The Wall Street Journal
Carnegie Hall‘s Big Birthday Bash

Right off the bat it was pretty clear that the gala Tuesday to celebrate Carnegie Hall’s 120th anniversary was going to be major. This was simply based on the hors d’oeuvres being passed at the pre-concert cocktail party in the Rohatyn Room. They were inspired by the songs of James Taylor, who was the evening’s host.

There were “You’ve Got a Friend” deviled eggs, pecan-encrusted “Country Road” chicken nuggets, “Steamroller” corn polenta cakes and “The Water is Wide” lobster rolls. So, you see, things got off very much on the right foot.

Mr. Taylor first played Carnegie Hall in 1971. “I can’t remember what I played in 1971,” he said, “In fact the ’70s were a bit of a blur for me.”

He opened Tuesday’s show with an acoustic cover of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and explained he had arranged for an evening of performances by representatives from the worlds of folk, jazz, Broadway, pop and comedy, areas that have all been explored in the last century at the prestigious arena.

Bette Midler, who made a debut at Carnegie in 1972, paid homage to Sophie Tucker by singing “My Yiddishe Momme,” handkerchief in hand–”I never had the reason to sing this even though I’ve always wanted to,” Ms. Midler said, “But maybe I just never had the nerve.”–and then to Lotte Lenye with “Pirate Jenny.” (Ms. Lenye and Kurt Weill were at Carnegie in 1959).

Steve Martin, who did his first comedy show at the institution in 1971, played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the banjo, though he threatened to sing a rabble-rousing number called “Let’s Keep the Minimum Wage Right Where It’s At.” Barbara Cook dueted with Mr. Taylor on a Sondheim song from “Sweeney Todd” and Sting sang a rousing “Penny Lane,” in tribute to the Beatles, who played there in 1964.

One of the weirder and more amazing tributes was by the actor and comedian Kevin Pollak, who did a bit from Lenny Bruce‘s Carnegie Hall concert back in the blizzard of 1963.

Eventually, Bill Clinton appeared, to much fanfare, and announced that he was there to “represent every musician who wanted to play Carnegie Hall and wasn’t good enough.”

Mr. Taylor closed the evening with a rendition of Judy Garland‘s anthemic “Over the Rainbow.” “It’s a way to go out the way we came in,” he said. It was pretty magical.

On the way over to MoMA for the celebratory dinner, it became apparent how fancy the crowd in attendance was. Some of the people there included Edgar and Clarissa Bronfman Jr., Sandy Weill, Andrew and Nancy Jarecki, Tory Burch and Lyor Cohen, Jann Wenner, David and Danielle Ganek, Harry and Pamela Belafonte, Perri Peltz, Jeff Zucker, Trudie Styler, Michael Douglas and of course, all of the performers.

In case you needed more James Taylor puns, dinner, was, naturally, inspired by more of his tunes. There was “Handyman” roasted tomato tartare, “Fire and Rain” Thai green curry duck and–you knew it was coming, didn’t you?–a “Sweet Baby James” chocolate dome for dessert.

“It was an amazing evening,” Mr. Taylor said, amid a sea of well-wishers. “I loved playing ‘Penny Lane,’ which I had performed with Sting before, and I just wanted to hear it again. I loved singing Sondheim with Barbara Cook. I had never sung Sondheim before for an audience. I usually just sing ‘Send in the Clowns’ in the shower.”

He added that he first learned about the evening 2½ years ago. He called Ms. Midler and Mr. Martin on the same day last fall, “and they both said yes immediately. The wind was at my back and the sun was in my face and we started rolling. It was so nice for us to step outside our comfort zones and take on some historically relevant material.”

Mr. Pollak, there with his fiancé, the comedy writer Jamie Fox, said doing the five-minute Lenny Bruce routine was definitely outside of his comfort zone.

“My friend, it was the single most surreal moment of my professional career,” he explained. “I’m a natural-born ham and I swear I’ve never been nervous, but this was my Carnegie Hall debut and I’ve never performed that before. Plus it was another comedian’s work. I did not throw up but there was a pounding in my throat all day.”

Mr. Pollak said Mr. Martin had suggested him as a part of the celebration. “I said to Steve, ‘What should I do?’ and he said, ‘Something funny.'” The truth is “none of Lenny’s routines end on a punchline,” Mr. Pollak added. So it took him a month to find an excerpt and then another month to practice. “I mostly did it naked in the shower,” Mr. Pollak said

“A few people claimed they were at the original performance,” he continued. “Sting was at rehearsal today–there I said it–and he said, ‘I’d never seen Lenny Bruce before and now I feel like I have.’ Thank God I don’t have to do it again.”

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