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  • Finian Hackett

Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends: A truly remarkable night at the theatre

On the 26th of November last year, the legendary Tony and Olivier Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim passed away at the grand old age of 91. Leaving behind a ginormous catalogue of work that spanned decades, his loss was felt all over the globe.

To celebrate and commemorate his glorious career, a host of the UK (and beyond's) finest Sondheim aficionados joined forces to present a truly remarkable night at the theatre. Produced by Sondheim's long time collaborator Cameron Mackintosh with staging by Matthew Bourne and Maria Friedman and choreography by Stephen Mear, it was bound to be a wonderful evening. The atmosphere inside the Sondheim Theatre (current home to Les Mis) was electric. Everyone was buzzing to get in, including the likes of Don Black, Dawn French, David Walliams and Gaby Roslin. Down the road at the Prince Edward Theatre, a screening of the performance was also taking place, with just the same amount of buzz throughout the auditorium.

Julia McKenzie sang the first solo line of the show, gracing the West End with her first musical appearance since 1998 (this being the showstopping concert Hey, Mr Producer! ). Julia won an Olivier for her work as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd in 1994 as well as receiving nominations for Follies in 1987 and Into The Woods in 1991. She even gained herself a Tony nomination back in 1977 for the revue Side by Side by Sondheim. Seeing the legendary (should be Dame) perform live was something many of us never thought we would see. The rapturous response from the audience set the tone for the extraordinary night ahead.

Just a few of the acclaimed numbers from Act One included Anna-Jane Casey's rendition of 'Getting Married Today' from Company, Julian Ovenden and Michael Xavier performing 'Agony' from Into The Woods, Michael Ball and Maria Friedman's thrilling Sweeney Todd section, Dame Judi Dench performing the signature Sondheim tune 'Send In The Clowns' from A Little Night Music and Haydn Gwynne belting out 'The Ladies Who Lunch' from Company (originally meant to be sung by Emmy winner Hannah Waddingham who had to pull out at the last minute due to a serious throat infection).

Michael Ball and Maria Friedman

I don't often get starstruck, but the moment that two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters skipped onto the stage dressed as Little Red Riding Hood was one of those times. Her iconic ginger locks appeared from underneath the cloak before she performed a hilarious version of 'I Know Things Now'. She oozes talent and it was such a pinch-me moment after years of adoring her from afar.

'Sunday', from Sunday In The Park With George, was the song of choice for the finale of Act 1. Daniel Evans (previous George in the West End and on Broadway) lead the number later being joined by the full company including three ladies with parasols, all of whom have played Dot. Bernadette Peters (original 1984 Broadway production), Maria Friedman (original 1990 West End production) and Jenna Russell (2006 West End and 2008 Broadway revival). This was one of the particularly touching moments of the night.

After trying (and failing) to compose ourselves of our excitement in the interval, it was onto Act 2! 'Broadway Baby' was the first number of the night to gain a standing ovation. Julia McKenzie, Maria Friedman and Bernadette Peters reunited to revive a version of the number they performed in Hey, Mr Producer! (see the clip below). They were joined this time by Rosalie Craig, Josefina Gabrielle, Amy Griffiths, Haydn Gwynne, Bonnie Langford and Helena Bonham Carter. What a lineup of leading ladies!

'You Gotta Get A Gimmick' from Gypsy gained another standing ovation - again featuring Bernadette alongside Bonnie and Anna-Jane Casey. This was followed by back to back solos from Petula Clark, Michael Ball, Gary Wilmot, Janie Dee, Bernadette Peters AND Imelda Staunton (taking a break from her busy filming schedule on The Crown to deliver us 'Everything's Coming Up Roses'). I don't think I breathed properly for that full 25 minutes.

The night ended with a proper farewell to Sondheim, featuring all the ensemble performing 'Not A Day Goes By', 'Being Alive', 'Old Friends', 'Side by Side' and 'Our Time'.

Aside from all these wonderful actors previously mentioned, you also had the ensemble made up of the likes of Rob Houchen, Shan Ako, Holly-Anne Hull and Bradley Jaden just to name a few. They lent their vocals to numerous numbers within the concert including the title songs from Into The Woods and Company as well as the 'Tonight Quintet' from West Side Story.

Dame Judi Dench and Bernadette Peters backstage

I could talk for HOURS about that evening. Seeing so many fabulous faces celebrating the musical theatre world's biggest and brightest composer was life-affirming. My mind was racing with all the combinations of Mama Roses, Mrs Lovetts, Desiree Armfeldts and Sally Durrant Plummers that were on that stage at one time. It's a struggle to put into words how magical it was. The concert was filmed so I truly truly hope that everyone across the globe will be able to experience this breathtaking night over and over again for years to come.

Photos by Danny Kaan

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