STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S OLD FRIENDS - Gielgud Theatre, London
On a recent quick visit to London, I had just two evenings for theater. Serendipitously, I saw two outstanding productions that feature the best of American musical theater: “Guys & Dolls”, one of the best American musicals of all time, and “Old Friends” a new revue of the work of Stephen Sondheim, indisputably one of the best American composer/lyricists ever. This review was written for Blickpunkt Musical, the German magazine on international musical theatre for which I am US reviewer. DAN
The world can always use another Sondheim revue, particularly one that was envisioned by the master himself. That’s what we have in “Old Friends”, at the Gielgud Theatre in London, and what a splendid revue it is The genesis of the project began pre-Covid when Sondheim suggested to British theater and musical impresario Cameron Mackintosh that it was time to put together a third revue, after “Side by Side by Sondheim” (1976) and ‘Putting It Together” (1992), both of which Mackintosh produced .
With Sondheim’s death in 2021, “Old Friends' ' emerges not just as tribute to one of America's greatest composers and lyricists but also an elegant reflection, full of mirth, wit and poignancy, on a stunning legacy of musical theater. And, Mackintosh, who devises the show, conceived it brilliantly. In execution it strikes all the right cords.
Aptly, two of the biggest divas in musical theater headline the show: Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga. Peters figures prominently in the Sondheim canon, with unforgettable roles in Sondheim’s “Sunday In the Park with George” and “Into The Woods”. Salonga's breakthrough role, decades ago, as a young unknown came in Mackintosh’s “Miss Saigon”. What better pair of women - now in their “mature” years- could lend perspective to Sondheim’s body of work?.
Peters and Salonga are joined by a stellar supporting cast of 13 seasoned West End players, impeccably directed by Matthew Bourne and Julia McKenzie, who played in many London productions of Sondheim’s shows, Choreographed by Stephen Mear, the production, of about 2 ½ hours, with interval, is replete with nearly 40 Sondheim songs which he composed and/or for which wrote lyrics. New arrangements by Stephen Metcalfe reflect the inspiration of the original work of Jonathan Tunick, who has arranged more Sondheim scores than anyone.
Wisely, the show clusters songs from major Sondheim shows in semi-staged vignettes. More than medleys, the segments from “Company”, “Sweeney Todd” “Into The Woods” and “Follies” are perfectly satisfying in themselves for any audience, but for Sondheim afficiandos they recall the sweep of the original full productions. Interspersed seamlessly are not only the Sondheim perennials - like “Comedy Tonight” (from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) and “Not a Day Goes By” (from “Merrily We Roll Along”) but also the less popular gems like “Live Alone and Like It” (from the movie score of “Dick Tracy”) and the hilarious “The Boy From…” (from “The Mad Show”) .
Every number is memorable but four highlights struck me as most distinctive. “Loving You”, perhaps Sondheim’s simplest and most elegiac composition, was a very short number in “Passion”. Here, it is not only hauntingly performed by Salonga but also given an expanded orchestration which fully reveals the lovely ache of its simple melody. Featured performer Jason Pennycooke renders the most manic and physical interpretation of “Buddy’s Blues” in the “Follies'' segment, I’ve ever observed. “You Gotta Get A Gimmick”, from “Gypsy”, is the comedic highlight of the show; Peters herself “strump(s) it with a trumpet”. Peter’s definitive solo is one of the best torch songs ever written, “Losing My Mind”; she had Gielgud's full house spellbound.
The set, by Matt Kinley, is as classy as the material. The 14-piece orchestra is set at the top tier of a short flight of ascending stairs. Different proscenium drops reframe some of the featured segments. Variously, the stage recalls concert, music hall or vaudeville venues, which begat musical genres that Sondheim embraced through all his work. The fitting finale is the rousing “Side by Side”: As the audience exits, we hear a recording of Sondheim singing “Love is in the Air”. Through his legacy, the master lives on.