In those days, Sondheim had already enjoyed success in London with Company and A Little Night Music but he was not a fixture. There was something messianic and daring about Side, which reprised both those shows in many numbers but also introduced songs from then unknown musicals like Follies, Pacific Overtures and Anyone Can Whistle. Sherrin, you felt, wanted to argue a case. The Sondheim bandwagon had not yet got rolling.
But it remains a wonderful compilation of material, great songs with just enough dramatic context to let them breathe and still surprise. The post one-night stand song with a kink in its tail, “Barcelona” from Company, conjures the exact piquancy of loneliness in proximity that characterises the composer, and Josie Walker, giving a fresh lilt to “Send in the Clowns” or defying augury with a perfectly articulated “I’m Still Here,” suggests the whole glorious panoply of Night Music and Follies.
Abbie Osmon – who has been stepping in as Evita at some performances – has a pearly soprano that pays off surprisingly well in “Broadway Baby,” sung for real with energetic excitement, while Alasdair Harvey’s pure baritone tenor voice has an ideal purity for the main strand of “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, or “Buddy’s Blues” from Follies; he’s also funny without that awful revue-style ingratiation.
Hannah Chissick’s production, with some well-judged flourishes of choreography by Adam Cooper, fills the wide stage very well between the bookends of two grand pianos, Cazenove wandering on and off with a pleasant air of distraction (Ned Sherrin stayed rooted to his stool; he was very much the Sondheim instructor, with some deliciously poisonous barbs which I miss) while some numbers – notably “Getting Married Today” - are opened out to embrace surprised audience members.
A rather banal linking passage reminds us of all the great musicals Sondheim has written since this show – among them, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Assassins and Sunday in the Park with George. But the other key reminder is of Sondheim’s collaborations with others, as a lyricist, on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Gypsy and West Side Story. You could still find many people who think those three shows surpass anything he’s done with his own music. I might join them in the case of the latter two.
Despite the excruciating discomfort of the seats, The Venue is an ideal venue for this show, and one can see it enjoying a healthy summer run for the benefit of Sondheim buffs and completists, and other musical theatre fans – such as my neighbours on the night I attended – who like their Sondheim songs straight, unmixed with the paraphernalia of a whole musical. How wrong the great man was when first told of the project by David Kernan: “By all means try, but I can’t think of anything more boring except possibly the Book of Kells.”