There was never going to be any doubt about the warmth of the reception for Stephen Sondheim when, as eagerly expected, he approached the stage at the culmination of the 19th BBC Prom in this year’s season, conceived to celebrate his 80th birthday. But even he, with his customary humility on these set-piece occasions, must have noted the length of the ovation. The atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall is unique when the audience rises en masse to greet its heroes, and here was London’s chance at last to salute in person this great “playwright in song” (his words, but who could put it better?) in a year packed with performances and festivities to mark this staging post in his life.
Every element of the preceding concert had been brilliantly layered to heighten expectation and nudge up the myriad emotions of the 5,000 or so Prom-goers gathered to honour the composer. And nobody disappointed, least of all the stirling BBC Concert Orchestra with Sondheim specialist David Charles Abell on the podium, revelling in the chance to take some of those famously complex melodies away from the limitations of the pit and, in returning to the original orchestrations, allow them to breathe with new freedom as they soared out across the heads of the promenaders.
In an evening studded with delights, there were two strokes of genius. The first was to partner the great British actor Simon Russell Beale with Daniel Evans – surely one of the finest ever male singers of Sondheim – for the opening number, “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience”, from The Frogs. His comic timing was a joy, and his on-stage rapport with Evans struck sparks. As the evening went on, each of his subsequent appearances (not least in a sublime rendition of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”, when he and Evans were joined by a soft-shoe shuffling Julian Ovenden and, gloriously, that well-known twinkletoes Bryn Terfel) should have had producers wracking their brains for revival ideas to showcase this hitherto unexplored side of his career. What a fabulous Buddy he would make in Follies.
The other moment of genius occurred at the start of the second half when Roderick Elms sounded the first eerie chords of the Prelude from Sweeney Todd on the Albert Hall’s resonant, awe-inspiring organ, and a collective thrill of uneasy delight shuddered down the spines of the audience. There can be no more purposeful passage in musical theatre; it took me all the way back to Drury Lane in 1980 when, from a seat high in the Gods, I was terrified out of my skin by the shrill blast of that factory horn and the mesmerising, darkly funny tale of revenge that followed.
Evans was quite brilliant in revisiting his success as George, reviving his partnership with Jenna Russell’s Dot for two numbers, “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Move On”. There was also a stellar turn from Caroline O’Connor, back in London after a long tour of Chicago down under, and all set to bring her one-woman show to the Garrick in September. Her “Broadway Baby” was sassy and smart, with just the right hint of desperation. And so what if Judi Dench’s “Send in the Clowns” was slightly more wracked than of yore? This best known of Sondheim’s entire-plays-in-a-single-song has never been in better hands and nobody, apart from the maestro himself, was received more warmly by the assembled masses.
The ensemble numbers were triumphant, even allowing for the limited stage room – The Proms Sondheim Ensemble provided well-rehearsed support, losing just the odd word here and there – and “A Weekend in the Country”, another offering from A Little Night Music sent us spinning out to the bars for the interval, full of anticipation for what was to come.
Julian Ovenden and Maria Friedman had already joined forces for a touching “Too Many Mornings” but both really came into their own in the second half: Friedman with Bryn Terfel, making the case yet again for a full-scale revival of Sweeney Todd with these two in the starring roles as they devoured “A Little Priest” with divine timing and characterisation; and Ovenden with “Being Alive”, another of Sondheim’s great ballads, in which he conveyed utterly Bobby’s conflicted state of mind in Company.
The real lump in the throat moment came, however, Glee-style with “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along, delivered by soloists and a chorus from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. They brought this touching, optimistic pop song to life with charming simplicity, setting us up for the tumultuous affirmation of “Sunday” and – the only time when on-stage proceedings looked a little ragged, but who could be blamed when all eyes were trained on the steps to the right, where a flurry of activity signalled the imminent appearance of the man of the moment – finally, “Side by Side by Side”. It was the only way to end an evening that will live long in the memory, and the artists seemed as reluctant to leave the stage as the audience was to wave goodbye to the modest figure who was responsible for everything they had been listening to.