Saturday night marked a television programme for which I have been waiting expectantly for several weeks: the BBC’s Prom 19, a celebration of the music of Stephen Sondheim, in their words, “the world’s greatest living composer-lyricist”. It did not disappoint. I adore the music of Stephen Sondheim, who has written lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, and the complete score and lyrics for Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Company, Into the Woods, Assassins, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten.
What makes Sondheim’s shows great, in my opinion, is that they’re all different. What ties them together is not the way they sound, or the way their characters act, or the formula of their plotlines, but simply their emotional core, and their ability to make you feel with the characters, and the ability to make you really think. They’re as far from the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar) as it’s possible to get in musical theatre. All of Sondheim’s shows are written in completely different styles, from the waltz time of A Little Night Music to the staccato, pointillist effects of Sunday in the Park with George, to the melodramatic organ of Sweeney Todd. You never wonder whether the next one is worth seeing because you saw the last one; you have no idea what will turn up next. Except that you know it’ll be good.
Possibly this variation is one of the reasons why revues and concert performances of Sondheim’s works work so well: there’s no possibility of being bored. I saw Simply Sondheim, a revue at Cadogan Hall, a few years ago, and it was fantastic. I heard songs I hadn’t heard before, and now they’re some of my favourites. Also what makes them so good is that performers love Sondheim. He has a corps of incredibly dedicated actors and actresses and singers and musicians who will turn out again and again to perform his work because they love doing it. Many of them turned out to do the Prom.
Firstly, the orchestra, under David Charles Abell (who, for his sins, is the musical director for Lloyd Webber’s Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies) were exceptional, and obviously enjoyed playing the music at least as much as I enjoyed watching and listening to it, if not more. The performers, including Maria Friedman (who has been in Passion, Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George, as well as several previous revues of Sondheim’s work), Julian Ovenden (who was in the 2001 production of Merrily We Roll Along, whose first stint on Broadway ran for only 16 performances), Jenna Russell and Daniel Evans (both of whom were in the West End and Broadway productions of Sunday in the Park with George very recently), were made up mostly of highly seasoned Sondheim singers. The big surprise was Bryn Terfel, the bass-baritone opera singer, who sang several songs from Sweeney Todd, which I found completely terrifying and wonderful at the same time.
The songs were a good selection of the well known (probably Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music, sung by Dame Judi Dench) to the really quite obscure (Invocation to the Audience from The Frogs and Everybody Ought to have a Maid from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), and every one of them was as close to perfection as an audience could wish for. Really oustanding music. Plus, it’s probably the last time you’ll see Daniel Evans singing and dancing for a while, since he’s now the full-time Artistic Director of the Sheffield Crucible and associated theatres.
The show was unbelievably good, and I would highly recommend to people who have no experience of Sondheim, right up to serious fans, like myself. The performances were absolutely outstanding, and done with a sympathy to the canon that is unrivalled. Sondheim himself gave an interview in the interval, and there were lots of clips from rehearsals and interviews with the singers about the music that I found fascinating. If anyone thinks they like a bit of musical theatre on a Saturday night, I think they need look no further. But better catch it fast, while it’s still on iPlayer!