Old Friends - Sondheim Gala

Old Friends Reviews, Photos & Videos – Stephen Sondheim tribute gala at the Sondheim Theatre in London ★★★★

Stars were out in force last night, 3 May 2022, in the West End, to celebrate the life of Stephen Sondheim, who passed away last year.

Theatre impresario and close friend of the composer Cameron Mackintosh staged the gala concert, titled Old Friends, at his Sondheim Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, usually home to Mackintosh’s long-running production of Les Miserables.

The full line-up of stars and songs (see the full Songs List here) was a who’s who of musicals stars, all of whom had some connection to Sondheim, including grande Dame of British theatre Judi Dench, Broadway megastar Bernadette Peters, and many of the British musicals stars who have done so much to champion Sondheim’s work, including Imelda Staunton, Daniel Evans, Jenna Russell, Maria Friedman and Julia Mackenzie .

All proceeds from the gala are benefitting the Sondheim Foundation, supporting young playwrights, composers and lyricists.

The creative team behind the show were also mighty, including choreography by Stephen Mear, staging by Matthew Bourne and Maria Friedman, and the 26 piece orchestra that was conducted by Alfonso Casado.

Old Friends – Video of the finale

The live show was screened simultaneously at the Prince Edward Theatre in London, where Mary Poppins is currently playing. Ahead of the screening Cameron Mackintosh, Michael Ball and a number of other performers popped in to introduce the screening, before high-tailing it down Old Compton Street to the Sondheim Theatre.

Stephen Sondheim died in November 2022 at the age of 91, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, US.

Cameron Mackintosh said in the original press for Old Friends that “It is impossible to overstate the influence and contribution Stephen Sondheim has made to Musical Theatre, both personally and professionally. He was as great a teacher as he was an incomparable writer and the Little Things that he did for so many people forged legions of friendships throughout his long life. I was lucky enough to be Steve’s friend and occasional collaborator for over 45 years since I first produced Side By Side By Sondheim and the Wyndham’s Theatre in 1976. It was a friendship full of laughter, gossip and glorious insightful camaraderie. Steve was so prolific and profound as a writer that it’s impossible to put together a definitive list of his greatest songs, as everyone has their own favourites, so our choice of songs will purely reflect the joy and love I have for one of the greatest Broadway Babies of all time.”

In the UK? Watch Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends on BBC iPlayer – here.

More about Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends

Photos of the Old Friends Sondheim tribute gala in London

Photos by Danny Kaan

Reviews of Old Friends at the Sondheim Theatre

Average Critics Rating

Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends reviews

The Times

"A star-spangled, unforgettable tribute to Stephen Sondheim"

"Excuse me if I gush, but this was one of those nights where it was difficult to focus on highlights simply because there were so many. Cameron Mackintosh’s memorial concert for Stephen Sondheim, who died in November, began on a high note when the veteran Julia McKenzie, who did so much to champion the composer’s work on this side of the Pond, walked onto the stage to sing Side by Side by Side. Proof, if needed, that British artists don’t need to feel like intruders on this territory. They’ve made the music their own."

"Who else but Judi Dench could be entrusted with Send in the Clowns? If Dench’s delivery barely rose above a whisper, Haydn Gwynne powered through a version of The Ladies Who Lunch that was as potent and savage and tipsy as anything the late Elaine Stritch gave us. As ever, the elegant Janie Dee glowed in the dark, sizzling through the bossa nova parody The Boy from . . ."

Clive Davis, The Times
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The Guardian

"A glorious all-star memorial service"

"This was a glorious memorial service, each of the tunes a eulogy, every eulogist either a current star (Judi Dench, Bernadette Peters, Imelda Staunton, Clive Rowe) or a likely future one (the cast swelled by young actors and drama school students.)"

"In anthology shows, as in sport, selection is central. Some of the 41 songs demanded inclusion. Friedman brings piping hot comedy and vocal clarity to Mrs Lovett’s lethal recipes, A Little Priest, from Sweeney Todd. Written for a woman in early middle age, Send in the Clowns, as reprised by Dench at 87, becomes hauntingly valedictory, lines such as “this late in my career” now echoing those in I’m Still Here, in which Petula Clark, two years Dench’s senior, confirmed Sondheim’s genius in writing songs that fit a show but a standalone performer can make their own."

