On Tuesday, the Sondheim Theatre swapped the Les Misérables barricades for Broadway Babies with a one-night-only gala in honour of its namesake, who died last November. Stephen Sondheim always considered London his second home, proclaimed producer Cameron Mackintosh in his introduction to this star-studded concert (which he also devised), and now his “old friends” in Britain had come together to pay tribute.
The “Old Friends” part of the title is taken from Merrily We Roll Along, one of numerous shows featured in this jam-packed fundraiser for the Stephen Sondheim Foundation, which supports upcoming artists. The impressive cast of 38 included luminaries such as Judi Dench and Julia McKenzie who seldom tread the boards these days – testament to the special relationship between the American musical genius and British theatre.
Maria Friedman, who will soon reprise her exceptional Merrily on Broadway starring Daniel Radcliffe, co-directed the evening with Matthew Bourne. She also gave us a deliciously gleeful Mrs Lovett from Sweeney Todd. That was staged simply, allowing Friedman to savour Sondheim’s grisly linguistic games. But the busy group numbers lost the specificity of the lyrics. Why not just let Rosalie Craig, star of the West End’s landmark gender-swapped Company, perform Being Alive solo? And Helena Bonham Carter had an oddly tiny role.
Yet the ambition of the event, boosted by a 25-piece orchestra, was impressive. Standouts included the riotous You Gotta Get a Gimmick, in which Broadway star Broadway star Bernadette Peters gamely stuck her head between her legs and parped a trumpet. Anna-Jane Casey shimmied her light-up bosom, and Bonnie Langford leapt into a wince-inducing jump split. But a denim-styled Tonight from West Side Story looked more like an angry Gap ad.
Actor Damian Lewis unleashed a surprisingly strong voice – while seductively nibbling a cherry – as the Wolf from Into the Woods. He played brilliantly off Peters, who originated the role of the Witch but here beautifully caught Little Red Ridinghood’s adolescent ambivalence. Lewis also cheerfully skipped around in a maid’s uniform: surely musical theatre beckons.
Although Peters was one of Sondheim’s key collaborators, she over-dominated the evening, as did the ubiquitous Michael Ball – plus Mackintosh made several cameos. But, appropriately for the composer who wrote mature women better than anyone else, the night belonged to them. Haydn Gwynne tore into The Ladies Who Lunch, Petula Clark gave I’m Still Here a wry authenticity, and Imelda Staunton reminded us just why her Momma Rose is untouchable. All captured a complex life in a matter of minutes.
But the undoubted highlight was Judi Dench. Though she was helped on and off stage, her rendition of Send In the Clowns held us spellbound. Her voice catching with raw emotion, eyes glittering with unshed tears, it was a masterclass in acting through song.
Since tickets sold out within hours, the gala was also broadcast to the nearby Prince Edward Theatre. That means there is a recording available should Mackintosh decide to arrange an encore screening. But perhaps more importantly, this bravura event reminded us of Sondheim’s extraordinary legacy and whet the appetite for the countless creatively daring British productions to come.