Music

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga Breathe New Life Into Old New York

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When the curtain at Radio City Music Hall lifted on Friday night to reveal the orchestra rising up from below the stage, and the first bars of “Anything Goes” popped and effervesced, it was an only-in–New York type of moment, the sort of prismatic occurrence that offers a window into the past while etching its own bit of history on the present. As Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga appeared from opposite wings and crossed to meet center stage, the audience rose in a spontaneous standing ovation before a single note had been sung. Everyone in the sold-out house seemed to be feeling this moment, a grand homecoming for the two native–New Yorker stars of the evening.

Gaga and Bennett, 29 and 88, respectively, may be the oddest couple jazz music has ever birthed. Cynics could assume Bennett needs Gaga more than she needs him, and while that may be true when it comes to ticket sales, it’s clearly not the case in the performance arena. The night could have been billed as “Tony Bennett With Special Guest Lady Gaga,” given the proportion of stage time allotted to each artist: For every two or three tunes he sang with his jazz quartet, stage right, Gaga sang one, stage left, with her own quintet –– and with a different sparkly outfit for each turn. Apart from giving Gaga time to change her clothes, this arrangement showcased Bennett’s ability to captivate the audience without her. His marvelous voice, his smooth confidence — who would have guessed that these qualities could shine as brightly as Gaga’s sequined gowns?

As duet partners, the pair are equally matched, Gaga’s vocal and physical theatrics providing a foil to Bennett’s relaxed charm. Anyone who questions the Lady’s worthiness of sharing a bill with the Legend should witness her show-stopping solo “La Vie en Rose,” a highlight of the night. (When she ceases the self-empowerment soliloquies and the interrupting of tunes with self-conscious asides and just sings, she brings down the house.)

Critics of the duo’s Cheek to Cheek album have asked: Is this really necessary? Is it relevant? Do we need yet another interpretation of jazz standards from the Great American Songbook? It’s a fair question, though it’s sort of like asking, Should Bach’s Minuet in G ever be performed again? I’m going with yes. Yes, we do need these songs; we need to be reminded once in a while of their greatness, and we need to learn the ones we don’t already know so that they don’t disappear with the generation whence they came. Speaking as a millennial who’s already crossed the 30-year age threshold that Gaga referred to Friday night as “confusing,” I confess to not recognizing every tune on the setlist. There were some that drew a warm “Ahhh!” of recognition from older members of the audience as the opening lines began. This indicated to me that I should listen closely, and listen again sometime.

The age demographics of the crowd, ranging from elderly to elementary school and everything in between, suggest Gaga’s endorsement of this music has helped get young butts in seats. But once your butt is there, the music speaks for itself –– especially through the pipes of a master like Tony Bennett.

And what pipes they are. To show off the acoustics in Radio City, Bennett asked for his mic to be turned off while he sang “Fly Me to the Moon,” accompanied by Gray Sargent on guitar. Without amplification, his voice filled the hushed hall, and he sent the final notes all the way up to the top balcony. If that’s a Herculean feat for someone approaching 90, you’d never know it. He makes it seem easy.

The standing ovation that opened the show wasn’t the only one of the night; I actually lost count, at some point. There were supportive whoops and hollers from the balcony (“We love you, Tony!”), along with hollered encouragements from family members and friends present from the Gaga camp (“Stephanie!” shouted a guy nearer the front). At least one outrageous outfit and a Gaga lookalike were spotted in the ladies’ room.

At the end of the two-hour concert, a mother sitting in front of me turned to her young son and asked, “Did you like it?” The little guy was wearing a tidy black suit and had slipped down in his seat so his head rested on the back of it. He shrugged. He didn’t seem to be able to come up with an answer. Maybe he’d been expecting “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance” and more outrageous wigs. But the important thing was that he was there, exposed possibly for the first time to classic American popular music, in a classic American venue, in the presence of two American icons, each a classic in his or her unique way. The kid might not get it now, but if we’re lucky, he won’t forget it, either.

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Setlist – 6/19/15

Anything Goes

Cheek to Cheek

They All Laughed

Stranger in Paradise

Sing You Sinners

Nature Boy

Watch What Happens

The Good Life

Bang Bang

Bewitched

Firefly

Smile

When You’re Smiling

Steppin’ Out

For Once in My Life

I Won’t Dance

Lady’s in Love With You

Solitude

I Can’t Give You Anything But Love

Lush Life

I’ve Got the World on a String

In the Wee Small Hours

La Vie en Rose

How Do You Keep the Music Playing

Let’s Face the Music and Dance

Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye

Who Cares

Fly Me to the Moon

San Francisco

But Beautiful

The Lady Is a Tramp

It Don’t Mean a Thing