“And he showed me things, many beautiful things, that I hadn’t thought to explore”
In New York, Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday was marked with an all-star gala featuring such names as Patti LuPone, David Hyde Pierce, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. In London, we got a gig in the back room of a pub in Islington. I am however quoting the show’s compere, lest you think I’m being overly critical, and in this case, small was indeed beautiful with a fun evening of mixed delights, celebrating the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim.
Finishing the Hat, at the King’s Head, featured a diverse array of West End performers coming together to pay tribute to Sondheim with a birthday concert, cherrypicking their favourite songs from his shows and performing them simply on a stage under Chris Peake’s musical direction, accompanied by keyboard, bass and percussion. The show was held together by compere Chris Allen, who provided some linking material whilst one performer shuffled off and the next emerged from the curtain behind, and a powerpoint presentation showed us pictures of the man himself throughout his career and even a hilarious snippet of the Simpsons. Yes, it was all a bit low-rent but this show proudly wore its heart on its sleeve and focused on highlighting the excellence of the compositions being sung, which even divested of their context remain songs of the highest quality.
Highlights for me were Tim Driesen’s ‘Franklin Shepard, Inc.’ coping admirably with the sound effect heavy lyrics and Rebecca Caine’s beautifully subtle ‘Losing My Mind’. Driesen is someone who I think could have an exciting career ahead of him if he could land the right role here in London, he can next be found in his native Belgium in Notre Dame. Gabriel Vick had great fun belting out some huge notes in ‘Marry Me A Little’ and Jason Pennycooke’s medley of songs from West Side Story (I think he squeezed almost all of them in apart from ‘I Feel Pretty’) accompanied solely by percussionist Pete Dawson on the bongos was truly a sight to behold! The variety of performing styles and the quick rotation of performers meant that even if one didn’t enjoy say, the overtly cabaret stylings of one singer, or the interpretation of a certain number, we soon moved onto the next and the evening fair flew by.
Being such a huge collaborative effort, the list of performers was always subject to change and so a few names disappeared from the list, Hollyoaks‘ Gerard McCarthy probably being the most notable, and there had been talk of a music or musical theatre student being given the chance to sing a song during the show, but no mention was made of that. And I would have liked perhaps one more group number at the end, although I realise the logistics of this would probably have been too difficult to surmount.
Still, it was an evening of great fun: relaxed and informal, full of good, varied performances and a few names to watch out for in the future. The efforts of all who participated and organised this show, in the name of charity, were richly rewarded by the rapturous reception, and a genuine sense of having witnessed something special, Patti LuPone or no. All in all, a fitting tribute to the impressive career of Mr Sondheim.
Running time: 2 hours with interval
Here’s a tentative attempt at the songlist from the evening.