mid-1950s, after she landed in New York, fresh from UCLA with the name of one Broadway actor with a tangential personal connection, Eddie Foy Jr., she showed up at the stage door of the St. James Theatre, where Foy was appearing in “The Pajama Game.” She talked her way in and after Foy finished the curtain call, met him and explained she would like to get an agent.

Foy politely indulged her, she recalled. “He said: ‘What do you do? 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 could get you the chorus.’ I said: ‘I’m really not good enough to do that. I think I’d have to have a featured role.’ ”

Her first encounter with Sondheim was in 1960. Burnett was rehearsing for a Thanksgiving TV special with Dick Van Dyke — she sang a number as a character who would become her trademark, the charwoman. “And this young man 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.” Only later would she realize that he wrote the musical whose run-through she and other Broadway actors had been invited to the previous year. That show was “Gypsy,” and he was its lyricist.

Their paths would converge to mutual benefit on her variety show, which she often used to feature his 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 ended that elaborate production number, set in a diner, with a spotlight on a large, autographed photo of Sondheim.

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

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Over the years, their friendship deepened. Courtesy of that 1985 delivery of “I’m Still Here,” Burnett sealed a reputation as a leading Sondheim interpreter, a status reaffirmed by her casting, at the composer’s request, in the 1999 Sondheim revue “Putting It Together.” Staged by Signature’s former artistic director Eric Schaeffer, it ran on Broadway for 101 performances. Then again in 2005, she got the plum (and challenging) 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 hard, 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 go to sleep.”

You can tell that committing Sondheim’s lyrics to memory has been for Burnett a facet of a more profound commitment — just as he was committed to her. He spelled that out in a 2019 letter he had written to Signature in support of Burnett’s entry into the pantheon of Sondheim Award recipients, a letter read Monday night:

“We all know, Carol Burnett is a multitude of talents. To begin with, she can sing, and I mean sing! Her singing in fact is the most underrated gift she has. Then she can act, and not only that, sing and act at the same time, which is not as easy as it sounds. Especially if you also happen to be one of the funniest women alive. And then, of course, there’s her graciousness, which is one of the reasons that people love her 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 began each episode of “The Carol Burnett Show.” Remarkably, she said, YouTube and reruns on cable have kept her old TV show alive.

“A couple of years before the pandemic, there was a little boy in the second row who raised his hand that I called on,” Burnett recounted. “I said, ‘What’s your name?’ He said, ‘Andrew.’ And I said, ‘How old are you, Andrew?’ He said, ‘9.’ And I said, ‘You know who I am?’ And there was a pause, and he said, ‘Surprisingly, yes.’ ”