“Into the words / That trip your lip and fry your brain, and sprain your tongue / Into the words / So complicated, grown-ups find it scary.” So sang ‘Forbidden Broadway’ to the tune of Stephen Sondheim’s title tune from Into The Woods, and at Hey, Old Friends!, a gala marking the great composer’s 85th birthday, the Stephen Sondheim Society wasted no time in picking up on this theme. Its opening number, before anybody had said so much as ‘Hello and welcome…’ was a rapidly-paced send-up from ‘Kit and McConnel’ (Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James McConnel), the sort of tune that on paper seemed condescending but was, in performance, warmly jesting.
In a nutshell, this is a dream show with a dream cast, with only Sondheim himself conspicuous by his absence – although, in a recorded message played to a packed Theatre Royal Drury Lane, he was, as is still customary even after all these years, pressed up against deadlines and rehearsal schedules.
Held up against similar one-off events of this nature, this particular gala was especially stunning and smoothly-run. It is no wonder Nicholas Parsons enthusiastically included the backstage crews in a (necessarily) long list of thanks (delivered very nearly without repetition, hesitation or deviation).
Okay, so a grand Steinway piano hit an on-stage staircase as it was rushed back on – no damage to neither piano nor staircase apparently – but otherwise there were no visible screw-ups at all. There were only the very slightest of microphone issues – and never any sound problems during any of the musical numbers. Goodness me, I’ve seen and heard a lot worse over the years.
If you’ve ever sat through some cringeworthy hosting of a special event, Hey, Old Friends! was something of a masterclass in how to host an event. They didn’t prattle on for too long, they had several hosts, and if any of them couldn’t be amusing, they didn’t bother. And they didn’t, as some special events do, bore people by treating a gala performance like a news bulletin, announcing who is to sing what at the start, then repeating this information ad infinitum as the evening progresses, and then summing up who sang what at the end. Julia McKenzie hit the nail on the head before the finale, ditching what could have been a painfully long preamble about five tunes from five musicals in favour of: “You know the songs, you know the stars – let’s get on with it!”
The costumes on the ladies of the night were spectacular, and it would take a more qualified follower of fashion (or a follower of fashion in the first place) to describe properly quite how wonderful those dresses and hairdos looked. Kit and McConnel wryly pointed out that Bonnie Langford “can still do a 180”, we chortled in the stalls: minutes later, we gasped as she did indeed do the splits, and quite effortlessly too. However, it wasn’t just about the sequins and the smiles.
Sondheim has written some incredible parts for leading ladies of the stage to play over the years, showcased perfectly at this gala.
Such is the richness of Sondheim’s lyrics that it is entirely possible to concoct a rather different narrative by taking various lines from various musicals and mashing them up into one number, as demonstrated by Martin Milnes and Dominic Ferris, who provided side-splitting comedy, with more than 30 songs quoted in just over five minutes. A large contingent from ArtsEd were flawless in the huge song and dance numbers, but for me it was the stand-and-deliver numbers that were most incredible. It’s a bit of a cop-out to say it was all brilliant (though, truth be told, it was), and I will stick my neck out and single out Rosemary Ashe’s ‘The Last Midnight’ (Into The Woods), Lorna Dallas’ ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ (Follies), Kim Criswell’s ‘I’m Still Here’ (Follies again) and the winners of the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year award, who opened the second half with ‘Old Friends’ (Merrily We Roll Along).
All these stellar performances were more than competently supported by a large orchestra – the sometimes soaring, sometimes breakneck-paced, and always melodic tunes handled deftly under Gareth Valentine’s baton. I’ve seen even the best of orchestras forced to stop and restart Sondheim’s complex rhythms in live performance over the years. Here, each orchestral tune is knocked into the park first time: it is an admirable achievement.
The Stephen Sondheim Society had taken some bold choices in including some lesser known works, and at both the interval and the after-show party there were conversations about tunes that not many people had heard before. But whether we were hearing a tune for the first time or we knew every lyric, this assembled company performed each number with such passion (pun intended) that the evening, which just about managed to stay the right side of three hours long, flew by and was over all too soon. “Never do anything twice”, advises Side by Side by Sondheim. But I would happily see Hey, Old Friends! all over again.
Review by Chris Omaweng
HEY, OLD FRIENDS! An 85th Birthday Tribute to Stephen Sondheim, boasts a star-studded West End cast of over 50 principals, a 40-piece orchestra led by Gareth Valentine and an ensemble of more than 50, including a chorus from ArtsEd Musical Theatre. This glittering charity gala will raise funds for The Silver Line and The Stephen Sondheim Society.
Joining them was a veritable Who’s Who of Musical Theatre, many of them veterans of landmark UK Sondheim productions.They include Millicent Martin, star of the original Side By Side by Sondheim in London and New York (where she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical) and Los Angeles, who is flying in from her home in LA to appear. Julia McKenzie won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the 1993 revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. She also starred in the original London productions of Follies (1987) and Into the Woods (1990) and received a 1977 Tony Award nomination for her work in the Broadway production of Side by Side by Sondheim.
Others appearing (in alphabetical order) include: Rosemary Ashe, Carl Au, Marianne Benedict, Tracie Bennett, Turlough Convery, Kim Criswell, Anton Du Beke, Lorna Dallas, Erin Doherty, Daniel Evans, Dominic Anthony Ferris, Tim Flavin, Anna Francolini, Tiffany Graves, Simon Green, Adrian Grove, Haydn Gwynne, Anita Harris, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Marilyn Hill Smith, Bonnie Langford, Rula Lenska, Jason Manford, Millicent Martin, James McConnel, Grant McConvey, Alistair McGowan, Julia McKenzie, Robert Meadmore, Martin Milnes, Karl Moffatt, Kris Olsen, Charlotte Page, Nicholas Parsons, Michael Peavoy, Corinne Priest, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Sarah Redmond, Joseph Shovelton, Sally Ann Triplett, Michael Xavier and Arts Ed Musical Theatre.
Creative team: Director & Choreographer Bill Deamer, Musical Director Gareth Valentine, Devised & Produced by Richard Morris & Doug Pinchin.