Commemorate Stephen Sondheim's birthday in the West End
Stephen Sondheim passed away in November 2021.
March 22 would have seen the late, great Stephen Sondheim celebrate his 92nd birthday. Instead, the theatre world is still reeling from Sondheim’s passing last November. But while we won’t be celebrating the composer and lyricist’s birthday with him, we can still celebrate it in the best way possible: going to see a show.
Sondheim had a very special relationship with the British theatre world. His particular sensibilities found a home here: his wry irony, cynicism and sophistication, and his tendency towards complicated mixed emotions and understatement instead of big happy endings. That love went both ways, with Sondheim penning the wonderfully gruesome, Victorian penny dreadful-esque Sweeney Todd.
Many of Sondheim’s shows found their ultimate expression here, too. The troubled Merrily We Roll Along became a triumph in the hands of Maria Friedman – and her version is set to play Off-Broadway later this year with Daniel Radcliffe. Dominic Cooke directed a glorious, heartrending and fully epic Follies, using every inch of the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium, while Marianne Elliott took the dated Company and turned it into a fresh, bold, contemporary musical through shrewd gender-swapping and an inventive staging.
Happily, Sondheim’s collaboration with British theatre lives on: there are already new productions of his work, with many more to come, and his name will forever be up in lights in the West End thanks to the renaming of the Queen’s Theatre in his honour. Here are some of the shows you can catch now to remember Sondheim.
See Anyone Can Whistle at the Southwark Playhouse
This musical satire is a cult favourite rather than one of Sondheim’s oft-produced works, but we have seen it in London a few times before: it was revived at the Bridewell Theatre in 2003, at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010, and at the Union Theatre in 2017. It’s never made it to the West End though — might this more ambitious staging by Georgie Rankcom at Southwark Playhouse, the largest since its Broadway debut in 1964, be the one to break through?
Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ musical is about an economically depressed small town in America controlled by a corrupt mayoress who decides to monetise fake miracles. Complicating that plan is the merging of the local asylum’s inmates with the townspeople – who is really sane, and what is the price for conforming? Past cast members have included Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Sutton Foster, Donna Murphy and Raul Esparza. The Southwark production stars Alex Young, who brilliantly played Young Sally in the National’s Follies.
See Maria Friedman & Friends – Legacy at the Menier Chocolate Factory
This is a truly special experience for Sondheim fans: getting to hear all about him and his work from someone who really knew him. Maria Friedman was a great interpreter of Sondheim’s music right from the start, when, as a young hopeful, she performed an authentically longing version of the great musical theatre anthem “Broadway Baby”.
In this intimate concert, Friedman re-creates that and many other Sondheim numbers, including “Sunday in the Park with George” from the show of the same name, “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd, and “Losing My Mind” from Follies. Merrily We Roll Along, which Friedman both performed in and directed, is also a big part of the evening, with her son Alfie tackling “Franklin Shepard, Inc” and a group performance of “Our Time”.
The concert also pays wonderful tribute to two other composers, Marvin Hamlisch and Michael LeGrand, honouring these artists by keeping the work alive and passing on that passion to the next generation.
See COCK at the Ambassadors Theatre
Another of Sondheim’s triumphant British collaborators was the visionary director Marianne Elliott. Her 2018 female-led Company made immediate sense, in the modern age, of the social pressure on Sondheim’s protagonist to get married and have children. Rosalie Craig was mesmerising as the questioning Bobbie, while Patti LuPone picked up an Olivier Award for her caustic Joanne (which she’s now reprising on Broadway) and Jonathan Bailey won one for Jamie.
That’s Jamie instead of Amy: in Elliott’s version, it’s a gay man having a motor-mouthed freakout on the morning of his wedding in patter song “Getting Married Today”. There are definite elements of that wild panic in Bailey’s John, the star of Mike Bartlett’s play COCK, who is torn between his long-term boyfriend and a new female lover, and what these relationships say about who he is. This is another sleek revival from Elliott, again shedding new light on an established work, and it’s exciting to see her reunited with Bailey.
Visit the Sondheim Theatre
It’s one of the greatest honours in show business to have a theatre named after you, and that honour was bestowed on Sondheim in 2019 — celebrating his 90th birthday – when the Queen’s Theatre reopened as the Sondheim Theatre.
The venerable but bomb-damaged Edwardian building underwent a £13.8 million restoration, with substantial improvements made to the stage, the seating, the bars, the facilities, the backstage area, and to the overall décor.
Sondheim is a palpable presence throughout the building, from welcome mats bearing his name to the decorative “S” symbols in the ornate plasterwork, plus both portraits and photographs of the man himself. The theatre is currently home to the long-running musical Les Misérables, but will also host special events like a very starry fundraising concert, Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends – A Celebration, and the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year competition. Plus Maria Friedman returns to direct a concert version of The Witches of Eastwick.
Support a new musical
It’s been incredibly moving to hear so many artists talk about what they owe to Sondheim and how much he supported them during their early careers. That generosity continues with his bequest of proceeds from his work to the Stephen Sondheim Foundation, which is dedicated to upcoming writers and composers. Sondheim, who benefitted from the mentorship of Oscar Hammerstein II, always wanted to pay it forward, and he did – great talents like Jonathan Larson wouldn’t have flourished without him.
One of those artists who counts him as a major inspiration is Lin-Manuel Miranda, and his ground-breaking musical Hamilton definitely feels like the next step forward in musical theatre. You can enjoy that incredible show in the West End now. Or support burgeoning talent by booking for another of the fantastic original musicals playing in London, like Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen, Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Come From Away, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s SIX, or Bill Augustin and Andrew Abrams’ But I’m A Cheerleader.
Photo credit: Stephen Sondheim (Photo by Michael le Poer Trench)
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