SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM | London, Royal Festival Hall

London gets its fair share of Sondheim. Local productions of Into the Woods at schools starring nearly-talented urchins to the grand run of Follies at The National starring Imelda Staunton. So what do you add to the mix when you take away the staging? Was this going to be a bit of a ‘greatest hits’ or ‘sing-along-a-Sondheim’ evening?

While either of these formats would be more than acceptable, Sondheim on Sondheim offers a little something more in the form of the composer’s own face and words beaming out over the audience thanks to the wonders of modern/early-2000s technology. The format entwines Sondheim’s music (arranged for orchestra and solo voices) with interview excerpts that forge some form of writer’s narrative running through the consciousness of the evening. It’s a neat approach that James Lapine conceived and depends on the author in question adding colour and flare to already show-y tunes. Of course, as said composer is Stephen Sondheim, the brightness of the monologue (and accompanying pictures) does not disappoint, in fact it positively elevates.

Both halves offer something for obsessives and dilettantes alike. The insights range from deeply personal revelations about his maternal relationship through to excerpts of songs that were cut from original scores (the two numbers that were forerunners to ‘Comedy Night’ in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for example). There is also an almost puzzling personal detail submitted by Sondheim that he didn’t have a serious relationship until he was 60 (an only child who enjoyed the habit of his own company). He confesses that as someone who was not married, constructing devastatingly successful shows about marriage depended almost entirely on pre-existing books or interviews with friends (in the case of Company, Mary Rogers).

In two poignant extracts, Sondheim first points to the importance of clarity in communication when composing lyrics. He acknowledges the competition for audience’s attention and the power of words that the mind can immediately process. Later, he speaks eloquently about the sacred art of teaching: the impact of those around us who inspire and show us how to be better at the things we cherish. The BBC Concert Orchestra led by Keith Lockhart and stage director Bill Deamer seem to have taken both messages to heart. This was an evening where the music, voices, words and images were given room to breath, and we all learned a little more about the master of lyric and song.

Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on Radio 3 in Concert on 20 March at 7.30pm

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