Lady Gaga, with whom Bennett collaborated on an acclaimed album of standards and a subsequent tour, got the ball rolling with a swinging rendition of “The Lady Is a Tramp.” Leslie Odom Jr., Tony Award winner for Hamilton, asked the guest of honor, “Mr. Bennett, could you have set the bar a little lower?” before crooning “Autumn Leaves,” from his recently released debut jazz album.
Michael Bublé, a clear heir to Bennett’s pop standards tradition, performed one of the singer’s trademark songs “The Good Life.” A clearly nervous Diana Krall -- “I’m lucky that I can play the piano and sing, instead of talk about it,” she commented -- delivered a swinging version of “I’ve Got the World on a String.” Actor Kevin Spacey, who proved his vocal chops with his portrayal of Bobby Darin in the film Beyond the Sea, introduced a group of cheering students from Astoria’s Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (which Bennett founded in 2001), before launching into “The Very Thought of You.”
One of the more iconoclastic performances came courtesy of Rufus Wainright, who sang a languorous, tender version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” that eliminated all traces of kitsch from the song, and k.d. lang showed off her lustrous pipes on “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.”
Stevie Wonder reworked the lyrics to one of his biggest hits by singing, “I’m just here because I love you.” Rather than performing a number associated with Bennett, Wonder dug into his own songbook for “Visions” and a joyous “Sir Duke.”
Gaga -- showing off a tattoo of the guest of honor’s Italian name, Benedetto, on her right arm -- was deeply emotional in her praise as she retook the stage. “You’re 90, but you’re younger than me,” she told Bennett, adding, “Thank you for reviving my ability to have drive again.” She sang the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose,” although not without having to stop in the middle. “I messed that up,” she charmingly confessed, before starting over. Andrea Bocelli, accompanied by a children’s choir, followed with a soaring “Ave Maria."
Video testimonials were beamed in throughout the evening by the likes of Clint Eastwood, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Jonas, Queen Latifah, Celine Dion, Keith Richards (singing a strangled “Happy Birthday”), Bette Midler, Oprah Winfrey, James Taylor, Carole King, Garth Books and Trisha Yearwood, and Willie Nelson, among others. Among the celebrities on the premises paying tribute were Bruce Willis, John McEnroe (“Forget the music thing, let’s play tennis soon,” he told Bennett), and Wynton Marsalis. Beamed in from his casino residency in Las Vegas, Elton John summed up the evening’s mood with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
Naturally, no one could have closed the show but the guest of honor. Performing such signature songs as “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” “I Got Rhythm” and, of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” the singer demonstrated that, while his voice has inevitably lost some power, the years have done little to affect his peerless interpretive skills.
“What you folks did tonight is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me,” an emotional Bennett told the crowd. His brief performance was followed by a gathering of the evening’s performers, who, led by Stevie Wonder, offered a sing-along of his “Happy Birthday,” originally written about Martin Luther King Jr. But as rousing as that finale was, it paled in comparison to the several spontaneous renditions of “Happy Birthday to You” sung by audience members to Bennett during the many breaks in the long evening.