Sondheim in London

The work of veteran musical composer Stephen Sondheim has received a great deal of revived interest. In the past few years his work has enjoyed commercial success in West End revivals of Sweeney Todd (Adelphi Theatre) and Merrily We Roll Along (Menier Chocolate Factory and Harold Pinter Theatre).  On top of this Disney’s film adaptation of Into the Woods will be hitting cinemas world wide in late 2014/early 2015. Considering such renewed interest in Sondheim’s musicals, it would be easy to believe that the prolific American composer’s work has always been well received; however this was not always the case.

Despite writing Sweeney Todd as a ‘love letter’ to London, West End audiences have in the past displayed some hostility to the authors other works. Although now highly regarded as a genius of musical theatre, critics on both sides of the Atlantic have been quick to jump on every one of his shows, from the collaborative (Gypsy, West Side Story) to his own shows (Passion, Sunday in the Park with George etc). The composer celebrated his 80th Birthday in 2010,  which was marked by a number of celebrations around the globe. New productions and tribute concerts were mounted and London itself was at the centre of these celebrations.

Follies London 1989

It may seem odd that work that was once seen as niche and far from mainstream has since become so popular that Josef Weinberger (the UK rights holders for prospective amateur and professional productions of Sondheim’s works) have withdrawn amateur rights in London for the foreseeable future, because of the frequency of which they are now performed. Although rarely seen in main West End houses, Sondheim musicals have always lived a healthy life on the London fringe scene, with theatres such as the Menier Chocolate Factory, The Bridewell and of course The Donmar offering glowing revivals of favourites such as ‘Assassins’, ‘A Little Night Music’ and ‘Company’. In these spaces his shows are allowed to flourish artistically, without the same commercial pressures of a full West End revival. In the past five years, these smaller productions have ended up as West End hits, in some cases even transferring to Broadway. The 2011 Open Air Regent’s Park production of ‘Into the Woods’ directed so skilfully by Timothy Sheader has since announced that it will be opening at the Delacorte outdoor theatre in New York, complete with star-studded cast led by Donna Murphy as The Witch and Amy Adams as Cinderella. With Maria Friedman’s directorial debut, the London revival of Merrily We Roll Along  following in the steps of previous Menier success stories A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George (which both made the journey over the river into prime West End locations) London has gone from appearing hostile to Sondheim to embracing and exporting his works all over the world.

Into the Woods London 1990

Comparisons will always be made between Sondheim and his main British contemporary Andrew Lloyd Webber (who incidentally share the same birthday, March 22nd). Although their style and form are both completely different, they each seem to have what the other one lacks. For Sondheim, its the critical praise, the Pulitzer Prize and the ‘high brow’ nature of his work that those in the industry favour above many other composers of his time. For Lloyd Webber, it’s the commercialism and the ability to have a show running for 26 years in its original form that he will be remembered for. Conclusions can be drawn from this comparison for the future of musical theatre composers, students of both schools such as Andrew Lippa, Jason Robert Brown, Stiles and Drewe etc try to pitch it somewhere in the middle, and in many cases, fail to achieve a similar success in either form. Rather than polarise opinion, many audiences appreciate them both in different ways and see them as almost incomparable art forms.

Whilst Sondheim is celebrated more by industry professionals, his work in London was severely overshadowed in the 1980s by the rise of the ‘mega-musical’ such as Cats, Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera. Even Les Miserables, a French musical, once in the hands of the RSC became staunchly British, complete with accents that walked straight out of Lionel Bart’s ‘Oliver’. Whilst London audiences saw in these shows something new and flashy, very few were interested in the human condition explored by Sondheim in shows such as ‘Company’ which played for 344 performances at the Her Majesty’s Theatre, in 1972, which would later become the home of Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera for the next quarter century. A Little Night Music proved slightly more successful in 1975, running at the Adelphi Theatre for 406 performances, although the 1989 revival at the Piccadilly only managed a mere 144. The 1980 production of Sweeney Todd was a commercial flop in the West End in a huge production at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Although it went on to win the Olivier Award for Best Musical, the production only managed 157 performances, despite the draw of Dennis Quilley and Sheila Hancock.

A Little Night Music London

It wasn’t until British producer Cameron Mackintosh (who was the brains behind West End productions of Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Cats) jumped at the chance to bring Follies to the West End in 1987 that London began to sit up and take Sondheim seriously, as this lavish production was re-imagined for the London audience. Opening at the Shaftesbury Theatre, the production starred Diana Rigg and Julia McKenzie, running for over 600 performances into 1989. Although critics were not sold by the more ‘upbeat’ atmosphere in comparison to the Broadway original, on the whole they raved about the show, and Sondheim, at the age of 57, was formally welcomed into the London theatre scene. Mackintosh continued to promote the composer through productions of Sondheim revue shows, such as ‘Putting it Together’ and ‘Side by Side’, introducing his now vast back catalogue to the theatre going public. By 1990 London welcomed a new production of Into the Woods at the Phoenix Theatre, starring Imelda Staunton as the Baker’s Wife, which was well received and managed to be a moderate commercial success.

In the same year, the Royal National Theatre under the Artistic Direction of Richard Eyre climbed aboard the Sondheim success wagon, producing the first London production of Sunday in the Park With George starring Maria Friedman and Phillip Quast. A more tricky subject matter turned off many London audiences, although the National were compelled to explore the composer’s work further, with successful revivals of Sweeney Todd in 1993 and Sondheim’s first full show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 2004.

Assassins Donmar Warehouse 1990

By this time, British director Sam Mendes saw the appeal in Sondheim’s work on a smaller scale, beginning the Donmar Warehouse’s relationship with the composer that would last long after Mendes’ departure. Opening his tenure with the premiere of Assassins in 1992, The Donmar quickly became established as one of London’s most exciting theatre spaces. The intimacy of the venue marries well the shows that require a certain closeness to both the characters and complex lyrics, and over the next twenty years, successful new productions of Company, Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along, Passion and Pacific Overtures would be presented to wide critical acclaim. Shows that were initially lost in bigger, more American style productions became cleaner and more focused on a smaller scale. After the bubble of the mega-musical had finally burst, British audiences seemed to catch up with American ones, appreciating the art of the musical once again, reverting back to substance over style.

The Menier Chocolate Factory on London’s South Bank emulated the success of the Donmar, creating Sondheim revivals in an equally small space. Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music were presented with a fresh eye, and Road Show (the show which began as Bounce, before becoming Wise Guys) premiered in 2011. Audiences remain engaged, eager to be challenged, quietly resisting the growing commercialism of the West End with its hyped up juke-box musicals and screen-to-stage imports.

The latest production of Sweeney Todd was by far the biggest commercial Sondheim production in the West End for many years, and it was delightful to see it so well received. London it seems has gone full circle to becoming a leading light in new Sondheim productions, rather than a failed reflection of our American cousins. After 82 years, Sondheim productions now saturate London and are in danger of becoming too ‘mainstream’. What a surprise this must seem to the composer who has enjoyed a difficult relationship with the city over the past few years, yet a delight to see his ‘love letter’ enjoyed on such an impressive scale. This sentiment perhaps best summed up by the composer himself, as Dot says to George in the finale of what is probably the most autobiographical of the composer’s works: “stop worrying if your vision is new / let others make that decision…they usually do/you keep moving on”. For full information on Sondheim in London, visit the Sondheim Society for information of upcoming shows and talks.