By Caldwell Titcomb
Stephen Sondheim, the greatest genius in the history of musicals, has turned 80 this year, and there have been celebrations of all sorts to mark this milestone. London joined the hoopla by devoting its BBC Prom 19 on July 31 to a full evening drawn from Sondheim’s achievements and presented in the mammoth Royal Albert Hall, which sold out in hours after tickets went on sale.
I had hoped to be on hand for the occasion, but it didn’t work out. Friends long active in London theater reported that the event was “overwhelming—among the highest of highlights.” Conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra was David Charles Abell, who put together an admirable batch of selections. The items were staged by Martin Duncan, with choreography by Nick Winston.
A stellar roster of vocal soloists was assembled: Simon Russell Beale, Dame Judi Dench, Daniel Evans, Marya Friedman, Caroline O’Connor, Julian Ovenden, Jenna Russell, and Bryn Terfel.
The live telecast was not available here, but the radio broadcast was offered, so that one could at least hear the 20 or so numbers that constituted the program.
The tribute began with the least familiar material: the Fanfare and “Instructions to the Audience” from the music that Sondheim provided for a 1974 production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs, staged in the Yale University swimming pool. This was performed by Russell Beale and Evans. The former is one of the world’s supreme actors, but many are unaware that he began as a chorister at eight and won the 2000 Olivier Award for best musical performance on the strength of his work in Bernstein’s Candide.
We next heard the overture to Follies (1971), followed by O’Connor singing “Broadway Baby,” and Friedman and Ovenden as Sally Durant and Ben Stone, who realize they have married the wrong people in “Too Many Mornings.” From the Pulitzer-winning Sunday in the Park With George (1984), Evans and Russell did a lengthy scene as George (he won an Olivier Award for this) and Dot and a shorter “Move On” from Act 2.
From Into the Woods (1987), Evans and Ovenden complained of the princes’ amorous difficulties in “Agony,” and Friedman warned that “Children Will Listen.” A Little Night Music (1973) furnished the “Night Waltz” for the orchestra and then choral ensemble, followed by Dame Judi movingly singing “Send in the Clowns”—Sondheim’s most famous song, recorded by more than 400 artists. The first part ended with six vocalists and the chorus looking forward to “A Weekend in the Country.”
During the intermission, the radio feed presented a portion of an interview with the composer held earlier in the day at the Royal College of Music. Sondheim said he had been an anglophile since he was 20. He stated that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Assassins have been particularly popular with amateur productions because “everyone has a chance to shine” at some point.
The second half brought us to Sweeney Todd (1979), which Sondheim labeled a “musical thriller.” A pipe organ prelude (the Albert Hall’s organ is the second-largest in England) led to a series of soloists singing “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” followed by the vengeance-seeking “Epiphany” and the amusing “A Little Priest” performed by Terfel and Friedman as Todd and Mrs. Lovett.
Ovenden then sang the concluding number from Company (1970), “Being Alive.” His singing was quite beautiful, but it lacked the shattering intensity that Adrian Lester brought to his Olivier-winning performance in the 1995 London production. Luckily a cast recording has preserved this feat for posterity.
The mood lightened when the four male soloists turned to “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). In most full productions, this number is likely to elicit an encore or two. Merrily We Roll Along (1981), which originally flopped after two weeks, has a topnotch score, including the lovely “Our Time,” sung by a choral group.
Returning to Sunday in the Park, Evans, Russell, and an ensemble performed the tears-inducing Act 1 finale. And the evening concluded with the full company singing “Side by Side by Side” from Company with what the announcer said was a “high-kicking chorus line.” Sondheim, making his first appearance at a Prom, received a tumultuous ovation.
Those who wish to hear the audio portion of this event may do so throughout the remainder of this week.