The inspiration of Sondheim: Composer is toast of the Olivier's

Even by the composer's esoteric standards, 'Sunday in the Park with George' was an ambitious project. But last night the musical cleaned up at the Olivier awards
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The Independent Culture

It was an idea that lured the composer Stephen Sondheim back to the musical. After the disaster of Merrily We Roll Along, which closed after 16 performances in 1981, the creator of A Little Night Music, Follies and Sweeney Todd had vowed to abandon music and write mystery novels instead.

But one day while contemplating the painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte with the librettist James Lapine, the latter observed that the one person missing from the work was the artist, Georges Seurat, himself. Sondheim was re-inspired. The comment proved the springboard to Sunday in the Park with George, a fantasy on the life of Seurat told through his Pointillist masterpiece which also acts as a meditation on the very creation of art.

The show went on to become one of only six musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The influential American critic Frank Rich said it " changed the texture of the musical as radically as Hammerstein once did in Show Boat and Oklahoma!"

Yet it won only design awards at the Tony Awards ­ Broadway's top theatre awards ­ and lost money at the box office. It was not seen in Britain until the National Theatre presented it with Philip Quast and Maria Friedman in 1990.

So when a small fringe venue in London, the Menier Chocolate Factory, mounted the first British revival in a production that wowed critics at the end of 2005, Sondheim was thrilled. He was even more delighted when it transferred to the West End, a commercial bear-pit where few of his shows have been heard.

"One of the nice things about a revival is that perhaps those people who didn't like it the first time will get a chance to see it again, particularly with a piece as elusive as Sunday," he told The Independent at the time.

And he will be surely celebrating now after that West End transfer swept the board at the Oscars of British theatre, the Laurence Olivier Awards, last night. In a David and Goliath battle, Sunday in the Park with George beat blockbuster rivals Evita, The Sound of Music and Cabaret to be named the outstanding musical production of the year ­ a year that was the biggest for musicals in the West End that anyone could remember.

Its stars, Jenna Russell and Daniel Evans, were hailed best actor and actress in a musical against rivals including Elena Rogers, the UK's first Argentine Evita, Tim Curry, of Spamalot, and Clarke Peters, of Porgy and Bess. And the production, which imaginatively rendered Seurat's painting on stage, also secured the best set design and best lighting accolades.

Accepting the award last night for outstanding musical production, Russell said: "This means an enormous amount to us. We wouldn't be here without Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the most extraordinary, magical piece and they were so supportive and lovely to us ... and also the most extraordinary creative team who worked wonders."

Daniel Evans praised the director Sam Buntrock for having "the amazing idea to use digital projection and animation so you could really see the artistic process in creation".

It was a triumph for Sondheim, and arguably even more of a victory for the Menier Chocolate Factory, founded round the corner from Borough Market in Southwark, south London, by David Babani and Danielle Tarento three years ago.

The venue, which really was once a chocolate factory, had already been converted into a small 160-seat theatre with accompanying bar and restaurant by its owner, a wealthy, arts-loving philanthropist who has always stayed anonymous.

But it was Babani and Tarento who turned it into one of the hottest theatres in London. Babani, 29, had abandoned his drama studies at Bristol University because he was already mounting productions in London ­ including one of Sondheim's Assassins which led to his first meeting with the American.

Tarento, a few years older, was an actress who turned to the restaurant trade after tiring of sitcoms. Drama and catering combined as the in-house restaurant provided revenue to the unsubsidised operation.

A year after opening, they won the London Evening Standard best newcomer award and the Empty Space Award for up-and-coming venue presented in the name of the legendary director Peter Brook. More plaudits followed from ordinary theatre fans who voted Fully Committed, a one-man show the Menier imported from America, as the best off-West End production of 2005 in the Theatregoers' Choice Awards. Then the Menier's production of Sunday in the Park won the 2006 best design award from the Critics' Circle and the production was also nominated for the Time Out Theatre Awards. Babani said: "We came along with this idea of how to make it work as a show and tried to make it fun and to get people to enjoy it with all these projections and animation - it was almost like creating Who Framed Roger Rabbit?''

Babani and his star Daniel Evans had originally discussed doing the show when they both saw the painting that inspired Sondheim. But Babani said: "It was madness. Every step of the way we had to cajole people.'' They are now in advanced negotiations to open it in America.

And Sondheim and James Lapine slipped into the Chocolate Factory to see the show for theelves. With a sell-out hit in place, they gave their blessing. One distinguishing feature of the production was the way it utilised computer technology.

