Tag Archives: Follies

Interview with David Charles Abell, Conductor of the 2010 Sondheim Prom

6 Jan

Judi Dench sings “Send in the Clowns”: David Charles Abell’s fondest memory of an unforgettable night

I recently interviewed David Charles Abell, who conducted last summer’s tumultuous Sondheim Prom, for the latest issue of SONDHEIM – the magazine, the house publication of the Sondheim Society. My review of the prom remains one of The Art of the Torch Singer’s most visited posts, so I thought it would be worth publishing the interview here as well. Abell’s insights into Sondheim’s music, his memories of working with Bernstein, and recall of the logistics of an unforgettable evening, are well worth hearing.

SOME ENCHANTED EVENING

David Charles Abell: the brains behind a memorable night at the Proms (picture by Cory Weaver)

As the sun sets on this annus Sondheimus, many events, award-winning revivals and concerts jostle for attention in the memory. But one – Prom 19 on 31st July – really stands out as an emblem of just what this year-long celebration of one man’s work has meant on this side of the Atlantic.

Simply entitled Stephen Sondheim at 80, the evening was at once unabashedly sentimental and joyously affirmatory: a recognition that Sondheim’s work has earned its place in the wide panoply of classical music embraced by the annual festival; and a chance for his British admirers to demonstrate their affection, rising at the end to salute the man responsible for such lyrical and melodic treasure.

Sondheim at 80 was the brainchild of American conductor David Charles Abell, a long-time London resident, who first approached Proms director Roger Wright in 2007 with the suggestion that a celebration of Sondheim’s 80th birthday would be more than appropriate fare for such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic classical music audience. Wright agreed, and over a series of meetings they came up with a format for the concert that would give a sense of the breadth and variety of Sondheim’s work.

Abell’s passion for Sondheim’s musicals was ignited at the age of 16, when he saw the touring production of A Little Night Music in Chicago. “The Miller’s Song” made an immediate impression.

“Get it while you can, basically,” he says. “At that age, when your sexuality was just awakening, it was a very powerful song. The first time a musical gave me a life lesson. Mind you, I didn’t act on it immediately but it stayed with me. As did the whole show: the cleverness of the lyrics, the singing, the beauty of the production, the intricacy of the plot. It’s a work of perfection, I think.

“Then I was in New York [Abell is a Juillard School and Yale University graduate] at the time of Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods. Sunday… took me two or three times to get. Now it’s probably one of my favourite shows because it has such personal resonance for anyone who works as an artist. And I saw Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods. I happened to be sitting in the box that she appeared in as the Witch at one point, and she stepped on my toes – ‘Oh sorry, honey’ – as she tried to get into place.”

Ironically, despite a 30-year career as a leading conductor and musical director, Abell’s professional connection with Sondheim’s work had been limited to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (for the Covent Garden Festival in 2001) and some concerts. He had, however, worked for some time as Leonard Bernstein’s assistant in the 1980s – a relationship rooted in his experiences singing in the boys’ choir at the 1971 Washington premiere of Mass, Bernstein’s ambitious allegorical treatment of the liturgical structure, and as assistant conductor on its 1981 revival.

“I don’t think I ever talked to Lenny about Sondheim, which would have been interesting,” he says. “Mass was interesting and innovative – and Steve would probably say, pretentious. And he might be right because Lenny was a pretentious person, in a good way: he was ambitious and wanted to do new things artistically. Steve does as well and they’re very similar in some ways, and of course they worked together years before I knew either of them.

Mass was a great piece of American musical theatre but deeply flawed as well. I think Steve doesn’t have a lot of time for it because he’s about specific characters, specific situations, specific problems, specific goals. And this was about a universal theme, an allegory, although there is allegory in Steve’s work as well, like the archetypal characters of Into the Woods.

Being Alive: Julian Ovenden’s intense interpretation was another highlight of the evening

“But Steve will work from an everyday idea – the Baker and the Baker’s Wife want to have a baby – and take you to a grand theme: sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods, they die. And it’s devastating. And when you get there in the show, it’s shattering. But that’s the brilliance of his work. It will help you to deal with something as a person. That’s why people are so crazy about his work. They’re crazy about Bernstein as well, and the interesting thing about them is that when they worked together on West Side Story, they tempered each other and produced one of the great pieces.”

