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.
The amazing Petula Clark is still performing at 87, returning to the West End after twenty-two years in the acclaimed revival of MARY POPPINS, PL Traver’s magical story of the world’s favourite nanny at the Prince Edward Theatre. She plays the small but crucial role of the feed-dispensing ‘bird-woman’, who sings the iconic song ‘Feed the Birds’, which was, according to it’s composer Richard Sherman, Walt Disney’s favourite song in his classic 1964 film.
Considered a National Treasure, Petula has been performing for eight decades, becoming a star at nine singing for the troops stationed in England during WWII at live and on BBC Radio. she became the biggest British female recording artist of her time triggered by the 1964 phenomenon ‘Downtown’ written for her by Tony Hatch. It was an instant international hit going to No.1 across the globe, including the US Billboard, winning a Grammy for Best Rock and Roll recording. That was followed by a string of chart-toppers, ‘I Know A Place’, ‘Colour My World’, ‘Don’t Sleep In The Subway’ and the Charlie Chaplin penned ‘This Is My Song’ among others.
The multi-lingual Petula also recorded in German, French, Italian and Spanish, appeared on stage in both the West End and Broadway, including the role of Maria von Trapp in the 1981 London production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC featured in such memorable movies as FINIAN’S RAINBOW with Fred Astaire and GOODBYE MR CHIPS with Peter O’Toole. In a recent interview with the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish just after her casting for POPPINS was announced, Petula commented on her role. “I see her as a spiritual person, who was grand once and has fallen on hard times. It’s not a song about bird-feed, it’s metaphysical, it’s about being generous.”
I left this montage portrait of Petula at the Prince Edward stage door, which incidentally was the site of the Queensbury All Services Club where she made her big breakthrough 77 years ago, and she kindly signed and returned it to me.