Drawing: Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends tribute concert 3 May 2022

Drawing of Stephen Sondheim signed by Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Maria Friedman, Dame Judy Dench, Petula Clark, Julia McKenzie, Michael Ball, Bernadette Peters, Sian Philips, Bonnie Langford, Janie Dee, Gary Wilmot, Clive Rowe, Charlie Stemp, Michael Xavier, Jon Robyns, Damien Lewis, Rob Brydon, Haydn Gwynn and Julian Ovenden, from the Stephen Sonheim Old Friends Tribute Concert, London

British producer and theatre impresario, Sir Cameron Mackintosh invited many of the late Stephen Sondheim’s old friends to join him in celebrating the great composer’s extraordinary talents and legacy at the West End theatre named after him. Considered one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century musical theatre, Stephen passed away at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut last November at the age of 91, before he was able to attend the official naming ceremony of the Shaftesbury Avenue theatre.

The tribute concert STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S OLD FRIENDS (from a number in 1981’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG) on 3 May, directed by Maria Friedman was also simulcast at the nearby Prince Edward Theatre, due to ticket demand. All proceeds went to the Stephen Sondheim Foundation. In his five star review for the Guardian, Mark Lawson wrote, “A glorious all-star memorial service… Stephen Sondheim was so vast a talent that London required two theatres to remember him… each of the (41) tunes a eulogy.”

While I wasn’t unable to get (or indeed fit) every artist, I did manage 19 from the glittering line-up, who respectfully signed around the pencil portrait of the great man; Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Maria Friedman, Dame Judy Dench, Petula Clark, Julia McKenzie, Michael Ball, Bernadette Peters, Sian Philips, Bonnie Langford, Janie Dee, Gary Wilmot, Clive Rowe, Charlie Stemp, Michael Xavier, Jon Robyns, Damien Lewis, Rob Brydon, Haydn Gwynn and Julian Ovenden.

Sketch: Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis in The Misanthrope

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Keira Knightley’s West End debut in a modernised version of Moliere’s The Misanthrope sparked a box office frenzy at the Comedy Theatre in late 2009.

Damian Lewis wasn’t exactly an unknown either, after his appearance in Spielberg’s TV series Band of Brothers. The cast also included Tara Fitzgerald and Dominic Rowan. But the hoopla surrounding the nightly appearance of Keira was something else…

Barriers were erected either side of the stage door and patrolled by a number of suited security men who managed the post-show pantomime. Populace on one side, paparazzi on the other. Some nights there were equal numbers. They included a mixture of autograph collectors, dealers, sycophants, rubber neckers, voyeurs and genuine audience members.

One night, a perceived threat to Ms Knightley prompted the Met to send half of its Central London muster to Keira’s aid. A poor Polish bloke (or maybe Hungarian) holding a poster was pinned up against the theatre wall, while the police searched and questioned him. Well, 3 of them did, the rest of the constabulary stood around waiting for the star to show.

The news even reached New Zealand, where one of my friends; familiar with my stalking activities; enquired if it was me!

The Knightley exit was always prefaced by her bodyguards: come out first, survey the scene and give the all clear. Keira would pop out, pop down the line, sign, stop for the pap pics and pop into the waiting black car and speed off. All within 20 seconds. 30 on a slow night.

To her credit Keira did sign, scrawl, scribble, scratch. It became known as the ‘Keira K’. Another day, another K. K if you were lucky. Often the downstroke of a K. Depending on where you were in the line, you could get a vertical or horizontal scrawl across 3 items. A ‘KK’ was ok, but a name and dedication would be a miracle.

On the particular early January evening I went for my sketch to be signed, the snow had stopped.

Damian left first, his usual friendly self. He really liked the sketch and was happy to sign and dedicate. He acknowledged his small band of admirers and strolled off into the night. Keira’s bodyguard appeared, so everyone braced themselves and MS Knightley popped out, all smiles. For some reason she came over to me first, saw the sketch and said “Oh, Wow!”. She signed it and I asked if she could inscribe ‘To Mark’ (in for a penny). She did, completed the rest of the autographs, usual pose for the paps and into the car and off.