"Generically, it’s a concert rather than a fully staged show, but with props and costumes it feels seriously rehearsed. Rob Brydon and Haydn Gwynne find sharply fresh line readings in The Little Things You Do Together, the marital battle from Company. Among flourishes of choreography (Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear) is reshaping the usually solo Broadway Baby for a chorus line of 10 top musical women, led by Julia McKenzie, on stage for the first time since the 1990s."

Mark Lawson, The Guardian
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"‘Old Friends’, Including Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Bernadette Peters And Damian Lewis, Knock It Out Of The Park For Stephen Sondheim"

"... hey it’s not every night you get to hear Judi Dench uncover new, heartfelt meaning in Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. Or, to be in the room when Haydn Gwynne (winner of Drama Desk and Theatre World awards for Billy Elliot on Broadway) redefined “Ladies Who Lunch,” from Company, and made it her own."

"Ingenious staging of “Broadway Baby,” from Follies, had Julia McKenzie appear centre stage to sing, and then be abruptly — comically — upstaged by Bernadette Peters, and so on until a lineup of 10 Broadway Babies electrified the boards.

"Take a bow Helena Bonham Carter, Rosalie Craig, Maria Friedman, Josefina Gabrielle, Amy Griffith, Haydn Gwynne, Bonnie Langford, Jenna Russell and the aforementioned McKenzie and Peters."

Baz Bamigboye, Deadline
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Whats On Stage

"The shivering sense of seeing musical history embodied"

"Judi Dench, Bernadette Peters, Imelda Staunton and more starred in the concert event"

"You could touch the emotion at this gala celebration of Sondheim, held to celebrate his achievements before his death last year at the age of 91, and to raise money for his foundation which will support the talent of young composers of the future. The people on stage had lost a friend; the people watching them felt they had lost one."

"But in the end, inevitably, it was individuals and moments that brought the house down. Julia McKenzie who did so much to introduce Sondheim to British audiences as part of Side by Side with Sondheim, which was certainly how I first began to know his iridescent songs, could barely get on the stage for the applause. Judi Dench stepped on in darkness to avoid the same problem, but still the rapture was overwhelming; to hear her utter the line "Sorry, my dear" in "Send in The Clowns", was a masterclass in expressing feeling in three words."

Sarah Crompton, Whats On Stage
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The Telegraph

"Judi Dench proves the first among equals in this bravura tribute"

"From Dench to Damian Lews, Imelda Staunton to Petula Clark, this one-off charity concert was a star-studded reminder of Sondheim's genius"

"The impressive cast of 38 included luminaries such as Judi Dench and Julia McKenzie who seldom tread the boards these days – testament to the special relationship between the American musical genius and British theatre."

"Maria Friedman, who will soon reprise her exceptional Merrily on Broadway starring Daniel Radcliffe, co-directed the evening with Matthew Bourne. She also gave us a deliciously gleeful Mrs Lovett from Sweeney Todd. That was staged simply, allowing Friedman to savour Sondheim’s grisly linguistic games. But the busy group numbers lost the specificity of the lyrics. Why not just let Rosalie Craig, star of the West End’s landmark gender-swapped Company, perform Being Alive solo? And Helena Bonham Carter had an oddly tiny role."

"Although Peters was one of Sondheim’s key collaborators, she over-dominated the evening, as did the ubiquitous Michael Ball – plus Mackintosh made several cameos. But, appropriately for the composer who wrote mature women better than anyone else, the night belonged to them. Haydn Gwynne tore into The Ladies Who Lunch, Petula Clark gave I’m Still Here a wry authenticity, and Imelda Staunton reminded us just why her Momma Rose is untouchable. All captured a complex life in a matter of minutes.

"But the undoubted highlight was Judi Dench. Though she was helped on and off stage, her rendition of Send In the Clowns held us spellbound. Her voice catching with raw emotion, eyes glittering with unshed tears, it was a masterclass in acting through song."

Marianka Swain, The Telegraph
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📷 Main photo: Old Friends - Sondheim Gala. Photo by Danny Kaan

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