Michael Coveney: Putting It Together on a podcast in special Company
The Stephen Sondheim revue, Putting it Together, comes to the end of its allotted three-week run at the St James Theatre on Saturday, but it emerged last night at a club outing for WhatsOnStage members that chances of a further West End transfer are good, with a possibility of the Wyndham's becoming available once The Weir has run its course.
Nothing can happen immediately because Janie Dee, one of the five perfectly matched and synchronised performers, will be appearing as Ruth in the limited run of Blithe Spirit starring Angela Lansbury at the Gielgud. Lansbury is a great Sondheim supporter, having played in the original cast of Anyone Can Whistle with Lee Remick (and how terrific it was to hear one of those songs last night), as well as Gypsy in London (Sondheim wrote the lyrics) and Sweeney Todd on Broadway; she's going to see the show's last performance at the St James.
She's not the only celebrity artist marking her card there. Last night's audience included Scarlett Strallen, novelists William Boyd and Julian Barnes (Barnes was being given a birthday treat by the BBC Radio 4 Front Row duo of presenter Mark Lawson and producer Robin Reed), playwright/actor Stewart Permutt (taking up an indisposed Miriam Margolyes's WOS tickets) and rugby commentator - and former Scottish international; he won seven caps - Ian Robertson.
This only goes to show the range of an audience for Sondheim, and they were rewarded with a cannily compiled programme that includes not only four songs from the Dick Tracy movie starring Warren Beatty, but also two items from a Burt Shevelove early musical version of Aristophanes' The Frogs, a surprisingly lovely duet from Assassins which we'd all forgotten and the title song from Do I Hear a Waltz? (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Sondheim).
But there are plenty knock-out favourites,too, mostly from Company and A Little Night Music - oddly enough, the two most successful Sondheim shows in London, each running a year - as well as "Pretty Woman" from Sweeney Todd, "Hello Little Girl" from Into the Woods (David Bedella the best wolf ever) and the extraordinary bartering song at the end of a marriage, "Country House" from Follies.
The show was first presented in New York with Julie Andrews as an attempt by Cameron Mackintosh and Julia McKenzie to follow through on the huge success, on both sides of the Atlantic, of the first Sondheim revue, Side By Side By Sondheim. That show, compered by the immaculate Ned Sherrin (and a stream of less immaculate successors), was very loose leaf, with a running satirical commentary that changed with the day's latest news.
Putting it Together is much tighter, and fiercer, and no less enjoyable, framed in shifting and usually disintegrating relationships within the quintet at a cocktail party. The peerless Janie Dee doesn't, surprisingly, stop the show with "The Ladies Who Lunch", nor doe she try to, but she does with her sensational breath control and rapid fire articulation in "Not Getting Married Today", followed by a gorgeous quintet setting of "Being Alive".
The voices here are superbly well matched. It's the first time, hand on heart, I've really enjoyed the singing and stage presence of Bedella (he's usually "too much"), and Damian Humbley's exquisite tenor is nicely set off by Caroline Sheen's crystal clear soprano, leaving the socialite growling and slap-downs to Dee. Daniel Crossley, so outstanding as Cosmo Brown in Singin' In The Rain, takes to Sondheim for virtually the first time as to the manner born, and he's nothing short of brilliant in his big song-and-dance number, "Buddy's Blues" from Follies.
You can hear what the singers themselves had to say about Sondheim, their favourite items in the show, and even each other, on our WOS podcast from the aftershow Q&A. Only Janie Dee was missing - she had to dash off to do a late-night cabaret, alas. But this tallied with her complicated delayed arrival, which is skewed by a traffic jam around Buckingham Palace. Crossley fills in until she makes it through the auditorium, welcoming us to this brand new show in a brand new theatre with a brand new ceiling...
And by the end of the evening, with a heart-warming version of "Old Friends" from Merrily We Roll Along, that's exactly what we are. As I said by way of an introduction to the talk-in, I felt like booking the cast on the spot for my next significant birthday party. But we don't have to wait that long, nor for the putative transfer. There will be a medley from the show at the WOS awards concert in the Prince of Wales on Sunday 23 February, and it's sure to be a highlight.
Keep posted for the podcast from last night's Q&A, which will be on the site later today