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Feature: THE BIRTHDAY MONTH / SONDHEIM 1 - Five productions that we won't forget

London's affinity for the work of Stephen Sondheim is deep and rich

Feature: THE BIRTHDAY MONTH / SONDHEIM 1 - Five productions that we won't forget Last week, we acknowledged the forthcoming birthday of Andrew Lloyd Webber via a look back at five defining London stagings of his work. This time, we do the same with Stephen Sondheim, with whom Lloyd Webber, 18 years Sondheim's junior, shares a birthdate of March 22: on that day, the great man turns 91.

As many will know, to engage with the London theatre at all is to be immersed, gloriously and more or less continuously, in the work of the musical theatre titan whom Sondheim veteran Imelda Staunton, among others, has heralded as an "American Shakespeare", and who, like Shakespeare, has a London playhouse named for him. The list of great Sondheim stagings in London over time is gratifyingly long, and this chosen quintet is inevitably subject to debate. Rest assured only that there exist plentiful runners-up and that we will return to the well in a few weeks to honour five outstanding Sondheim performances. In the meantime, get ready to flood those memory banks and enjoy.

Sweeney Todd, National Theatre 1993

Sweeney is the first Sondheim musical I experienced in its original Broadway production, which opened while I was at university and with which I soon became obsessed, returning over and over to witness multiple changes of cast to Hal Prince's always-thrilling staging. That production came to the West End before my time, which meant that Declan Donnellan's scorching revival of the show for The National Theatre marked my first major exposure to this show in London. And what an introduction: a fierce, full-throated chamber production first seen in the Cottesloe (now the Dorfman) that soon burst its confines and transferred to the Lyttelton; its final performance included the unusual sight of razors being tossed into the audience by a cast headed by Denis Quilley (replacing the remarkable Alun Armstrong in the title role, Quilley having originated the part this side of the Atlantic) and the utterly incomparable Julia McKenzie, whom one really cannot praise highly enough.

Merrily We Roll Along, Donmar Warehouse 2000

This shortlived Broadway entry from 1981 gains in stature by the year and gets done not infrequently in London, not least at drama schools and in a terrific Menier revival, directed by that premier Sondheim interpreter Maria Friedman, that managed to recalibrate the delicate balance amongst its three principal roles. But I shall always have a soft spot for the director Michael Grandage's surpassingly empathic take on this show at the Donmar, featuring a youthful company, two of whom (Daniel Evans and Samantha Spiro) won Oliviers for their work and a then-newcomer in the Franklin, Julian Ovenden, who has long since established himself as one of the finest tenors in the land. The production has already had one reunion concert, which in itself seems to echo a thematic from the show itself: might there be the appetite for more? (A post-Merrily Ovenden, below, sings "Being Alive" from Company at the BBC Proms)

Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory 2014

Much has been made in recent years, and rightly so, of the director Jamie Lloyd's affinity for Harold Pinter, but this chameleonic talent has proven himself a dab hand with another seismic figure, Sondheim, across two intimate yet mighty productions. The first was a forensically brilliant reappraisal for the Donmar in 2010 of Passion, starring Elena Roger and David Thaxton. That was followed in 2014 by an Assassins revival at the musicals-friendly Menier that took this dangerous and daring show by the throat and unleashed a raw fury that would surely resonate even more eerily these days in the aftermath of the assault on the American Capitol. Assassins has always felt ahead of its time, and Lloyd's hell-for-leather approach, staged within a funfair located on the abyss of nightmare, was every terrifying and lustrous inch its match. Current Tony nominee Aaron Tveit (Moulin Rouge) was among the pitch-perfect cast.

Follies, National Theatre 2017

I've lost track of how many times I saw this production (the short answer: a lot), but Dominic Cooke's shiveringly brilliant revival of arguably Sondheim's trickiest show was transfixing from its mysterious, minor-key opening onward, as the Olivier auditorium laid bare the physical detritus of a theatre coming down alongside the emotional detritus of two couples whose lives have singly and collectively gone off the rails. Staged straight through, which is the only way to appreciate this musical, Cooke added layer upon layer of pain, at the same time always respecting the unbridled pleasures of this famously ravishing score which was brilliantly served by such diverse talents as Tracie Bennett, who turned "I'm Still Here" into a monomaniacal bloodbath (see below), and Josephine Barstow, whose transcendent "One More Kiss" seemed, as does Follies itself, to look death firmly and unflinchingly in the eye. Cooke has been announced to bring Follies to the screen: his hotline to this show's nervous, palpitating heart presumably lives on.

Company, Gielgud Theatre 2018

I get teary even thinking about a production that I can report having seen six times, not least a tumultuous closing performance that was moving even by the standards of Sondheim last nights, which exist a breed apart. By that point, the entire company of the director Marianne Elliott's history-making staging seemed not just friends of the newly-35-year-old Bobbie - a female reimagining of this 1970 show's famous singleton, Bobby - but of all of us, given the rapport the cast established with an audience alive, in the first instance, to the flatout hilarity on view (not least Jonathan Bailey, Alex Gaumond and Daisy Maywood in a surely-definitive "Getting Married Today"). That one also felt every pinprick of Bobbie's emotional awakening was a separate feat owing everything to the sensational Rosalie Craig as Bobbie and to a climactic facilitator for this questing character in the peerless Patti LuPone. The visiting American star won a second Olivier Award for her performance and is poised to reprise the role on Broadway, one hopes, just as soon as the New York theatre makes room for, well, company.

Rosalie Craig in Company photo credit: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

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From This Author - Matt Wolf

Matt is London theatre critic for The International NYTimes (formerly The International Herald Tribune) and a founder member of The Arts Desk, where he remains theatre editor. Matt has authored sev... (read more about this author)

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