Those who managed to catch the recent, award-winning version of 'Sunday In The Park With George' by the excellent team from the Menier Chocolate Factory will have an inkling of what this show has in store, and will probably have also developed a raging thirst for more of the stuff that it focused on - the music and lyrics of composer Stephen Sondheim.
Born in 1930, Sondheim has won more awards than I could possibly begin to count - including (unusually for a composer/ lyricist) a Pulitzer Prize. Sondheim's work ranks right at the pinnacle of the dizzy heights of musical theatre, casting even those who count millions among their fans into the role of also-rans. Sondheim is arguably the most influential of all composers of the stage musical – at least in the second half of the twentieth century.
With the West End overwhelmed by musicals - there's one now on almost every street corner, and many more on the way - it's appropriate to consider just what makes Sondheim stand out from the rest of the pack. Now I'm no professor of musicology or composition, so the theoretical technicalities of what makes a Sondheim work so different and definitive leaves me as bemused as the average theatre goer. What I can say is that Sondheim's work seems more complex than his rivals and more demanding on those who listen to it, but it's also infinitely more rewarding. Even in comedy numbers, there are surprising chords and phrasing which tug at your heart strings, send shivers down your spine and leave you with an inner glow and a sense that you've heard something very special. Well that's my take on it, but chatting to my neighbours in the stalls and judging by the audience reaction, I'm not alone in thinking that Sondheim's work is not only different, but great.
First aired at the Mermaid Theatre in 1976 and conceived and directed by Ned Sherrin, 'Side By Side By Sondheim' is basically a musical revue. There's no plot or storyline, just lots of great Sondheim songs and lyrics linked by a narration. In fact, there's around 30 songs from shows such as 'A Little Night Music', 'Gypsy', 'Company', and 'Follies'. And thrown in for good measure are Sondheim lyrics from shows such as Leonard Bernstein's 'West Side story'. Sadly, there's nothing from 'Sunday In The Park With George', but the ever-popular 'Send In The Clowns' puts in an appearance in the second half.
A guest narrator keeps the whole thing tied together, providing a potted biography of Sondheim and background to the songs, as well as introducing the musical items. Les Dennis, Barry Cryer and Angel Rippon will be putting in guest appearances as narrator during the run. On this occasion it was the turn of Christopher Cazenove who rather let the side down with numerous stumbles in delivery in spite of clutching the words in his hands. Let's hope ex-newsreader Rippon will be able to do a little better in the reading department, or at least brings her spectacles along.
Alasdair Harvey, Josie Walker and Abbie Osmon are the highly accomplished and versatile singers, ably but appropriately accompanied by two pianists rather than a band or orchestra. What this means is that you get a chance for once to hear Sondheim's evocative and clever lyrics with crystal clarity without having to fight your way through an army of musicians. Here, every delicious note rings out, and every witty word and turn of phrase sparkles. Well, I say 'every word' but Josie Walker had her work cut out for her in the song 'Getting Married Today'. This has lyrics that might easily fill a dictionary, delivered at a blistering, nightmarish pace. It must be one of the most difficult songs for a singer to deliver, and even though Walker did a stalwart job, there were still a couple of instances where she didn't have quite the breath to get out every single word. However, she more than made up for it in several other numbers, including 'Send In The Clowns', and an excellent rendition of 'I never do anything twice'.
Alasdair Harvey has a strong and powerful voice which is also sensitive enough to cope with a fine ballad such as 'I remember'. And Abbie Osman's impressive vocal range and style brought on the giggles in 'Getting Married Today', yet provided a very poignant feature in the moving duet 'A Boy Like That' with Josie Walker.
Thoughtfully restrained and unpretentious direction from Hannah Chissick makes the most of a few meagre props, and highlights the clever humour in the lyrics with some polished and comedic business whilst leaving the music untarnished and where it rightly belongs – centre stage.
If you've yet to be introduced to Sondheim's work, this revue will give a first class taster of just what you've been missing and whet your appetite for much, much more. On the other hand, ardent Sondheim devotees will be able to sit back, relax and just soak up Sondheim in an uncluttered style that is simply a glorious, magical evening of stunning songs.