With his partner Seann Alderking, a musical supervisor and arranger, Abell edited the score of West Side Story for Bernstein, researching the different versions and getting the parts into decent order, clearing up what Abell recalls was “a mess”. More than 20 years later, they would find themselves doing something similar with some of the numbers for the Sondheim Prom – after Abell had been through the difficult process of choosing the programme in consultation with Roger Wright and concert director Martin Duncan.

“In preparation, I listened to all of the original cast albums, even though I knew most of them pretty well,” says Abell. “But now I was listening with a view to what was going to work in the Albert Hall, at the Proms, for people who might have heard Mahler the night before and would hear Mozart the night after. What would they appreciate? What would resonate with them? Which songs would work in a 6,000-seat arena, which has a pretty large reverberation time? Not a patter song like “Not Getting Married Today”, because there are too many lyrics for that space. At the same time, you want to present his most compelling melodies.

“I thought we should present the music in its original form as much as possible. If you hear Mozart at the Proms, it’s likely to be done by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on period instruments. So I felt we owed it to the audience to create the theatrical context, use the original orchestrations as much as possible. Another gala might be all about mash-ups, and that’s great. But for the Proms, I wanted to have a sense of being there at the original premiere of these shows. The Follies Overture was the original orchestration from 1971, with a few extra strings, and it was pretty much what you would have heard back then, when they had big orchestras – around 30 players. We only have 21 on Love Never Dies [Abell is the Lloyd Webber show’s musical director] – and that’s the biggest there has been in the West End for years.”

But it was a huge challenge. While some of Sondheim’s shows have been edited, with scores available in modern, computerised format, others are not in such great shape. As Abell explains, musical scores are often left in the same state as they were at their last performance, full of additions and deletions, musicians’ marks and notes. It’s very hard to find a definitive text. The original orchestrator’s score is not the best source because it might contain wrong notes and rhythms, later corrected during rehearsals, try-outs, previews and tours.

“I knew I couldn’t put that sort of material in front of the BBC Concert Orchestra, so Seann put the parts from some of the numbers [particularly A Little Night Music and Company] into Sibelius, a music notation programme, and created a full score that, in most cases, we were able to compare with Jonathan Tunick’s originals – he allowed me to go and look at them in his New York apartment – and make sure that we were being accurate. Every song took a week to get into shape! We also asked Jason Carr to do some orchestrations on Sunday… The original orchestrations are very small, so we asked him to create symphonic versions and he did a brilliant job. They’re based on Sondheim’s piano score so it is the original sound, just bigger.”

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the evening was the line-up of performers. Abell says they got nearly everyone they wanted, with artists willing to alter longstanding personal arrangements and juggle demanding professional engagements just to take part. Would Bryn Terfel give up part of his holiday? Yes, he would. Could Jenna Russell manage to be at the dress rehearsal, dash across town for a run-through of Into the Woods at Regent’s Park and get back to the Albert Hall for the concert, while making sure her baby was all right? Yes, she could. Would Daniel Evans be able to work around his duties as artistic director at the Sheffield Crucible, which severely limited his rehearsal time? Absolutely.

“It was a magnet, people wanted to do it,” says Abell. “That’s why we had people who would normally be soloists in the West End willing to be in the ensemble. Everyone mucked in, learned the choreography and music. And all the kids from the BBC Performing Arts fund did it for free. We had to ask them to show up at 9am in their concert gowns at the studio in Maida Vale so we could make sure the colours matched. There they were in their high heels. It was a collaboration, and that’s the joy of working with great people. They bring things you wouldn’t have thought of.”

So what of the man himself? Abell had kept Sondheim informed during the months of preparation. Most of the artists were established exponents of his work, with the exception of Simon Russell Beale – a personal friend of Sondheim – whose singing ability was already known, and Caroline O’Connor, who Abell had worked with in a production of On The Town at the Châtelet in Paris, and knew would be ideal for “Broadway Baby”. All the same, Abell wonders if Sondheim knew quite what to expect. But he threw himself into the fullest possible day with the zest of someone half his age.

“Steve flew in overnight, arrived at the airport at 6.30am, I guess went to the hotel to wash his face, then came straight to rehearsal where he stayed for three hours,” Abell recalls. “He made some incredibly useful suggestions, mostly to do with his own work – lyrics in the published scores that he wasn’t happy with – and asked the singers to adjust a couple of things. He made one or two remarks about tempo, which were very useful to me. He was just really helpful. He’s a theatre man who knows what’s possible at the last minute, and what isn’t.

