TV Review: Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends

Even an absolutely stellar line-up can’t quite give this televised version of Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends that magic sparkle it needs

“Knock, knock, I’m working all my charms”

I suspect I may be in the minority here but the televised version of the all-star Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends left me rather cold. A year on from his death, this tribute concert both celebrated his legacy and looked to the future by raising money for the Stephen Sondheim Foundation which supports new writers. And as it brought together a galaxy of West End and Broadway stars, you’d’ve thought it would be a slam dunk.

As producer Cameron Mackintosh picked out the plum names from his rolodex – Julia Mckenzie! Dame Judi! Imelda! Bernadette! – you wonder though, if there was any considered thought behind what it was they would be doing. For the endless conveyor belt of a variety show of Sondheim’s most famous numbers done conventionally can apparently turn out to be a bit wearing over its 2 hours+ running time, even with a company like this.     

None of it was bad at all, don’t get me wrong, I just didn’t find hardly any of it to be heart-thumpinglyexciting. I can’t help but compare it to the divas section of Sondheim’s 80th birthday gala – Patti LuPone’s ‘Ladies Who Lunch’, Marin Mazzie’s ‘Losing My Mind’, Donna Murphy’s ‘Could I Leave You?’, Elaine Stritch’s ‘I’m Still Here’ and more, these are iconic interpretations of the songs that I still watch on a weekly basis, so thrilling is their work.

Sadly, I don’t think there was any performance here that made me think ‘ooh, I want to watch that again’. An element of familiarity breeding contempt possibly is at work here – Judi Dench’s plaintive ‘Send in the Clowns’ is truly iconic but it is well over 20 years old now and featured in many such concerts before. And a lack of adventurous in the choice of material and its interpreters felt disappointingly traditional – only Michael Ball got to play with a couple of unexpected numbers in ‘Loving You’ and ‘Could I Leave You?’.

Other issues were more personally felt for me. What was Rob Brydon doing there? After Jonathan Bailey’s recent refreshed take on ‘Not Getting Married Today’, why were we saddled with Anna-Jane Casey gurning through it (also, check out Madeline Kahn’s nigh-on perfect version on YouTube)? Speaking of that production, why wasn’t Rosalie Craig featured more? I know logistics will have had a huge part to play in many of these but the overall feel was just overstuffed and lacking real emotion.

The relentless roll call on display here was indeed an embarrassment of riches but I’d’ve loved to have heard some more personal recollections from those who knew him, some more deep cuts of Sondheim’s more interesting songs, and a more concerted nod to the future with some of the younger performers featured more (I like Michael Ball but not enough for multiple numbers in a show like this). It may have been electric live but this didn’t really live up to the billing for me, sorry.

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