Stephen Sondheim ‘writes from his brain about the human heart’

3 Mins read

Two years on from Stephen Sondheim’s passing, Lea Salonga tells Artefact about headlining the West End’s first major tribute revue for the composer.

In 2021, the theatre world lost a musical phenomenon. With a career spanning over six decades and garnering a wealth of accolades, Stephen Sondheim’s impact on musical theatre is immeasurable. Following his passing at the age of 91, theatre is adjusting to a new landscape without this titan.

In remembrance of Sondheim, performers who worked with him have come together to stage a tribute concert of his compositions. Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends has been running at London’s Gielgud Theatre for a limited season.

With music from his shows including West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, and Follies, the revue features a dazzling lineup of Broadway and West End performers. Tony and Olivier award winner Lea Salonga told me what it means for her to be a part of something so special.

“It means the absolute world! And to be working with some of the titans of British musical theatre who also happen to be folks that have worked closely with Steve [Cameron Mackintosh and Julia McKenzie], plus a longtime Sondheim collaborator in Bernadette Peters is such a privilege and a pleasure. We’ve all been learning a lot and having a lot of laughs.”

Sondheim is often referred to as the Godfather of musical theatre. Widely revered as a genius and credited with reshaping the American musical, he made his impact with boundary-pushing lyricism and indelible compositions. In Old Friends, previous collaborators perform their own takes on his iconic tunes.

With her renditions described by critics as “magical” and “goosebump inducing,” Salonga reflects on her performances in Old Friends: “Sure it’s a challenge on the brain and the heart, but oh, such joy! To say I’m thankful for the chance to do this would be an understatement.”

Lea Salonga and Bernadette Peters on stage
Lea Salonga and Bernadette Peters share the stage in Sondheim’s honour [Danny Kaan]

With the success of Old Friends, it’s clear that audiences have an insatiable appetite for his work. The most recent revival of Company mounted on both the West End (2019) and Broadway (2021) was the last of his productions that Sondheim saw himself. Winning both Olivier and Tony awards 50 years on from the original production, this seminal Sondheim classic demonstrates the timelessness of his work. 

In the years following his passing, several new Sondheim productions have been staged successfully. To Lea Salonga, the reason his works continue to resonate years beyond their origin lies in his writing. 

“He writes from his brain about the human heart,” she told me. “We can all relate to what happens in the heart, and thus his works will always find resonance and relevance, no matter when the works are produced. Plus, newer generations find different ways into the work. It’s amazing!”

The sentiment of keeping his legacy alive through new generations is one that certainly rings true in the audiences of Old Friends. Outside the theatre before or after a performance you’ll see just how broad the base of Sondheim fans is.

“I’ve always been a fan. People always say how Sondheim is to musical theatre as Shakespeare is to straight plays, and I think in the years to come people will see how important it is that we get to keep experiencing Sondheim and letting him live on through his work. [Old Friends] has the right idea,” one young audience member said.

Between Old Friends, the current Into the Woods revival on Broadway, and off-Broadway’s new production of his last musical Here We Are, Stephen Sondheim’s posthumous legacy is shaping up to be one marked by reverence and enthusiasm. In death, as in life, the maestro continues to guide theatremakers.

On whether or not she has a dream Sondheim role she’d like to tackle in the future, Lea Salonga mentions Gypsy. “After this little taste of it in Old Friends, I’d love to play Mama Rose.”

With such a constant demand for Sondheim stagings, the questions producers must be asking are not ifs, but rather when and where.

Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends is currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre until January 6, 2024.

Featured image courtesy of Danny Kaan.

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