London ball

Stephen Sondheim Celebrated by Dench, Peters at London Gala

LONDON — Judi Dench received a standing ovation for “Send in The Clowns.” Bernadette Peters leaned with her back to the audience and, her head between her legs, blew her trumpet on “You Gotta Get A Gimmick”.

Petula Clark, 89, launched “I’m still here”. And Imelda Staunton caused a huge ovation with “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”.

What the four had in common was a devotion to Stephen Sondheim, the breakthrough Broadway composer/lyricist who died in November at the age of 91. Dozens of musical theater stars gathered Tuesday night for a celebration called “Old Friends” to raise money for the Stephen Sondheim. Foundation, which will benefit young composers.

“He’s always considered London his second home,” producer Cameron Mackintosh, who organized the event, told a crowd of around 1,100 at a theater renamed Sondheim at Queen’s in 2019. “He brilliantly left his incredible legacy of working to support future generations of artists through his foundation.”

Lending drama to the evening, only the scheduled songs were included in the programme, with the identities of the attached singers only being provided to the public as people walked out. There was minimal decor and some cast members were costumed during a smooth program that featured the work of Sondheim’s Tony, Olivier and Pulitzer.

Peters, 74, who originated the roles of Dot in ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ and the witch in ‘Into the Woods’, made a dramatic entrance clad in a cape as Little Red Riding Hood to Damian Lewis’ Wolf. Gathering her vocals for drama and impact, Peters was included in eight of 40 selections sung over 2 hours and 45 minutes, including a rendition of “Losing My Mind” that left some of the audience in tears.

Michael Ball was given a central role in the “Sweeney Todd” selections which included a witty “A Little Priest” with Maria Friedman, an actress who became an announced Sondheim director. He also sang a genre-switching version of “Could I Leave You?”

Dench, covering what many consider the definitive version of Sondheim’s best-known song, stumbled over some of the words but still created an indelible performance. The 87-year-old, who has limited vision, was helped to her chair for her performance.

Julia McKenzie, who Mackintosh said hadn’t appeared on stage in 24 years, returned at 81 to join sets for “Side by Side” and “Not A Day Goes By” and a 10-woman rendition of ” Broadway Baby” which included Helena Bonham Carter, Rosalie Craig and Jenna Russell as well as Gary Wilmot.

Sondheim’s comedic side was on full display when Lewis, Rob Brydon and Julian Overdon donned maid uniforms over their tuxedos to join 88-year-old Siân Phillips in “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.” Janie Dee hammered out “The Boy From…”, a parody of “The Girl from Ipanema”.

Members of the Royal Academy Musical Theater Company and the Mountview Theater Academy lent youth with the ‘Tonight Quintet’.

Conductor Alfonso Casado Trigo led a 26-piece orchestra that was on stage, photos of Sondheim from youth to old age were displayed during a set of “Not A Day Goes By” and a video was was shown of Sondheim and fellow composer Andrew Lloyd Webber at a piano parodying their own work.

Tickets were priced at 75 to 1,250 pounds ($94 to $1,563) and the program was simulcast at the Prince Edward Theater a few blocks away, leaving a recording that could be shown if permissions are obtained.

As young singers joined the entire company for the conclusion of “Our Time,” Peters crossed the stage exchanging hugs as confetti fell and Dench seemed to hold back tears. The performance seemed as memorable for the cast as it did for the audience.