(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian 5/4; via Pam Green; Photo: A vast cast for a huge talent … the curtain call for the gala performance. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images.)
Sondheim theatre/Prince Edward theatre, London
Judi Dench, Rob Brydon, Imelda Staunton and Bernadette Peters joined the cast for this superb tribute to a genius
A vast cast for a huge talent … the curtain call for the gala performance. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images
Stephen Sondheim was so vast a talent that London on Tuesday night required two theatres to remember him, after his death in November aged 91. Produced by Cameron Mackintosh and staged by Maria Friedman – longtime collaborators who personify the title Old Friends, from a number in 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along – the show at the Sondheim (named in tribute in 2019) was simulcast on the Prince Edward stage, a version of technology developed for the NT Live theatre-cinema hybrid, though not usually used between venues 0.17 miles apart.
Caused by ticket demand (proceeds to the Stephen Sondheim foundation), this arrangement bestowed immediacy in the eponymous auditorium but the overspill audience gained greater detail from closeups and cutaways.
This was a glorious memorial service, each of the tunes a eulogy, every eulogist either a current star (Judi Dench, Bernadette Peters, Imelda Staunton, Clive Rowe) or a likely future one (the cast swelled by young actors and drama school students.)
In anthology shows, as in sport, selection is central. Some of the 41 songs demanded inclusion. Friedman brings piping hot comedy and vocal clarity to Mrs Lovett’s lethal recipes, A Little Priest, from Sweeney Todd. Written for a woman in early middle age, Send in the Clowns, as reprised by Dench at 87, becomes hauntingly valedictory, lines such as “this late in my career” now echoing those in I’m Still Here, in which Petula Clark, two years Dench’s senior, confirmed Sondheim’s genius in writing songs that fit a show but a standalone performer can make their own.
There are also surprises, such as Live Alone and Like It (written for the movie Dick Tracy), performed by Michael Ball, whose version of Could I Leave You?, a female heterosexual song from Follies, makes the character explicitly male and gay, thus, as the show often subtly does, acknowledging Sondheim’s life while respecting his art.
Typical of astute curation is including the spoof Bossa Nova song The Boy from …, in which a young woman holidaying in Rio laments the romantic inaccessibility of a young man from a 62-word village in Brazil who later emigrates to a 58-word town in Wales, these athletically tongue-twisting locations sadistically repeated. Sondheim regarded this song, from an obscure off-Broadway revue, as an amusing curiosity. But Mackintosh popularised it through his 1976 anthology Side By Side By Sondheim, and it showcases the astonishing lyrical dexterity and, triumphing over its challenge to a singer’s breath control, Janie Dee threatened to raise both roofs.