Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends at Gielgud Theatre
This heartfelt tribute to Stephen Sondheim, the award-winning songwriter and composer who is credited with reinventing the American musical with shows like West Side Story, Sweeney Todd and Into The Woods. Performed and created by his real “old friends”, Broadway and West End performers with careers spanning decades, Old Friends is a celebratory gala dedicated both to Sondheim’s memory and as an honouring of the theatre itself. Featuring hits from musicals that Sondheim and producer Cameron Mackintosh had worked on together, this show was originally planned by Sondheim and Mackintosh during Covid as a way to celebrate the theatre while doors all over the world were closed.
The set design is of a very professional high standard and incorporates parts of the different musicals featured in this tribute, while also including the studded stage gala vibe, like shows within a show. The backdrop behind the orchestra looks like an ever-changing painting in the National Gallery, complete with a frame effect, and it serves to highlight various scenes from the musicals, such as woods at nighttime for Into the Woods and the idyllic countryside for A Weekend in the Country.
Being Alive, the end song from Sondheim’s musical Company, highlights the exceptional talent he had for distilling raw, authentic human emotion into musical theatre. Being Alive speaks to the pain of being emotionally close to someone, and that human connection can provide the antidote to how difficult it can be to simply be alive: “Somebody crowd me with love / Somebody force me to care / Somebody let come through / I’ll always be there / As frightened as you / To help us survive / Being alive.” The order in which this song is performed is meaningful, as it takes place near the end just after Not A Day Goes By, where the cast faces photographs of Sondheim through the ages being displayed on the stage, clearly dedicating the song to their memories of him. The nostalgic emotion reaches the audience, and several members are brought to tears.
The Little Things You Do Together and Getting Married Today from Company are fun, tongue in cheek and excellently performed tributes to the difficulties and realities of marriage. While some songs from the musicals are performed out of their context, we are also given a mini preview of some of the musicals complete with set changes to bring us into their worlds. The extracts from Sweeney Todd are accompanied by elaborate old-fashioned London houses to represent the pie shop, which roll onto either side of the stage and are later used to serve as the design for West Side Story.
Sunday from Sunday in the Park with George is fabulously accompanied by a screen, which at first only includes an outline of the woman with the umbrella at the edge of Georges Seurat’s best-known painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and as the song goes on, the painting gets filled in until we are left with the finished work.
It’s a joy to see Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga in the flesh, and Bradley Jaden is fantastic as the sexual, hip-wagging wolf in Into the Woods. Jason Pennycooke does a great job of Buddy’s Blues, which is a manic and apt portrayal of an avoidant attachment style, written decades before pop psychology found its way onto TikTok. The more established, well-known members of the cast had worked with Sondheim in the past, while many had personal relationships with him, and you can tell through the reverent feeling of this show. Old Friends will take you on a nostalgic journey through some of the best numbers musical theatre has to offer, and leave you with a feeling of awe.
Images: Danny Kaan
Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends is at Gielgud Theatre from 21st September until 6th January 2024. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.