THERE have been a few compilation shows featuring the music of Stephen Sondheim over the years, including Putting It Together, featuring Carol Burnett, and Sondheim at the Sheraton, at Edinburgh in 1995, but the most famous of these shows is surely Side by Side by Sondheim, originally conceived as a fund-raiser for Cleo Laine and John Dankworth’s Stables venue, compiled by Ned Sherrin and premiered at Blackfriars Theatre in London in 1976 with a cast including Sherrin, Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie.
Pandemonium Productions, the people behind Spelling Bee and the Secret Cabaret series at the Alma Tavern in Clifton, have taken over the Piano Bar at the Hippodrome for a week, installed a second baby grand piano, and found five talented performers to bring this show to Bristol.
Although the publicity mentions two of Sondheim’s most successful and accessible shows, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, these were both written since 1976, so none of the material from them features in the show, but most of his work up to and including the most contemporary, Pacific Overtures, is covered, with many numbers from Follies and Company and including some songs dropped from shows, as well as from the composer’s lyric-writing for Bernstein, Styne and Rogers.
Gypsy and West Side Story are two of these shows, both regularly revived, both contain good examples of the great man honing his lyric-writing skills before he was also writing the music, and we are treated to a couple of songs from each in tonight’s show. For fans, this show is a rare opportunity to hear the beautiful I Remember, from television musical Evening Primrose, as well as numbers which are usually not included in Follies and Company, having been dropped from the original productions. The most well-known song by Stephen Sondheim is probably Send in the Clowns, and as with many of the items in Side by Side, the challenge is to make each song live, to act the song rather than just going through the motions, completely out of context from its usual place.
Tonight’s performers sometimes achieved this, taking us to the early morning of departure for the song between an air hostess and her lover, as she is about to depart to Barcelona, to the streets of the West Side for a beautiful duet between Maria and Anita and wonderfully to the Spanish town of Tacarembo, etc., with some lovely ballad singing from most of the cast, especially I Remember and Losing My Mind. These are five talented folk, some still at college and others with plenty of experience, and they put on a great show in the piano bar. I question the need for the extra piano, delightful though it was, and as the song from Gypsy says, You Gotta Have a Gimmick, but sometimes the volume was too high for the incredibly detailed lyrics, and a couple of times the two pianos drifted apart musically, but all in all this was a solid evening of entertainment, thoroughly enjoyed by the full audience, and a lovely choice of show for this intimate venue.