It was a technical tour de force of which the composer heartily approved. "I don't think that way, because it's not my generation. That kind of thing startles me, but it was magical," he said. Most critics agreed. Paul Taylor, of The Independent, described it as a "ravishing rediscovery" while John Peters of The Sunday Times said it had "elegance, sophisticated humour, visual virtuosity, warmth, generosity and athletic musical drive".

In The Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer admitted he had given the Menier show a miss, because most Sondheim shows flopped and his fans were like "sad trainspotters", but he had been forced to reconsider after finally catching it at the Wyndham's. He said it was "one of the most daring, thrilling and, more surprisingly, moving musicals you are ever likely to encounter".

Audiences loved it too. In a West End repeatedly driven by star names it attracted big crowds despite an absence of Hollywood stars

Both its stars have the kind of CVs that make them only well known to theatre-lovers. Daniel Evans has appeared in everything from Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis at the Royal Court to Shakespeare, but has shone in musicals. He has already picked up one Olivier Award for best actor in a musical for that earlier Sondheim, Merrily We Roll Along, seven years ago.

Russell, who took over from Anna-Jane Casey, who had created Seurat's wife, Dot, at the Menier, lost out at the Oliviers last year to her Guys and Dolls co-star Jane Krakowski, but is a popular West End performer, just seen in the revival of David Hare's Amy's View. And Evans is already booked to return to the Menier in its forthcoming revival of Christopher Hampton's first play, Total Eclipse.

This is typical of Babani, who forges working relationships that stick. He first met Sam Buntrock, the director of Sunday in the Park, at Bristol, and it was Buntrock who directed that early production of Assassins. (Buntrock was nominated for the best director Olivier Award but lost to Dominic Cooke for the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Crucible.)

David Farley, who last night took the design award with Timothy Bird, is now a well-established Menier collaborator who also designed this Christmas season's sell-out, Little Shop of Horrors. That, too, is moving to the West End, opening at the Duke of York's Theatre next month.

It would be enough to make rivals spit, except that virtually all of them know exactly how tough it must have been for Babani, now running the Chocolate Factory without Tarento.

The show was not the only victorious outsider. Caroline, or Change, a Tony Kushner show set during the American civil rights movement, triumphed as best new musical over Trevor Nunn's Porgy and Bess and the Monty Python rip-off Spamalot.

All at English National Opera must have smiled, too, as they cast off financial and management troubles to take both opera awards for their acclaimed production of Jenufa. But the Menier Chocolate Factory had the right to the broadest smiles. "Our aim is to become a world-class institution," Babani said not long ago. They are surely on their way.

The winners

* BEST ACTOR: Rufus Sewell for Rock 'n' Roll - the Royal Court and the Duke of York's

* BEST ACTRESS: Tamsin Greig for Much Ado About Nothing - Royal Shakespeare Company

* BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL: Daniel Evans for Sunday In The Park With George

* BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL: Jenna Russell for Sunday In The Park With George

* BEST PERFORMANCE IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Jim Norton for The Seafarer - National Theatre


* BEST NEW MUSICAL: Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori - National Theatre

* BEST NEW PLAY: Blackbird by David Harrower - the Albery from the Edinburgh International Festival

* BEST NEW COMEDY: John Buchan's The 39 Steps adapted by Patrick Barlow from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon - transfer from the Tricycle to the Criterion

* BEST NEW OPERA PRODUCTION: English National Opera's Jenufa - English National Opera

* BEST REVIVAL: The Crucible by Arthur Miller

* BEST DIRECTOR: Dominic Cooke for The Crucible - Royal Shakespeare Company

* BEST LIGHTING DESIGN: Sunday In The Park with George - transfer from the Menier Chocolate Factory to Wyndham's

* BEST SOUND DESIGN: Waves - National Theatre

* BEST THEATRE CHOREOGRAPHER: Javier De Frutos for Cabaret - Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue

* BEST COSTUME DESIGN: The Voysey Inheritance - National Theatre

* BEST SET DESIGN: Sunday In The Park With George

* BEST NEW DANCE PRODUCTION: The Royal Ballet's Chroma Royal Opera House

* OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN DANCE: Carlos Acosta for his programme of work and his performances at Sadler's Wells

* OUTSTANDING MUSICAL PRODUCTION: Sunday In The Park With George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine

* SPECIAL AWARD: Sir John Tomlinson