Forty years ago a small scale review of composer / lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s work opened at the Mermaid Theatre. Few there on the 4 May 1976 would have predicted a three year London run and a successful transfer to Broadway. Nor would they have predicted the making of Stephen Sondheim as a house-hold name or that the producer would become the most important in the world.
In 1976 Sondheim was hardly half way through his writing career and had been present on Broadway and in the West End for less than twenty years. But in that time he had supplied the lyrics to two of the most influential and loved musicals (West Side Story and Gypsy) and had his own hits as both composer and lyricist (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures) and there were the ones that had not worked as well (Anyone Can Whistle and Do I hear a Waltz for which he had been the lyricist) and by delving a little more there was a television musical (Evening Primrose) and some odd songs for other shows.
On Broadway Sondheim had been honoured in concert form on Sunday 11 March 1973 with a charity tribute but that was Broadway celebrating Broadway. It had taken place on the stage of the Shubert Theatre were A Little Night Music was playing during the week. Two years later when A Little Night Music was playing at the Adelphi Theatre in London David Kernan, the actor playing Count Carl – Magnus, had the idea of putting on an anthology of Sondheim’s songs at a far smaller scale. He had performed in other songwriter anthologies at The Stables, the theatre run by John Dankworth and his wife Cleo Laine, some forty miles north of London, and they agreed to present it on a Sunday evening as a one-off production simply called ‘Sondheim Songbook’. Other than starring himself he chose two ladies – Millicent Martin with whom he had worked on the television satire show That Was a Week That Was and the less known Julia McKenzie who had taken over in the London company of Company. To add musical support there was no orchestra backing, just two pianos.
Kernan decided there was a need to introduce the songs and to add some explanation as to the songs’ history and so a fourth person was added to the cast, a compere of sorts. That was Ned Sherrin, the other TW3 connection, placed at a lectern at the side of the stage where he stayed, quite happily surveying and entertaining the audience, for the complete show.
That Sunday evening was a terrific success and it was repeated and then played the University in Brighton and the Theatre in St Thomas’ hospital. All received standing ovations and, with Stephen Sondheim’s backing it was booked to play a season at the Mermaid Theatre where they had had great success with two other songwriter anthologies (Cowardly Custard and Cole). They also now had a young enthusiastic producer (who at that stage did not have a hit to his name) by the name of Cameron Macintosh.
Ned Sherrin took on the responsibility of directing the piece, a task he was helped with in the presence of Sondheim himself at some rehearsals. Sondheim suggested that Millicent Martin sing a song he wrote for a movie that had ended up mainly on the cutting room floor – the ‘naughty’ ‘I never do anything twice’.
In their own way many of the songs were mini plays in their own right and all sat happily outside their original homes once Sherrin had verbally placed them for easy audience consumption. The cast shared the songs equally. The self assured Kernan at times having to ‘cross dress’ by becoming a stripper in ‘You gotta have a gimmic’ and by singing ‘Could I leave you’ written originally for a female character. Company and Follies were the most raided shows but there were items from them all including shows which had not, at that time, been seen in London (Follies being one of these and when it did open, it was Julia McKenzie starring and being joined later in the run by Millicent Martin). For the most, the show was a revelation in song writing for it was not a show which most came to knowing many of the songs. An expertly constructed closing medley and the song ‘Side by side’ from Company concluded what is possibly the most perfect of all anthology shows.
Side by Side by Sondheim was an instant hit at the Mermaid and transferred to Wyndams Theatre for a three year run going through many cast changes. It transferred to Broadway on 18 April 1977 at the Music Box Theatre and played 384 performances. Several revivals have taken place.
Its legacy: lifting Sondheim to almost saint like position, the spark that made the explosion of Cameron Macintosh, saving Ned Sherrin from bankruptcy, finding Millicent Martin a husband, making Julia McKenzie a star and, perhaps the most important, giving tens of thousands of people a terrific night in the Theatre.
For further reading on this show I recommend Ned Sherrin’s ‘The Autobiography’ for a wonderful behind the scenes view.
Rexton S Bunnett illustrations: Overtures archive