Capital One Hall in the Tysons, Va., was filled with excitement as attendees were eager to see Carol Burnett receive the 11th Sondheim Award, a well-deserved recognition for her seven-decade career in entertainment. A black-tie affair honored the multi-award-winning legend who has been successful across all performance platforms. Signature Theatre, a regional Tony Award-winning theater, presented the award program started in 2009.
The only thing missing from honoring Burnett was Stephen Sondheim, for who the award is named. Sondheim died last year in November. He always participated in selecting the individual who would receive the Sondheim Award. The much-heralded artist wrote music and lyrics for 16 full-length musicals and wrote lyrics for three more. He began his career writing lyrics for “West Side Story” in 1957.
“Tonight’s honoree was the last person Stephen Sondheim personally selected to receive this award,” said Maggie Boland, managing director at Signature Theatre.
A montage of photos and videos captured Burnett’s life. We learned how Burnett was able to pursue her Emmy Award-winner variety show. After a few years on “The Garry Moore Show,” she was offered a television sitcom, but Burnett had other ideas. Knowing her talent, Burnett proved to be one of the early “boss women” in media.
“In her CBS contract, she wanted to do a variety show that had to be 30 episodes within the first five years,” which the audience learned from the montage narration. “She was told that women don’t do variety. It was a man’s thing.”
Whenever segments from “The Carol Burnett Show” were on the screen, sheer delight filled the auditorium. The audience erupted with applause and laughter when the memorable “Gone with the Wind” parody appeared.
Tributes from Broadway’s Finest
Broadway award-winning performers Bernadette Peters and Santino Fontana were on stage to salute Burnett, their mentor, and in respect to Sondheim’s genius and body of work. Both performed Sondheim compositions before giving personal acknowledgments.
Fontana won Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Circle Awards as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels in the Broadway adaptation of the movie “Tootsie.” As a child, he recalled spending time with his grandparents, who let him watch “The Carol Burnett Show.” Fast-forward to meeting Burnett backstage when he was in a revival of “Hello Dolly” in which Peters also starred. Fontana fondly remembered Burnett’s straightforward graciousness when she introduced herself to him.
“The fact that I am here, my grandparents would be over the moon,” said Fontana. “I think the vulnerable humanity that she brings to everything is ultimately what I always try to remind myself of as an actor.”
Bernadette has garnered numerous accolades, including three Tony Awards, a Golden Globe, three Emmy and four Grammy Award nominations. She and Burnett have known each other for 55 years. They met when Peters was in a hit off-Broadway show, followed by being in a Broadway show that closed after the first night. But Burnett saw talent, and Peters was the first person Burnett asked to be on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Peters ended up being a guest 11 times.
“When no one else was hiring me, you still hired me. You asked me to be on the show four times that first year,” Peters said. “I love you so much. I am eternally grateful to you.”
Though Sondheim was sorely missed, in 2020, he wrote remarks praising Burnett before COVID shut down the annual award gala.
“We all know Carol Burnett has a multitude of talents. To begin with, she can sing, and I mean sing. In fact, it is the most underrated gift she has,” Sondheim said, as shared by Boland. “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 are one of the funniest women alive.”
Burnett heaped many compliments on the evening’s performances. Her thanks were simple.
“I thank all of you for being here tonight. This is such a special evening for me. Thank you, Steve,” Burnett said, acknowledging Sondheim while tugging her left ear, her signature signoff.