A complete guide to 'Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends'

Following the huge success of Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends is back on the West End – Read our complete guide to the all-star glamorous gala performance.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

One of the most affecting tributes to the much-missed, game-changing composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim came last summer in Cameron Mackintosh’s one-off gala Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends. Aptly performed at the Sondheim Theatre – and, due to the phenomenal ticket demand, also live-streamed to the Prince Edward Theatre – the show spoke volumes about the affection that British theatre held for him and vice versa.

Thankfully, anyone who missed out now gets a chance to see that glittering gala when the show returns to the West End this autumn for a full run, this time at London’s Gielgud Theatre. Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends once again features an incredibly starry cast — legendary Sondheim collaborator and Tony-winning Broadway leading lady Bernadette Peters officially makes her West End debut, which is reason enough to snap up a ticket.

A phenomenal company joins her, including Lea Salonga, Christine Allado, Janie Dee, Haydn Gwynne, Bradley Jaden, Bonnie Langford, Jason Pennycooke, Jac Yarrow, and many more.

Read on for our guide to this unmissable event, and book your Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends tickets pronto to be side by side with this amazing cast.

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Stephen Sondheim in London

British audiences have always embraced Sondheim, and some of his shows have had their most remarkable productions here. In fact, Maria Friedman’s acclaimed revival of Merrily We Roll Along — which now heads to Broadway starring Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez — began life at the Menier Chocolate Factory back in 2012 and subsequently transferred to the West End.

In recent years, we’ve also seen Marianne Elliott breathe new life into Sondheim's Company by gender-swapping its lead (Rosalie Craig starred in the Olivier-winning West End run as Bobbie) and changing a few of the supporting roles, too — panicking bride Amy became Jamie, played by Jonathan Bailey, as part of a same-sex couple. Elliott even tempted Patti LuPone back to theatre to play Joanne.

At the National Theatre, in 2017, Dominic Cooke gave Follies the full-scale, detailed, gorgeously presented production it always deserved, making particular sense of the dual timelines: the present day and that seductive pull towards the past. Imelda Staunton, Peter Forbes, Janie Dee, Philip Quast, and Tracie Bennett, led the production to a total triumph.

London has also been the home of experimental Sondheim productions, like the tasty site-specific Sweeney Todd set in Harrington’s Pie Shop in Tooting. Cameron Mackintosh produced the West End transfer of the show in 2015, continuing his long relationship with Sondheim.

Mackintosh previously produced the hugely popular revues Side by Side by Sondheim (1976), starring Julia McKenzie, Millicent Martin, David Kernan and Ned Sherrin, and Putting It Together (1992), this time directed by McKenzie and starring Diana Rigg, Claire Moore, Clarke Peters, Clive Carter and Kit Hesketh-Harvey. When it transferred to the States, Julie Andrews made her landmark return to the New York stage following a 30-year absence.

What to expect from Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends

This star-studded revue has a similar format to Mackintosh’s previous ones, weaving together numerous beloved Sondheim songs. There isn’t a story to Old Friends – it’s more about the power and poignancy of these extraordinarily constructed numbers, demonstrating the range, genius and soul of the late composer. The show also acts as a loving memorial following Sondheim’s passing in 2021.

The one-off gala in 2022 was immediately the hottest ticket in London, and, after the Sondheim Theatre sold out instantly, Mackintosh arranged to have the show live-streamed onto a big screen at the Prince Edward Theatre too. Even then, lots of Sondheim fans weren’t able to get to see this special event, which is why its return is so exciting.

Old Friends (the title taken from Merrily) features songs from numerous Sondheim shows. They include Sweeney Todd, Company, Follies, West Side Story, Into the Woods, Gypsy and A Little Night Music. There are riotous moments and heart-rending ones – just as there are in Sondheim’s musicals. The show also features a mix of solos, duets and ensemble numbers.

Mackintosh devised Old Friends, and acclaimed choreographer Matthew Bourne directs, so it's in safe hands. The latter co-directed the show in 2022 with Friedman and now returns for this longer run. Julia McKenzie is also a key creative in the team, bringing her wealth of Sondheim experience.

The Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends cast

It’s a real thrill to see Bernadette Peters performing Sondheim – after all, the Broadway icon originated roles in several of his shows, such as Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park with George and the Witch in Into the Woods. She also starred in major revivals of Gypsy, Follies and A Little Night Music.

Astonishingly, though, Peters has never done a full run of a show in the West End, so this autumn’s Old Friends marks her West End debut. When she performed in the revue last year, she treated audiences to unforgettable moments like a big character reveal (which won’t be spoiled here!) and her turn as a hilarious trumpet-playing stripper in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

Peters is joined by Lea Salonga, who originated the role of Kim in Miss Saigon and has since starred in Les Miserables on Broadway (playing both Eponine and Fantine) and supplied the voice of Princess Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin. Most recently, she produced and starred in the Broadway production of Here Lies Love.

The cast also includes incredible talent like Christine Allado (Hamilton, In the Heights, We Will Rock You), Janie Dee (Putting it Together, the National’s Follies), Haydn Gwynne (Billy Elliot, The Great British Bake Off Musical), Damian Humbley (Company, Merrily We Roll Along), Bonnie Langford (42nd Street, Anything Goes), Bradley Jaden (Les Miserables, Wicked), Gavin Lee (Mary Poppins, SpongeBob SquarePants), Jason Pennycooke (Hamilton, Moulin Rouge!), Joanna Riding (Follies, Gypsy) and Jac Yarrow (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat).

Songs in Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends

It’s not confirmed yet which songs will be in this new run of the show, or who’s singing what – but finding out on the night is part of the fun!

We can speculate, though, based on the 2022 show. That featured standout, stirring numbers like “Send in the Clowns” (sung by Judi Dench), “Being Alive,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Broadway Baby,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “I’m Still Here.”

Those were balanced by iconic character interactions, like Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney hatching a deadly plan in “A Little Priest” and the Wolf attempting to seduce – and devour – Little Red Riding Hood in “Hello, Little Girl.”

You might also hear lesser-performed Sondheim songs, such as “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”, “The Boy From…”, or perhaps “Live Alone and Like It,” which Sondheim wrote for the movie Dick Tracy. Mel Tormé, Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, and Mandy Patinkin all covered it later.

But whatever the song list, Old Friends is definitely the ultimate Sondheim celebration. To borrow from one of Sondheim's most iconic songs, "Rose's Turn": Curtain up! Light the lights! Play it, boys!

Book Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends tickets on London Theatre.

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