Stephen Sondheim may have left this earth last November, but once you let him into your heart and your life, he never goes away. My first exposure to his work was when I got to see Side by Side by Sondheim at Wyndham’s Theatre in April 1977. Even though I was only 17 years and 1 day old, I was blown away by his wit and insight – let alone those melodies. When I first started seeing the young Miss Duncansby, I recorded the double album onto cassette for her (it’s something we used to do in those days, ask your parents) and I reckon that shared admiration for the great man went some way towards sealing our relationship.
T S Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life by coffee spoons. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have measured out our years with Sondheim lyrics – and I bet we’re not alone. Rarely a day goes by when one of life’s situations isn’t best expressed by a line from one of his songs. And there were plenty of those brilliant lines on offer in Tuesday night’s Sondheim’s Old Friends gala at the appropriately renamed Sondheim Theatre (normally I dislike the practice of renaming theatres, but in this case I’ll make an exception). Ostensibly it was in aid of the Stephen Sondheim Foundation; in essence it was an excuse for some of the world’s best Sondheim practitioners to come together for one huge celebration of his output.
It’s so easy to go over the top with one’s appreciation of a great show, and words like amazing and incredible get bandied about in descriptions when what you really mean is very good, but it doesn’t sound exciting enough. However, I genuinely can’t think of the right superlatives to describe this show. It was sublime, it was thrilling, it was a constant source of delight. Not only that, it was way, way more slick than I had expected; a veritable gaudete of all the emotions that his works convey. Nothing that’s grim, nothing that’s Greek; just pure enjoyment from start to finish.
Devised and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, staged by Matthew Bourne and Maria Friedman, and choreographed by Stephen Mear; adding Sondheim’s songs to that mix, it was always going to be outstanding. The first thing that hit you was how tremendous Alfonso Casado Trigo’s 26 piece orchestra was – a classy, rich, full-bodied sound that blazed into every nook and cranny of the theatre. The programme gave us the running order of songs – forty in all – but not who would be performing them, so there was a continuous buzz about who to expect on stage next. Some of the combinations of song and singer were predictable; others were a delightful revelation.
Some of the stars had roars of welcome from the moment they set foot on the stage. Julia McKenzie stopped the show within a second or two of its starting; still an amazing voice, still a wonderfully subtle sense of humour. Red Riding Hood turned around to reveal she was Bernadette Peters – cue a lengthy appreciation. A light shone on Dame Judi Dench and she didn’t get the chance to start singing for ages, waiting for the cheering to die down. I can’t describe each of these forty performances, although each stands out as a beacon of brilliance; I can only share with you some of my personal favourites.
Rob Brydon and Haydn Gwynne gave us The Little Things You Do Together with an immaculate mix of comedy and musicality. Anna-Jane Casey, Janie Dee and Josefina Gabrielle were a perfect goofy trio for You Could Drive a Person Crazy. Bernadette Peters delivered a spine-tingling Children Will Listen. Janie Dee, Julian Ovenden, Michael D Xavier and the West End All Stars showed what a brilliantly clever multi-layered piece A Weekend in The Country is. There were sobs all over the house for Judi Dench’s heart-wrenching Send in the Clowns. Michael Ball and Maria Friedman mined all the comedy out of The Worst Pies in London and A Little Priest. Haydn Gwynne took our breath away with The Ladies Who Lunch.
After the interval, Julia McKenzie, Gary Wilmot, Rosalie Craig and many more delivered a hilarious version of Broadway Baby where competitive auditionees try to outdo each other. Sian Phillips unexpectedly joined Rob Brydon, Damien Lewis and Julian Ovenden for the last verse of Everybody Ought to Have a Maid. Petula Clark gave us a resilient and determined I’m Still Here (including a brilliant throwaway line at one of the song’s more obscure references – “Google it!”) Michael Ball’s deliciously vindictive Could I Leave You? Janie Dee’s cutely innocent The Boy From… Bernadette Peters’ awe-inspiring Losing My Mind. Imelda Staunton’s legendary outstanding Everything’s Coming Up Roses. And so very much more…
The audience was as star-studded as the cast, but I only witnessed one truly stagey moment. On my way to the bar at the interval, I was caught between Cameron Mackintosh on my left and Christopher Biggins, resplendent in white scarf, on my right; Mr B called out to Mr M Darling it’s just marvellous, and Mr M beamed a suitably chuffed smile in response. But he was absolutely right! It was indeed marvellous. I can’t see how they could ever recreate this experience again in the same way, but the montage of songs worked brilliantly, and could pack a West End theatre every night as a revue in its own right.
I’m still buzzing from it all; the thrill of that experience will take a long time to calm down. Hopefully the relay into the Prince Edward Theatre will also be used as a recording for TV broadcast, because this is a celebration that should be relived for many years. That’s it. I’m out of superlatives!