Suddenly It’s Sondheim… [March/April 2012 previews of Company, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Gypsy]

Written by: Michael Darvell

With revivals of three of his shows, the streaming to cinemas of Company, his winning the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography, attending a lunch given in his honour by the Critics’ Circle, Stephen Sondheim is currently well and truly in the spotlight. Michael Darvell reports…

Stephen Sondheim. Photograph: BBC

You can go for years without a Sondheim show but in 2012, just in time for his eighty-second birthday on 22 March, three come at once. In fact it’s four if you count the streaming of the New York Philharmonic’s concert version of Company which will be broadcast to 150 cinemas throughout the UK on 15 March. Unless you live in a metropolis, Sondheim’s shows are a rarity but on the 15th you will find Company, written in 1970, being screened at a cinema very near you: one of Sondheim’s best scores played by the New York Philharmonic.

It was recorded last year in Avery Fisher Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center, with guest artists from Broadway including Craig Bierko, Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer, Katie Finneran, Neil Patrick Harris, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Lazar, Patti LuPone, Jill Paice, Martha Plimpton, Anika Noni Rose, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jim Walton and Chryssie Whitehead. Paul Gemignani, a Sondheim specialist, conducts the performance, Jon Cryer will introduce it and the performance (7.15 p.m.) will be followed by a live Q & A session.

The book of Company by George Furth tells of Robert, who on reaching his thirty-fifth birthday still cannot make a commitment to another person. His best friends, five married couples who have their own relationship problems, and three of Robert’s girlfriends, try to persuade him that marriage should be on the cards. There is not a duff song in Company; Sondheim at his wittiest, sharpest and most moving, both musically and in his lyrics. A real treat.

Currently in preview and opening at the Adelphi Theatre in London on 20 March is the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Sweeney Todd. With Michael Ball as Sweeney and Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, it just had to come to London. Sondheim thinks it one of the best productions he has ever seen of Sweeney. Like Company, Sweeney Todd has a terrific score to go alongside Hugh Wheeler’s libretto about the famous serial killer, the demon barber of Fleet Street who, in wreaking his revenge on those who stole his wife and child and sent him to prison in Australia, disposes of his victim’s bodies by putting them into the pies made by the unscrupulous Nellie Lovett. It is a creepy story but the score and the lyrics are exceptional, exciting us one minute and moing us the next, and finally has us laughing mordantly.

Opening on 15 March at the Curve Theatre in Leicester is a new production of Gypsy, the story of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and her appalling mother, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to accompany Jule Styne’s music. He wanted to write the music as well but the star of the original 1959 production, Ethel Merman, was wary of trying out a new composer. Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim’s early mentor, urged Sondheim to gain the experience of writing for a major performer. The results could not have been better, from Styne’s sensational score, Sondheim’s witty and clever lyrics, Arthur Laurents’s outstandingly strong book and Jerome Robbins’s brilliant choreography and direction. Sadly Merman never brought the show to London and she did not get the film role. It went to Rosalind Russell. Angela Lansbury starred in the London stage premiere of Gypsy in 1973 followed by Dolores Gray who took over and proved to be more in the Merman style – bigger, brassier and bolder. At Leicester, Mama Rose is played by Caroline O’Connor, a veteran of some great shows such as Chicago, Follies, and West Side Story. The show is directed by Paul Kerryson who is also no stranger to the work of Sondheim.

One of Sondheim’s later musicals, Assassins, dates from 1999 when it premiered off-Broadway, has a revival from 21 March at the Pleasance Theatre in north London (nearest Tube station: Caledonian Road). With music and lyrics by Sondheim it has a book by John Weidman about nine of the men and women who attempted and sometimes succeeded in killing US Presidents, such as John Wilkes Booth who shot Abraham Lincoln, and Lee Harvey Oswald who killed John F. Kennedy, and in so doing questions what made them believe that murder might be the only option to settle a variety of obscure motives. It is presented in revue form in a fairground setting, a shooting gallery and a game in which various misfits are promised their worries will be over if they kill a President.

The fifth annual Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography was awarded on 8 March to Stephen Sondheim’s Look, I Made a Hat, the second volume of his collected lyrics covering 1981 to 2011. The two books (the first is Finishing the Hat) took Sondheim three years to compile for, as he modestly says, prose is not really his thing. Together these two volumes are an exhaustive record of the complete works and and career of Sondheim. The Sheridan Morley Prize is named in honour of the late theatre critic and biographer. In one of his books Sondheim admits that he has no love of theatre critics. He might then have felt intimidated when he was presented with the Critics’ Circle Annual Award at a lunch at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre which has staged Sunday in the Park With George, A Little Night Music, and Road Show. Sondheim admitted that British critics have been very kind to him. The meal was a very happy affair, made even more so by a surprise cabaret by Maria Friedman, a longtime devotee of Sondheim’s work. including here ‘The worst pies in London’ from Sweeney, repeating her Royal Festival Hall performance in which she grabbed a member of the audience to be her victim. Here it was Charles Spencer, the theatre critic of The Daily Telegraph, who remained nonplussed throughout her delightfully grotesque rendition.

March is turning out to be a great month for Sondheim and we wish him well on his eighty-second birthday.

  • Company broadcast information and bookings here
  • Sweeney Todd is at the Adelphi, London: Tickets on 08448110053
  • Gypsy (10 March-15 April) at Leicester Curve Theatre. Tickets: 01162423595. Click here for details
  • Assassins is at the Pleasance Theatre from 21 March to 7 April. Tickets: 02076091800 or here

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