Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends – Gielgud Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Directors: Matthew Bourne and Julia McKenzie

When the great American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim died on 26 November 2021, he left behind a hole in the world of musical theatre that may never be filled. He also leaves behind many, many old friends and this extravagant show establishes emphatically that London’s West End is, collectively, among them.

We have seen tributes to Sondheim before. The 2010 televised 80th Birthday Prom at the Royal Albert Hall lives long in the memory, but the involvement of Matthew Bourne as co-director and Stephen Mear as choreographer ensures that this show is more animated than any concert could be. Most famously, the 1976 revue Side By Side By Sondheim showcased the writer’s early works and Julia McKenzie, a star of that show in the West End and on Broadway, joins Bourne, thereby adding a poignant sense of continuity.

Devised by Cameron Macintosh and staged in his Gielgud Theatre, which adjoins the newly renamed Sondheim Theatre, the show opens with Bernadette Peters, who has avoided the West End for most of her illustrious Broadway career, and Lea Salonga reminding us that Sondheim achieved major successes, as lyricist only, with West Side Story and Gypsy before his first hit as writer of both music and lyrics in 1962. That first show was the Ancient Roman romp A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and, fittingly, this show’s opening routine, Comedy Tonight, originates from it. Much comedy as well as nostalgia and pathos follows.

A 14-piece orchestra, under the direction of Alfonso Casado Trigo, is placed at the back of a stage that is adorned by countless lights. In a company of around 20 well-established performers, those joining Peters and Salonga include Clare Burt, Janie Dee, Damian Humbley, Bonnie Langford, Jason Pennycooke, Joanna Riding and Jeremy Secomb. A little overwhelming, perhaps.

In the first half, we are whisked from a New York wedding chapel (Company), into and through a land of fairy tales (Into the Woods), before spending a Summer weekend in the Swedish countryside (A Little Night Music) and landing in the den of a throat-cutting barber (Sweeney Todd…). No one ever questions Sondheim’s versatility, but, here, the greatest hits selection feels slightly random and could maybe benefit from some witty original material to link the segments and provide context. As the half draws to a close, the company comes together for a glorious rendition of Sunday from Sunday in the Park with George as an image of George Seurat’s painting hangs over their heads.,

The backbone for the second half is provided by Sondheim’s two homages to the age of Vaudeville, Follies and Gypsy, with the mix of pathos and comedy holding together firmly. Peters tugs at the heartstrings with Losing My Mind, as she had done with Send in the Clowns in the first half, and Salonga asserts forcefully that Everything’s Coming Up Roses; however, both are eclipsed by Dee’s hilarious party piece, The Boy From…, which was written for a long-forgotten off-Broadway revue.

The razzle-dazzle of Broadway in all its moods dominates proceedings, with the wit and wisdom of Sondheim’s lyrics and his haunting melodies shining through. Sadly, this leaves little room for a full appreciation of Sondheim the pioneer, the man who expanded the boundaries of musical theatre into new territories, and ambitious shows such as Pacific Overtures (soon to be revived in London) and Assassins are squeezed out.

Not a wake but a celebration by Sondheim’s old friends for his old friends, this show should also draw in many new friends. The songs featured here are like treats from a tasting menu, perfect for whetting the appetite for a main course in the form of a full Sondheim musical. There should be plenty of opportunities to feast for many years to come.

Runs until 6 January 2024

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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