“Then he went to his hotel, met some friends, came back to give a talk with me at the Royal College of Music, went and met more friends, came to the concert, then to the party, and met more friends afterwards! I don’t think he slept until two in the morning. What tremendous energy, and what a kind, generous colleague. And that’s what he considers himself to be, a colleague.”

Abell never doubted Sondheim’s right to be the subject of a Promenade Concert. As a conductor whose work has straddled opera and musical theatre, and the dreaded crossover – “I know, it’s a terrible word, but you understand what I mean” – he feels there are apt comparisons to be made with, for example, Puccini. Although from different worlds and times, both men’s strengths lie in story telling, being inspired by the characters and circumstances to write their best music.

“Then, [Steve] can create, have the characters learn something in the song,” he says. “And by teaching them something, he teaches the audience something. So I would put him up there with Puccini, certainly. It’s all contextual, because Puccini was a late 19th/early 20th century Italian from a world where people expressed themselves very differently. Steve grew up in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, and he expresses himself through what he saw and sees in New York society. The contemporary pieces – Company, parts of Merrily We Roll Along, Follies – are very specific to their time and place. Only a hard, successful New York woman like Phyllis could sing those lines, “Leave you, leave you…” But there’s also a universal theme from those situations.”

Abell also never doubted that the evening would work, musically and artistically. He says that from the first rehearsal, the soloists, the direction, the choreography, the orchestra, all gelled. On the podium, he looked from the start – and with justification – like the cat who’d had the cream. And like many among the audience in the hall and at home, the highpoint for him was Judi Dench’s consummate performance of “Send in the Clowns”.

“Not just because she was so great, she sang and acted it so beautifully,” he says. “But from a conductor’s perspective. Technically, it’s a difficult song because you’re always waiting for the singer and you’ve got to come in with the pizzicato on the double bass, on a certain word on the downbeat. Luckily, I had a wonderful principal bass player in Dominic Worsley, who listened to Judi and played at exactly the right moment for her, so I didn’t have to worry about it. That song is difficult, harder than anything that goes fast.”

Abell’s association with Sondheim’s work is about to blossom yet further, with a production of Sweeney Todd in Paris next year, at the Châtelet, followed by Pacific Overtures, in Japanese, in Kanagawa and then, possibly, a Follies somewhere in Europe. But the Stephen Sondheim at 80 Prom will linger long in the memory for its emotional impact.

“It sounds pretentious but what defines Steve’s work for me is the philosophy, and the life lessons,” he says. “I always feel I’ve learned something when I hear one of his songs. Sometimes it’s just entertaining and of course you’re delighted by it. But others resonate and you think, oh yes, that’s my life. By the time he was writing those great shows in his thirties and forties, he understood an awful lot about human nature.”

© Piers Ford

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CD Review – Julie Atherton: No Space for Air

16 Nov

Julie Atherton: a rocking live performance of “Blind” from her new album, No Space for Air

A closer look at Julie Atherton’s new album in a second. But first… Producers of the mooted 2011 London Follies revival apparently don’t think Bernadette Peters is sufficiently “box office” to carry a production on this side of the Atlantic. So murmurs the rumour mill. Ye gods. Here is one of the great leading ladies of our time – sure, a superstar on Broadway, but also a performer whose status and reputation is global as far as anybody who knows anything about musical theatre is concerned. And she is a luminary among actors who have specialised in Sondheim. You can’t buy the kind of gold dust she would sprinkle across the West End.

Never mind. Let’s wait 10 years. Then Dannii Minogue can give us her Sally, Cheryl Cole can step up to the plate as Phyllis, Susan Boyle’s “Broadway Baby” can raise the roof and Amanda Holden can summon her acting skills to deliver “I’m Still Here” with all the dramatic irony she can muster. And we’ll have the television audience-friendly Follies we apparently deserve. I can hardly wait. So I’ll probably curb my impatience with a trip to Washington DC in the spring, where Peters is scheduled to be a fascinating Sally, and Elaine Page will appear as Carlotta Campion, US producers apparently still being able to think outside the box just a little.

No Space for Air: a fascinating collection of modern pop and theatre songs

Julie Atherton will be a prime candidate to play Sally if there’s a revival to mark Sondheim’s centenary in 2030 – although she’d better make sure she’s got a television profile by then or she’ll have a tough job convincing the impresarios of the future.

