REVIEW: Sondheim on Sondheim @Royal Festival Hall

Brian Butler March 19, 2018

Choices of songs for compilation shows are always tricky – what to leave out is usually the problem, and whether to have a narrator interjecting with comments is another crucial decision.

In this one-night only tribute to the works of Stephen Sondheim who better to ask than the maestro himself – and who better to tell the story of our greatest living theatre composer and lyricist.

So the evening, at London’s Royal Festival Hall,  led by the BBC Concert Orchestra under the energetic and marvellously sympathetic conductor Keith Lockhart, intersperses solos, duets right up to sextets with Sondheim himself on film in recent footage plus archive interviews from the 1960s and 70s.

He’s about as open and honest as you could imagine and the clips work best when they give us an insight into the inspiration behind and genesis of particular songs.

The problem – and there is one – is that something is lost when a live solo is cut off before its end by a film insertion which really doesn’t seem fair to the performer on stage who wanders off in the dark without his or her big ending and with no applause.

That said, there are some telling insights into how some of Sondheim’s terrific repertoire came about. Sondheim tells us that on his 40th birthday he got a letter from his estranged mother saying her one regret was having given birth to him. He looks visibly still shocked by this event and the ensuing Children Will Listen from his musical Into the Woods becomes much more poignant – “Careful the things you say – children will listen.” go the lyrics.

He also reveals that the show which turned out much as he intended is the theatrical rarity Assassins, and from that grisly humorous series of pastiches about people who have tried to kill US Presidents, Julian Ovenden bitingly spits out The Gun – very topically about the power a madman feels when holding a weapon.

In just over 2 hours we get 34 songs or parts of songs and all 6 singers are on top form – but head and shoulders above them are Liz Calloway and Claire Moore who sing a wonderful blending of two great diva torch songs – Losing My Mind and Not a Day Goes By. They quite rightly bring the house down.

Staged simply but effectively by Olivier winner Bill Deamer, the cast play well off each other and make the concert seem less static and staged than it is. Very exciting orchestrations for this combination of voices really hit you when coming from this 60-plus group of musicians and you hear things you’ve never heard before.

Obviously with such a large ensemble it’s not a show that will ever get a commercial run but you can hear it for the next 30 days on the BBC Radio 3 website. I urge you to do so and who knows someone might get round to making it commercially available – it would be quite a collector’s item

Brian Butler