Drawing: Stephen Sondheim

Autographed drawing of Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, ‘the Titan of American Musical Theatre’, passed away at his home in the small town of Roxbury, Connecticut on 26 November at the age of 91. Lights were dimmed in early December at all venues on Broadway and the West End, where he has theatres named after him. He was considered the theatre’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th Century.

The New York Times former theatre critic, Frank Rich, wrote, “Stephen Sondheim was the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre.” In case you need reminding, here is why: WEST SIDE STORY (1957), GYPSY (1959), A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1962), COMPANY (1970), FOLLIES (1971), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1973 – including one of my favourite songs,’Send In The Clowns’), his best; SWEENY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (1979), MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (1981), SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (1984), INTO THE WOODS (1987), ASSASSINS (1990) and PASSION (1994).

Among his many accolades, Steve collected eight Tony and Grammy Awards, six Oliviers, A Pulitzer (for SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE) and an Oscar for Best Original Song – ‘Sooner or Later’ from DICK TRACY (1990), sung by Madonna. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015.

A frequent visitor to London, I had the honour of meeting him on a couple of occasions, the first at the Royal Festival Hall’s Artist Entrance in October 2010, when he was interviewed by Jude Kelly. By that time he had stopped signing autographs and politely declined my request along with a handful of people waiting with similar intent. I was pre-warned when I wrote to him and received a reply, apologising, but after years of accommodating fans he had decided to discontinue the practice.

However, a year earlier I did manage to acquire a signed autograph album page from an American collector. I drew this quick portrait sketch last week and added the sig in remembrance of the great man.

RIP Steve.

Drawing: Michael Pennington as Prospero

Tom Littler’s production of THE TEMPEST at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London, featuring Michael Pennington as Prospero, opened in March 2020 for a five week season. After only six performances it was forced to close due to the Covid lockdown. Eighteen months later it set sail again, and even though the Omnicron variant, currently rampaging through the West End, is causing show disruptions, the production looks likely to complete its rescheduled run this week.

One of the foremost Shakespearean actors of his generation, Michael’s distinguished career is dominated by a variety of leading stage roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the English Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded and was its Artistic Director from 1986-1992. The four-time Olivier Award nominee has also toured two solo shows; SWEET WILLIAM and ANTON CHEKHOV worldwide. Earlier this year he released a memoir, entitled ‘In My Own Footsteps’.

“Being taken to the theatre when I was 11 years old lit a light in me, and that light has never gone out.”Michael’s latest stage performmance drew universal acclaim.  In the West End’s smallest producing theatre, he is “a colossal Prospero”, wrote Broadway World. The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar said, “The magic spark in this production lies largely in Pennington’s Prospero… a physically wizened but still mighty magician and displaced Duke.

“Michael also has a number of screen appearances to his impressive credit list, including CALLAN, THE BILL, THE TUDORS and FATHER BROWN on television and as Moff Jerjerrod in STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) and Michael Foot in THE IRON LADY (2011) on the big screen.

I met Michael a couple of weekends ago as he arrived at the Jermyn Street Theatre for a Saturday matinee, where he kindly signed my Prospero portrait for me.

Drawing: The Shark Is Broken

Signed Drawing of Ian Shaw, Liam Murray Scott and Demetri Goritas in The Shark Is Broken at the Ambassadors Theatre on London's West End

Duunn…dunnn…duuuunnnn…duun…duuunnunnunnn…dun…dun…dun…dun.

Martha’s Vineyard, 1974, shooting on twenty-six year old Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster JAWS has stalled. The film’s lead actors – Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss – are stuck in a boat at the mercy of the bad weather and a faulty mechanical co-star.

JAWS finally swam into the West End, to the Ambassadors Theatre, courtesy of Sonia Friedman in the form of the play, THE SHARK IS BROKEN, the hilarious and moving behind-the-scenes drama based on the problems caused by filming on the Atlantic Ocean with the salt water playing havoc with the pneumatic components of the mechanical shark, nicknamed ‘Bruce’ after the director’s lawyer. With the budget spiralling out of control, cast and crew had a lot of time to kill, including the stars, fuelling a combustive dynamic with alcohol and ambition.

After a sell-out, critically acclaimed run at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019 an extended version, written by Robert’s son Ian Shaw and comedy writer Joseph Nixon, directed by Guy Masterson was due to open in London last year. Suspended for 16 months due to the pandemic lockdowns the production opened this year on 9 November to rave reviews. I was amongst the matinee audience last Saturday that gave a standing ovation. The season has already been extended due to popular demand…omicron variant willing.

Ian has an uncanny resemblance to his father’s character, especially poignant in the closing scene when he delivers his famous ‘Indianapolis’ speech. Liam Murray Scott is marine biologist Matt Hooper, both reprising their Edinburgh roles. They are joined by Demetri Goritas as Amity police chief Martin Brody, the mediator between Robert and Richard.

All three cast members signed my sketch after the opening night performance on 9 November at the theatre’s stage door.