Atherton is one of a handful of young West End leading ladies who composers would have been queuing up to write parts for in the old days. She’s a veteran of the cult hit Avenue Q and in the age of juke box musical dominance, through her involvement with the Notes From New York project, she consistently does her bit to promote new musical work in London.

When I saw her in their production of Jason Robert Brown’s chamber piece The Last Five Years last summer, it was clear that she was the genuine article: an actor with the instinctive ability to interpret lyrics in character so that they become part of the dialogue. Even so, I approached her new album, No Space For Air, with some trepidation. Musical actors ‘doing’ pop can be wince-inducing; I refer you to some of John Barrowman’s big finale numbers on the BBC’s Tonight’s the Night.

But Julie Atherton rocks. This modern, thoughtful collection of songs – produced with obvious attention to detail – is provactive and inspiring by turns. There are a couple of theatrical numbers: the tricky tale of “Lost in Translations” from Craig Adams’s Lift; and the most radical reworking of Sondheim’s Follies torch song “Losing My Mind” since Liza Minnelli’s 1989 electric disco collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys. But the bulk of the material is from the pens of edgy, contemporary songwriters like Mark Tremonti (“Broken Wings”) and Jake Hook (“Silent Whispers”).

Atherton is well served by arranger and pianist Craig Adams, with a string quartet adding some evocative accents to the pristine sound of the band. She launches into the opening track, “Weak”, with a cross between Emmylou Harris’s crystalline soprano and the finer emotive qualities of Celine Dion, sweet, country-flavoured tones shot through with moments of controlled power. The effect is exhilarating.

“Crawling” matches anything else on offer from the current clutch of young female artists. Atherton’s ability to inhabit a song and tell its story with emotional conviction but none of the artifice that so many singers rely on – let’s call it the curse of X Factor – is refreshing. She switches in a breath from subtle and gentle (“Never Saw Blue Like That”) to quirky and vulnerable (Tori Amos’s “Leather”).

The title of “Encore”, technically the last track on the album, raises the prospect of theatrical resonance but turns all such expectations on their head with a soaring exhortation to live in the present. But leave the disk on the player for a hidden treat: Atherton’s poignant take on the John Denver classic “Annie’s Song”.

Concert Review: Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim, Cadogan Hall, London 6th August 2010

9 Oct

Maria Friedman as Mrs Lovett at the BBC Proms: she reprised the role a week later for her concerts at Cadogan Hall

My review of Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim, which follows, appears in the current issue of SONDHEIM the magazine, the journal of the Stephen Sondheim Society. Also mentioned in the magazine is the tantalising possibility that Trevor Nunn’s eagerly awaited production of Follies will finally materialise at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with none other than Bernadette Peters as Sally. Rumours abound, of course, but that would be genuinely exciting casting. As Peters is committed to A Little Night Music on Broadway until the show closes on 9th January, we’ll have to hold our breath a while yet.

It ought to be disconcerting when a composer to whose work you are about to dedicate two evenings of top class entertainment puts his head in his hands at the prospect and asks, with great feeling, “Won’t you be doing anybody else’s songs?” But few would have understood Stephen Sondheim’s predicament as acutely as Maria Friedman, and accepted his absence from her Cadogan Hall concerts with such good-humoured grace. This, after all, was a woman who had already endured the scary indignity of being arrested by US immigration officials en route to sing at his 80th birthday celebrations in New York for having the wrong visa and could still see the funny side.

Coming barely a week after the euphoria of his salutary BBC Prom, Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim was a revue too far for the man of the moment. But for an audience to whom the concept of too much Sondheim simply wouldn’t exist, it was a chance to hear a mixture of some of his best loved songs in a more intimate setting, in a programme that was also studded with one or two welcome rarities, delivered by one of the most instinctive and sensitive interpreters of his work to emerge from her generation.

Certainly on Friday 6th August, the second night of this short run, Friedman’s emotional connection with the songs – and with an audience that was frequently spellbound by the authority of her performances, song by song – was at its peak, and she achieved the rare feat of rendering the familiar – “Send in the Clowns”, “Losing my Mind”, “Broadway Baby”, “Being Alive” – in fresh shades, drawing us into a sequence of shared personal experiences in which the truths at the heart of Sondheim’s lyrics have rarely been as eloquently expressed.

Friedman’s accompanists, pianist and MD Jason Carr and cellist James Potter, must take much of the credit for the clarity of the evening’s high points, their sympathetic playing blending so perfectly with the singer’s fluid phrasing. But in truth it was a personal triumph for one of Sondheim’s most committed leading ladies from the start, opening as she did with a medley from Passion, recalling her performance as Fosca in the original London production.

