For one night only, Dame Judi to perform at the Proms

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The Independent Culture

Those lucky enough to have secured themselves a ticket for the Stephen Sondheim Prom – one of the first and fastest to sell out – did so knowing that the great American composer was planning to turn up to take a bow.

Now, days before the event on Saturday evening, the actress Dame Judi Dench has revealed that she will also be taking a turn on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, belting out a classic Sondheim number in a surprise performance.

Dame Judi, a veteran of the stage who has picked up most of the accolades available to her over a long and illustrious career, is not known for her singing voice. The last time she performed a song on stage was in 1995, although she did leave a good impression on reviewers when she took a lead role in the musical Cabaret in 1968.

Yesterday she confessed she was a little "daunted" by the prospect of performing in front of just under 6,000 people at the classical music concert, which is devoted to the music of the Broadway legend, who is celebrating his 80th birthday this year.

"Singing at the Proms is not something I ever imagined I would do and it's a hugely exciting – if slightly daunting – prospect. I believe that Stephen Sondheim is truly a genius. His impact on musical theatre can never be overstated and I am delighted to be part of his 80th birthday celebrations," she said.

Roger Wright, director of the BBC Proms, told The Independent that he had asked Dame Judi to make her debut at the Royal Albert Hall based on her legendary performance of the song "Send in the Clowns" in 1995, at the National Theatre.

"There are a great range of actor-singers and singer-actors that have performed Sondheim's music over the years. Dame Judi's version of 'Send in the Clowns' is one of the most renowned, and alongside Simon Russell Beale, Maria Friedman and Bryn Terfel, she was a natural choice for this concert. She has given us one of the greatest interpretations of this particular song," he said.

Her rendition of this song, from the musical A Little Night Music, also captivated Sondheim himself, who watched her perform and reportedly said to her of her role as Desirée: "It's yours now."

The ballad is taken from the second act, in which Desirée reflects on the ironies and disappointments of her life. Sondheim originally wrote it for the actress Glynis Johns on Broadway, but it quickly became his most popular song after Judy Collins and Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1975.

The likes of Grace Jones, Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey, Zarah Leander and the Tiger Lillies have recorded their own versions since.

In a television interview, Dame Judi once described the musical as "a dark play about people who, at the beginning, are with wrong partners and in the end, it is hopefully going to become right ..."

Of her turn as Desirée, one critic wrote: "Great singers have sung 'Send in the Clowns'. Yet none has given either the role, or Sondheim's enduring anthem to disappointment, quite the edge of irony, wit or sudden vulnerability which Dame Judi Dench brings to both."

The rest of the line-up for the Sondheim celebration includes Bryn Terfel, Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Evans, Maria Friedman, Caroline O'Connor, Julian Ovenden and Jenna Russell. They are joined by a chorus of singers from the BBC Performing Arts Fund and the BBC Concert Orchestra.

The conductor, David Charles Abell, has chosen to use many of the original orchestrations which have often been reduced in size when shows have been revived for contemporary audiences.

"The original productions of Sondheim's shows had opulent orchestrations played by what are now considered to be large pit orchestras. Where better to restore these orchestrations to their original glory than at the Proms?" he said.

The programme will include songs from Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, The Frogs, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Sweeney Todd.

Other stars with musical ambitions

Jack Black

Best known for his comedic roles in films such as 2003's School of Rock and Tropic Thunder in 2008, Black has also gained recognition as a member of the band Tenacious D. Calling his ensemble the "greatest rock band in the world", the actor has helped to create his own brand of "mock rock", (as critics have since termed it). The band has achieved considerable success, with the single "Tribute", reaching No 4 in the Australian charts.

Keanu Reeves

The Hollywood actor of The Matrix fame has also dipped a toe into the music industry with his grunge band Dogstar. Formed in the 1990s, the band opened for the popular group Bon Jovi and appeared in concerts alongside artists such as David Bowie. An avid bass guitarist, Reeves continues to play and provide backing vocals alongside former band mates with the group Becky.

Catherine Zeta-Jones

The Welsh actress and wife of Michael Douglas has had numerous musical successes in addition to a prolific acting career, displaying impressive vocal ability in the 2004 screen adaptation of Chicago, for which she won an Oscar, Bafta Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Zeta-Jones built on this success, starring as Desirée in the hit Broadway musical, A Little Night Music. In June 2010, she won a Tony Award for the role.

Ewan McGregor

Better known for lead roles in films such as Trainspotting and Star Wars, Ewan McGregor is also a heavyweight in musical theatre. He starred in the hit 2001 film, Moulin Rouge with Nicole Kidman, and in 2005 the Scottish actor ventured into the West End for a run as the lead in the hit musical Guys and Dolls. The turn won him an Olivier Award nomination for best actor in a musical.