Last night around 8:30 P.M., New York’s Radio City Music Hall was packed and thrumming with energy. Young men in sequined tuxedo jackets rushed to grab last minute drinks from the bar, seat mates—strangers a few minutes before—started excitedly introducing themselves to each other, and a woman in Row E took a hairbrush to her extensions. Nobody was looking at their phones, seeing as they were all snug and secure in magnetized Yondr pouches.
When a slight, grey haired man surrounded by security guards entered the stalls, almost everyone rose to their feet for the first standing ovation of the night. But this one wasn’t for the act we were all there to see. It was for former President Bill Clinton. (“I would have clapped if it were Monica Lewinsky,” I heard one woman quip, as she quickly returned to her seat.)
Soon, everyone had settled back in, and the curtain rose on One Last Time: An Evening With Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, the second of two sold-out performances the duo put on this week in honor of Bennett’s 95th birthday. The contemporary pop icon and the aging jazz singer, who first met in 2011 after Bennett heard Gaga perform Nat King Cole’s “Orange Colored Sky” at a charity event, might seem like an odd pairing with vastly different fan bases. But last night’s crowd—mostly unmasked, all of them required to show proof of vaccination to enter the venue—seemed more excited about the two of them together than they were about either artist alone. And after ten years of collaboration, they’ll be releasing another album together, a compilation of Cole Porter covers titled Love for Sale, this fall.
Lady Gaga kicked things off, appearing on stage in a half crystal-embellished, half feathered dress with a dramatic slit—paired with a coordinating feathered stole and crystal-embellished microphone. She vamped, swayed and shimmied as she performed jazz standards with a full orchestra behind her. She gave a cheeky hello to President Clinton. At one point, she wandered over to the cocktail tables positioned on the side of the stage knocked back two glasses of champagne that appeared to belong to audience members. There was a glittering crystal cloud above her. The conductor, the magnetic musical director Michael Beardon, paired his white tailcoat with a long, flowing do-rag. There were multiple trumpet solos. We even got a Star is Born moment with a show stopping rendition of “La Vie en Rose,” with Gaga in a sort of French maid-inspired cocktail look. It was all extremely campy and shiny and fabulous.
By the time Bennett showed up, the tenor of the evening turned more emotional. At 95 years old and recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the performer was remarkably commanding. And he brought the audience to its feet after every single one of his solo songs.
For the finale, Gaga returned in a gold sequin frock and matching capelet, first to lead the whole theater in a round of “Happy Birthday,” then to finish things off with a rousing series of duets and many emotional bows and hugs between the singers and instrumentalists. Finally, after a kiss to Bennett’s hand, Gaga delicately escorted him off stage as the audience streamed back onto the New York City streets, dutifully pulling their masks back on as they entered taxis and Ubers and subways.
It feels odd to call a performance of that level of theatre “normal.” Maybe it was more of an escape from our current reality. But it did feel like a different time. The energy remained as the crowd dissipated. Somewhere along West 53rd Street, a fan on a Citibike blasted “Poker Face,” shouting “Woo! Lady Gaga!” to anyone within earshot.