She moved nimbly from the ominous, unsettling cadences of those early numbers to a pair of songs from Company – the demanding, urban call of “Another Hundred People” and the tongue-twisting complexity of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” – artfully balanced on either side of “I Remember” from Evening Primrose, delivered with the aching simplicity it deserves.

If there were any quibbles still hanging in the air from the previous week’s Prom, they were largely nailed tonight.  At least one critic had found Friedman’s vocals ill-served by the Royal Albert Hall’s sound system. There was certainly no question of that at Cadogan Hall where every word sailed pristinely out across the auditorium.

Another had questioned the wisdom of using so many songs from the undeniably cerebral Sunday in the Park With George in a concert format that gave the Sondheim novice no real handle on the source material. When Friedman told the composer she too would be including a medley from the show, he asked her to please explain the context of the songs so that the audience would have a better idea what they are about. This she did, against her declared better judgement that she prefers to let the songs speak for themselves.

She need not have worried. In fact, the sequence from Sunday was one of the evening’s most intensely moving passages. Playing Dot was obviously a seminal phase in Friedman’s career and her reconnection with the piece through fragments of the title number, “Color and Light”, “Finishing the Hat”, “We Do Not Belong Together” and the rising inspiration of “Sunday” was palpable.

For various reasons, the Sweeney Todd excerpts that opened the second half of the concert were at once the most entertaining and frustrating elements of the programme. Mrs Lovett has wonderful moments of broad comedy and pathos throughout the show, but they require a foil – usually Sweeney himself – to work effectively.  Bringing a delighted member of the audience on stage to bear the brunt of “The Worst Pies in London” allowed Friedman to indulge in Lovett’s essential vulgarity to the full, but a more po-faced purist might think the business involving the gentleman’s lap, her rolling pin and some rather pointed gestures about size pushed things in a far too obvious direction.

And when it came to “A Little Priest”, with Jason Carr standing in as Sweeney but necessarily tied to his grand piano, the discipline that held the rest of the evening together was at its most ragged. “Think Bryn Terfel”, said Friedman archly (and with all due respect to Carr, we probably did). But the compromise was almost worth it for Carr’s glibly acid response: “Think Julia McKenzie”, which went down very well with this audience of Sondheim cognoscenti.

While Friedman disappeared in search of a more elegant gown, and to dispense with Mrs Lovett’s top-knots – “The Angela Lansbury memorial hairpiece,” as Carr put it so deliciously – James Potter treated us to a sublime cello version of “Later” from A Little Night Music.

Elsewhere, medleys from Into the Woods and Follies, not to mention her taut, artifice-free “Send in the Clowns” were welcome reminders that Friedman still has plenty to explore as an actor in future revivals of Sondheim shows. She will surely be a memorable Sally, one day, in a full-scale production of Follies, for example, although judging by her determined onslaught on “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” she also fancies a crack at Phyllis.

But in signing off with a profoundly touching “Isn’t He Something?” from Road Show, which has been evolving through various incarnations for the best part of a decade, Friedman could also have been making the poignant observation that we are now pretty much looking at the complete works of this genius.

Sondheim himself has turned chief curator of his canon with the imminent publication of Finishing the Hat, and we must reluctantly accept that the prospect of substantial new work is remote. Friedman and her fellow Sondheim ‘specialists’ must in turn make the transition from muse to archivist, tending and reinvigorating the work through their own reinterpretations and making authoritative contributions to productions of the future, which will reinvent this endlessly fascinating and humane material for new generations. On the evidence of Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim, that process will be in safe hands for many years to come.

Concert review: Stephen Sondheim at 80 (BBC Prom 19), 31st July 2010, Royal Albert Hall

1 Aug

David Charles Abell: conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra as it revelled in the original orchestrations (picture by Cory Weaver)

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.

Carolin O'Connor's sassy "Broadway Baby" whetted the appetite for her forthcoming West End run - The Showgirl Within

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.

Happy 80th Birthday Stephen Sondheim – Your Leading Ladies Salute You

21 Mar

This piece draws on several interviews I’ve had during the last few years with Stephen Sondheim and many of the women (and Michael Ball!) who have sung his roles and songs so brilliantly on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s about just one aspect of his work, but I hope it’s a fitting tribute to a man who has contributed so much to musical theatre – indeed, music itself – throughout the last half-century, as he celebrates a landmark birthday.

