'Sondheim: Inside Out' on BBC Radio 3
Editor, About the BBC Blog
Laura Michelle-Kelly, Kim Criswell, Michael Xavier, Maria Friedman and Turlough Convery
Stephen Sondheim occupies a special place in a musical theatre fan's heart. Stage productions or concerts featuring the man's music are notable in the first instance by a palpable sense of excitement amongst the audience as they wait for events to unfold on stage. It is as though something very special, very dear and something incredibly personal is being laid on especially for us. It's Christmas morning scheduled earlier for us than everyone else, whether it be in the height of summer or when the leaves start to fall.
Of course, I'm biased. I was introduced to the music of Stephen Sondheim when I met my partner who - during the 'You play me your favourite music after I've played you mine' phase - introduced me to every one of Sondheim's musicals, helpfully pointing out the witticisms in every single lyric. Sondheim's music is now hard-wired, now the musical soundtrack to an important part of my life. If you're wondering ... my favourite is A Little Night Music. I think.
Little wonder then that Sondheim-related events not only conjure up happy wistful memories which in turn reconnect me with the sense of excitement and wonder I experienced when we first met, but also make me feel as though I'm getting a taste of what the many London productions I missed before I was introduced to Sondheim's music might have been like.
Such potent memories are encapsulated in a variety of clips from the 80th birthday celebration concert for Stephen Sondheim mounted by the BBC Proms in 2010. From the plea to the 4,500 strong audience to switch off their mobile phones in Invocations and Instructions to the Audience, to the endearing camp of Everybody Ought To Have A Maid, via an electrifying performance of Being Alive by Julian Ovendon, and a heart-breaking rendition of Send in the Clowns from Judi Dench, the audience reaction not only acknowledges world-class, and in some cases definitive, performances in my opinion, but also illustrates the warmth for Stephen Sondheim (he was sat in the stalls during the performance) and the collective enthusiasm for his work. (For the sake of balance, it's worth pointing out that not everyone is as fanatical about Sondheim's music as I am, necessarily.)
The BBC Concert Orchestra reprised some elements of that 2010 concert a few weeks back in October for an event which formed part of the landmark Rest Is Noise festival - the major examination of 20th century music staged by Southbank London this year of which the BBC Four series The Sound and the Fury also formed part of. The concert was recorded 'as live' for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 20 December at 2pm. I can confirm, because I went along, that the audience was just as excited then as they were for the Prom concert four years before. Bliss.
The programme was - inevitably - a little different. It wasn't intended to be a strict repeat. Instead, the Sondheim: Inside Out concert contained a handful of standards, a couple of relative unknown numbers and a whole host other treats bound to make a fan's heart beat a little faster than normal. Musical stalwarts Kim Criswell and Maria Friedman led the line-up, aided and abetted by Michael Xavier and Laura Michelle-Kelly. This in itself was a treat - a chance to see hugely talented and experienced individuals demonstrate their art for an eager audience.
But this event was special for another reason. A relative newcomer to the musical theatre scene also joined the line-up, singing in - what I later learnt was his first show with a full-scale orchestra just months after graduation: Turlough Convery won the Stephen Sondheim Society award this year and was invited to perform in the concert by the show's producer (and soon to appear in Gangsta Granny), Julia McKenzie.
Turlough Convery talks about his appearance at the 'Sondheim:Inside Out' concert.
Turlough's first song? A hilarious and rather touching rendition of I'm Calm from A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, with him offsetting his character's obvious nerves by frantically blowing into a paper bag in between phrases. A must-listen in the run-up to Christmas.
Jon Jacob is Editor, About the BBC Blog and website.
- Listen to Sondheim: Inside Out' on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 20 December at 2pm