Entertainment & Arts

Exclusive Curtain-Raiser: Cameron Mackintosh, Judi Dench & ‘Old Friends’ Prepare To Celebrate Musical Genius Stephen Sondheim

All eyes were on Judi Dench.

The legendary actress was seated stage right, performing one of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest hits. The sound of her voice, accompanied by a 25-piece orchestra led by Alfonso Casado Trigo, held a hushed audience in awe.

There was spontaneous applause. The great dame was led off stage. She reappeared moments later to perform the number again.

“Goosebumps,” said Cameron Mackintosh, echoing the thoughts of those lucky enough to be gathered in the stalls of  London’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre for several hours Monday, for a long day and night of technical technical rehearsal for Tuesday night’s celebration of Sondheim, a giant of theatre, who died last November at age 91.

Tuesday’s one-night-only show is called Old Friends, named after a number in the composer’s 1981 musical comedy Merrily We Roll Along. Mackintosh has been putting Old Friends together with Matthew Bourne and Maria Friedman staging, and choreography by Stephen Mear.

The Sondheim Theatre
Baz Bamigboye

It boasts a cast of 38, 23 of them headliners: Michael Ball, Helena Bonham Carter, Rob Brydon, Petula Clark, Rosalie Craig, Janie Dee, Dench, Daniel Evans, Maria Friedman, Haydn Gwynne, Bonnie Langford, Damian Lewis, Julia McKenzie, Julian Ovenden, Bernadette Peters, Siân Phillips, Jon Robyns, Clive Rowe, Jenna Russell, Imelda Staunton, Charlie Stemp, Gary Wilmot and Michael D. Xavier.

The co-stars are impressive, too: Shan Ako, Christine Allado, Holly-Anne Hull, Ashley Campbell, Anna-Jane Casey, Desmonda Cathabel, Josefina Gabrielle, Louis Gaunt, Amy Griffiths, Rob Houchen, Bradley Jaden, Ian McLarnon, Jeremy Secomb, Jordan Shaw and Matthew White.

A company that size, in a show this spectacular, would, ordinarily, head for the more capacious Royal Albert Hall. Unthinkable, Mackintosh said. It had to be the Sondheim.

Tickets sold out fast at the venue. Mackintosh sought permission from the cast to run a live satellite feed of Old Friends to the Prince Edward Theatre, three blocks away. There are a few tickets left for that venue.

It may well end up on television, the impresario said. Though he cautioned that the cast must be consulted first, with negations to follow. At the moment, Mackintosh explained, “they’re all working for nothing aside from expenses. Look, there is a possibility of further life, we’ll see.

“For the moment all I’m interested in is getting it rolling for tomorrow night…, “ at which point he was called on stage to do his turn.

“Let me entertain you,” he began, “with something familiar, something peculiar.”

Music swelled, his voice went into a form of singing mode. ”Something for everyone , a comedy tonight,” he trilled before being unceremoniously dragged off.

“That was supposed to happen,” Mackintosh told Deadline later.

Sir Cameron insisted that  Deadline not “spoil the surprises” by revealing who will be performing which numbers until after Tuesday’s event, in aid of the newly established Stephen Sondheim Foundation. He said that Dench, 87, a formidable spy chief M in the James Bond movies, would “hunt Deadline down” if it published the title of the song that had some onlookers in tears.

Mackintosh made a concession concerning Petula Clark, who’ll be 90 in November. She recorded her first Sondheim song back in 1959. He revealed that Clark, who performs eight times a week in Disney’s Mary Poppins musical at London’s Prince Edward, will sing “I’m Still Here,” that great anthem of survival  from Sondheim’s 1971 musical Follies.

“Elaine Paige was young when she did it,” he said, an impish look forming on his face.

“She says now that “I’m Still Here” shouldn’t be performed by anyone under 80.”

The Old Friends title has a triple meaning for Mackintosh, who heard his first Sondheim back in the 1970s. The songs weren’t well known then, he said. “Now they’re old friends…they’re all famous standards, which they weren’t when we started off. That is what time has done,” he said.

Michael Ball Cameron Mackintosh
(L-R) Michael Ball and Cameron Mackintosh
Baz Bamigboye

“In his lifetime, the man who is famous as the world’s greatest lyricist also, you can tell, has written some of the greatest melodies ever written for the theatre. And, I think, that is what Old Friends celebrates and why I say in my introduction that Steve was always a Broadway Baby at heart,” Mackintosh told Deadline, just as Bernadette Peters strolled on stage with Damian Lewis not far behind.

Seated behind us, away from the lighting, sound and other technical desks set up across the stalls, cast member Clive Rowe was mesmerized by the performers on stage.

He’d been released to go home two hours previously. “I’m sat here like a kid in a sweet shop. I’m just a fan now because I won’t get to see the likes of this because I’ll be in it,” he told Deadline.

“We won’t see the likes of this again,” he added.

By the way, show titles were not included in the ban. During our close to seven-hour session at tech rehearsals we heard numbers from the following: Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, Passion – and the film Dick Tracy.

And, who knows, there might well be a full-blown stage show one day called … Old Friends.

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