Side by side by Sondheim

“Side by side by Sondheim”
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, additional music by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers, Jule Styne; narration written by Ned Sherrin

Performed by Alasdair Harvey, Abbie Osmon, Josie Walker and, as guest narrators, Christopher Cazenove (1 May), Barry Cryer, Les Dennis & Angela Rippon

Producers – Neil Laidlaw & Melanie Herman
Director – Hannah Chissick
Associate Director & Choreographer – Adam Cooper
Musical Director – Michael Haslam
Associate Musical Director – Dean Austin
Associate Producer – Tom Smedes
Designer – Bob Bailey
Lighting – Robert A. Jones

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 1 May, 2007
Venue: The Venue, 5 Leicester Place, London, WC2

It is 50 years since Stephen Sondheim had his first theatre hit, writing the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. Relatively unknown until then, he had hitherto written shows at University and while under the tutelage of Oscar Hammerstein II who gave Sondheim a real grounding in how to write a musical. In his early days he adapted George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s “Beggar on Horseback” which was actually performed at college, Maxwell Anderson’s “High Tor” (which wasn’t – but it later appeared as a musical for television by Anderson and Arthur Schwartz, with Bing Crosby and Julie Andrews) and “Mary Poppins”, which Sondheim found impossible to adapt. Later on he provided songs for the plays “I know my love” and “A mighty man is he”, and incidental music for the play “The girls of summer”. Then came “West Side story”, followed by “Gypsy” written with composer Jule Styne, in 1959, and then the first musical with both music and lyrics by Sondheim, “A funny thing happened on the way to the forum” in 1962. The rest is, as they say, musical theatre history.

“Side by side by Sondheim” is a summation of Sondheim’s early career and, in fact, it is probably the one show that really put Sondheim on the map in Britain. Since it opened in 1976 at the Mermaid Theatre in London it has become the most widely-produced musical revue in the world. Until 1976 Sondheim was really known only to musical theatre cognoscenti. Apart from “West Side Story” and “A funny thing…” his shows had either not appeared in London (“Follies”, written in 1970, took 17 years to reach London), or had had only short runs (“Company” in 1972, “Gypsy” in 1973, “A little night music” in 1975). Despite that, “Side by side…” became an instant hit and yet it may never have happened at all if Cleo Laine and John Dankworth had not asked actor David Kernan to come up with an entertainment for a benefit evening in their music venue at Wavendon. Kernan contacted Ned Sherrin, with whom he had worked on “That was the week that was”, suggesting they compile a show around the songs of Stephen Sondheim (Kernan was appearing in “A little night music” at the time).

It went on at Wavendon, then did extra performances by public demand. Cameron Mackintosh saw it and again the rest is theatrical history. It couldn’t have been a simpler idea. Sondheim’s songs are perfect little plays in themselves. Linking them with biographical notes, explanations and a few jokes by that doyen of musical theatre, Ned Sherrin, was found to be a natural way of presenting the material, and casting the show with David Kernan, Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie proved to be an ideal choice of musical comedy talent. The show couldn’t fail and indeed it didn’t when it opened at the Mermaid Theatre in May 1976 where it ran for three months, then transferred to Wyndhams Theatre for fifteen months and finally to the Garrick Theatre. In all it ran for nearly 800 performances, went to Broadway and then around the world. Since then there have been two further compilations of Sondheim’s work, “Putting it together” in 1993 and “Moving On” (in the US “Opening doors”) in 2000 for Sondheim’s 70th birthday.

The songs selected for “Side by side…” are grouped around themes common to Sondheim, which seem mainly to be about love, marriage and other relationships. It opens naturally enough with ‘Comedy tonight’ from “A Funny thing…” which was, as these things usually are, written at the last moment to replace an opening number, ‘Love is in the air’, that just didn’t work. Marriage is dealt with in a medley of ‘If momma was married’ from “Gypsy”, ‘You must meet my wife’ from “A little night music’ and ‘The little things you do together’ and ‘Getting married today’, both from “Company”. Each tells a story in itself: two sisters bemoan the fact that their mother won’t get married for good (“Momma gets married and married and married, but never gets carried away”), a newly-married man tells his former wife about his new partner, to her absolute disgust (“You must meet my wife / Let me get my hat and my knife”), a longtime couple list all the things that keep them married (“It’s sharing little drinks together, winks together, kinks together, that makes perfect relationships…”), and a bride-to-be admits “don’t tell Paul but I’m not getting married today.”

Now, perfect relationships is not what Sondheim is all about, quite the opposite in fact, and his songs often look back to better times. ‘Send in the clowns’ from “A little night music”, ‘I remember’ from “Evening Primrose” and ‘Broadway baby’ from “Follies” are yearnings for something better. However, it’s not all doom and gloom and sometimes the corner is turned with a bright future ahead in such songs as ‘We’re gonna be all right’ from “Do I hear a waltz?”, ‘I’m still here’ from “Follies” and ‘Side by side by side’ from “Company”.

The trio of singers at The Venue really do the material proud and it is quite obvious that “Side by side…” is destined for another long run. Alasdair Harvey brings the requisite combination of ironic acidity to ‘You must meet my wife’, ‘Barcelona’, ‘Anyone can whistle’, ‘Could I leave you?’ and ‘Buddy’s blues’. Abbie Osmon is touching in ‘I have a love’, ‘Broadway baby’ and ‘Losing my mind’, and hilarious in ‘You gotta have a gimmick’ and ‘Can that boy foxtrot!’ And Josie Walker stops the show several times in ‘I never do anything twice’, ‘The boy from…’ and ‘I’m still here’.

Christopher Cazenove is one of four celebrity narrators (the others are Barry Cryer, Les Dennis and Angela Rippon) telling the Sondheim story. Cazenove is fine although he lacks the insouciance of Ned Sherrin who you always felt was spontaneously reading it off the cuff. At least Cazenove is better than Dawn French who once took on the role but seemed to devote the whole evening to her passion for chocolate!

“Side by side by Sondheim” is back with us again and very welcome it is too. It’s easy to forget how mundane most new musicals are and how really satisfying the work of Sondheim always is. Don’t miss!

  • The performance took place on 1 May 2007, following previews from 26 April, at The Venue, 5 Leicester Place, London, WC2
  • Performances till 14 July: Mon-Sat at 8 p.m., matinees Weds & Sat at 3 p.m.; tickets £20.00-£40.00
  • Box Office 0870 899 3335

  • Side by side by Sondheim

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