Barbara Cook: one of Sondheim's leading ladies

To say that Stephen Sondheim writes exceptionally well for female singers and actors is to deal in a partial truth. The inference is that his male characters are of secondary importance. And of course nobody playing Sweeney Todd, singing in the all-male ensemble of the much-neglected Pacific Overtures, starring as Company’s distressed Bobby or the equally troubled Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along, or revelling in Giorgio’s glorious arias in Passion, has any need – or right – to feel short-changed. But the fact remains that his work has had a profound effect on the careers of many of the women who have been closely associated with his roles during the last 50 years.

Where would people like Julia McKenzie, Bernadette Peters and Maria Friedman – who cites him as the reason for her career choice, having been enraptured by the 1980 London production of Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane – be if their professional paths hadn’t encountered Sondheim’s trajectory at critical moments? Hugely successful, no doubt. Such wide-ranging talent will always out. But certainly missing the depth, the experience and the kudos of an indelible association with his work. Each in her way can testify to the extraordinary sensitivity and accuracy of his writing for the female performer, whether strictly in character or taking a particular song away from its theatrical context and turning it into a standalone, solitary gem that reveals yet more meaning beneath the lyrics and the intricate melodies.

And there is no getting away from the fact that in so many of his shows, the female characters often command the stage at critical moments. Follies, for all its multiple themes of nostalgia, the uneasy relationship between past and present, and coming to terms with the impact of time on youthful dreams, is also a celebration of the show girl in all her glory. Ben and Buddy have their show-stopping turns but much of the show’s bittersweet joy comes from the brilliant pastiche numbers and anthems that allow the women to relive their moments in the vaudeville spotlight: Sally’s torch-songs (“In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind”), Phyllis’s acerbic, teasing burlesque number (“Ah, But Underneath,” which replaced the original and more complex “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” when the show finally reached London in 1987), Hattie’s poignant take on the rather grim realities of the hoofer’s life (“Broadway Baby”) and of course Carlotta’s show-business survival anthem, “I’m Still Here”.

Judi Dench: wracked masterpiece

Desirée Armfeldt is always the real focus of A Little Night Music while the relationship dramas unravel around her in three-time, culminating in the magnificent “Send in the Clowns” – Sondheim’s most popular and most abused hit – which marks her lowest ebb and the tragedy of bad timing. It’s become a calling card for every star who has played the role, from Glynis Johns and Jean Simmonds to Judi Dench. Sondheim told Dench, “It’s yours now,” when her wracked masterpiece of an interpretation was one of the highlights of the National Theatre’s 1995 revival. But Trevor Nunn’s recent production notably returned Desirée to young middle age with marvellous results. Hannah Waddingham gave a magnificently constrained performance in London, tears only falling in the final stanza to indicate the extent of her desolation. But here, too, is evidence of Sondheim’s ability to capture even a minor character in the moment: “The Miller’s Son”, sung by Petra the maid, is a perfect evocation of a young woman who knows exactly what her destiny is, and that however underwhelming the ultimate prospect of drooping bosoms and a matronly figure, that can wait a while. There are plenty of rosebuds to be gathered in the here and now.

In Company, bilious, vodka-hardened Joanne has one of the standout numbers in “The Ladies Who Lunch”, a lascerating attack on herself and her own kind. Others have sung it to great effect but for many people the original, Elaine Stritch, still has copyright on the role. Just check out the D. A. Pennebaker documentary of the making of the 1970 cast album, as she wrestles with the song to the point of exhaustion, missing her mark, extemporising to Sondheim’s obvious dismay. Take after take slip by until you can almost taste the acrid, used-up atmosphere of the studio. Then she comes in the next morning and nails it with the first take of the day.

Elaine Stritch: has earned her copyright

“‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ is one of the toughest three-act plays I’ve ever done, you know what I mean?” she told me in a 2008 interview. She calls Sondheim a “romantic realist”. And she’s still singing the song in her one-woman show 40 years later, better than ever.

“In this song he’s sending up a class of dame, of which I am also a member – or have been in my time. I hasten to add, I don’t Martini-lunch any more. So that’s a big kick that I get out of it. When I sing the song, I am part of that whole bunch and I know about them. I am absolutely staggered, dazzled by his ability, his talent. Ability is what I really mean. It’s so believable and so unbelievable at the same time. Everything he says in his lyrics rings a bell with me.”

