Prom 19: Sondheim at 80, Royal Albert Hall

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

As if the idea of a celebratory Prom wasn’t enough seeing his name slipped into the prospectus between Schumann, Stockhausen, and Strauss would doubtless have proved as overwhelming for Stephen Sondheim as the roaring standing ovation that greeted his arrival on stage.

But his incalculable contribution to musical theatre, his astonishing gifts as a songwriter-dramatist or “a playwright in song” (his words), made this concert not just desirable but essential.

Too much is written about his skills as a wordsmith and not enough as a composer. He’s a very individual and gifted composer applying harmonic interest with such sleight of hand that melodies (ravishing melodies – pace those who say otherwise) seem to evolve from what lies beneath them, not the other way around. Hearing them offered in their original Broadway orchestrations (many by Jonathan Tunick) and despatched with opulence and pizzazz by the BBC Concert Orchestra under the passionate advocacy of David Charles Abell was an added bonus.

Some choices worked better than others divorced from their dramatic context, some were conspicuously diminished by the lack of motivation. And inevitably there were highlights: Dame Judy Dench’s quietly magisterial “Send in the Clowns”, Julian Ovenden’s stonking “Being Alive”, and that great hymn to the art of making art “Sunday” writ larger than you ever imagined you would hear it.

Sondheim has shown us what musical theatre can do and ultimately where it needs to be. We’re still trying to figure out how he does it and how on earth we get there.