Bernadette Peters: “Not a Day Goes By” is an emotional peak

For Bernadette Peters (Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park With George and The Witch in Into the Woods), Maria Friedman (Fosca in Passion and Dot/Marie), Julia McKenzie (The Witch, Sally and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd), the value of gift of a Sondheim role has been proved time and again. Each can, in many ways, define her career by the importance of his work in allowing them to demonstrate not only their talents as singers but as dramatic actors and comedians. And they have also proved adept at developing his songs away from their musical theatre roots. Peters’ signature tune, “Not a Day Goes By” (from Merrily We Roll Along) is invariably an emotional peak in her concerts, for example. Like Friedman, Barbara Cook and many others, her repertoire is enriched by the Sondheim canon.

Patti LuPone has taken Bobby’s last-act song of affirmation, “Being Alive” from Company, and turned it into a virtuoso powerhouse performance. Again, this is possible because of the truth in a lyric that finally resolves the character’s anguish at the end of the show. Given the wealth of female songs in the canon, this might smack of poaching. Michael Ball says, “I always have an argument with him [Sondheim]. I tell him he writes the most amazing shows – difficult bloody things, most of them – and then he always gives the eleventh hour number to the women! That’s why I insisted on doing “Broadway Baby”. But take these songs out of the shows and they’re universal.”

Patti LuPone: virtuoso powerhouse performance

Sondheim’s double-whammy skills as a lyricist and composer lie at the heart of this quality in his work. A few years back in an interview for Gramophone magazine, he told me that a song is written to reflect a character’s state of mind at that particular moment in the play. If a singer can find something beyond that, which gives the song an external life outside the play, all well and good – but that will always be incidental to the song’s primary meaning and intention. “But to have the songs interpreted in different ways helps to keep them alive,” he said.

Julia McKenzie: “He’s a dramatist and a poet. And to the performer, the rewards are tremendous because every song is like a one-act play or at least, a soliloquy. “Losing My Mind” is a soliloquy, even though in Sally’s mind it is the epitome of a torch song. You can see precisely how her day progresses.”

Maria Friedman: “For me, everything he writes about comes back to a very basic thing: love – the desperate need of a human being to love and be loved. As an actor and a singer – I can’t distinguish which one leads the other – both co-exist perfectly when you’re doing one of his pieces because the demands on you are always truthful, honest. If you can get to the core of it, you just have to serve it, not do anything, and it will do the rest for you. But that means quite often you’ve got to be thinking two or three things at once. It’s layered, you’ll be saying “I don’t love you” at the same time as thinking “I wish I could love you”, “I did love you,” all together. On the face of it, it could be quite cold but underneath it’s layered with warmth and hope and yearning. Plus he’s the most extraordinary lyricist, the rhymes are dazzling, so you’ll be working on that at the same time, making sure that they ring and you don’t miss the internal rhymes. And he writes as we speak, so you have to understand how that woman would have talked and the music falls into place.”

Patti LuPone: His songs are very dramatic pieces in their own right, so I don’t have to create another story to sing them out of context. You always want the piece to be universal if it’s going to live and his work is really brilliant in that universal way: there’s that whole concept of theatre, emotion, love. That’s what makes something like “Being Alive” [Merrily We Roll Along] or “Loving You” [Passion] so perfect.

Elaine Stritch: “Everything he says in his lyrics rings a bell with me. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s fake and what’s real. And like Shakespeare, every time you do good work, something new comes out of it. The quality of the material absolutely matters. I love his humour. It’s real humour – real: they call that wit!”

Barbara Cook: I’d known Stephen socially, through the 1950s and 1960s, but didn’t actually do much of his work until Follies. I’d occasionally put a song in my act but I always felt that unless I did a whole Sondheim section, they didn’t really abut against the others. I thought of them as ‘art songs’. But when I did Follies [in concert, 1985], I fell deeply in love with his work, and a lot of that was to do with the quality of his lyrics, which are so universal and moving. They are witty and clever, of course, but most of all very emotional. They almost always say something that I want to say. Take “No More” [Into the Woods], a song I’ve been doing a lot in the last year or so. It seems to have a lot more meaning with the world in this difficult state:

“Can’t we just pursue our lives

With our children and our wives?

Till that happy day arrives,

How do you ignore

All the witches…”

link: Sondheim profile for Amazon.com

link: Sondheim article for Gramophone magazine

The Stephen Sondheim Society www.sondheim.org