Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends: A Celebration CD
Rating: ★★★★★
Venue: Recorded live at Sondheim Theatre, London
CastShan Ako, Christine Allado, Michael Ball, Rob Brydon, Ashley Campbell, Helena Bonham Carter, Anna-Jane Casey, Petula Clark, Rosalie Craig, Janie Dee, Judi Dench, Daniel Evans, Maria Friedman, Josefina Gabrielle, Louis Gaunt, Amy Griffiths, Haydn Gwynne, Rob Houchen, Holly-Anne Hull, Bradley Jaden, Bonnie Langford, Damian Lewis, Julia McKenzie, Ian McLarnon, Julian Ovenden, Bernadette Peters, Sian Phillips, Jon Robyns, Clive Rowe, Jenna Russell, Jeremy Secomb, Imelda Staunton, Charlie Stemp, Matthew White, Gary Wilmot, and Michael D. Xavier

Since the one-off star-studded gala performance of Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends back in May 2022, the demand for the show has been phenomenal. It then officially opened in the West End in September 2023 for a limited 16 week run, but audience members still wanted more. Now comes the release of the album, recorded live at the Sondheim Theatre. 

With a cast that includes the likes of Bernadette Peters, Imelda Staunton, Judi Dench and Michael Ball, it was always going to be an album that captured the essence of Sondheim and his brilliance, and that it does. Unlike most musical theatre, there's no clearcut story, it's simply a celebration of Sondheim's work, with musical theatre giants of both Broadway and the West End.

Having seen both the gala performance and the West End adaptation, I think the cast recording offers something that they do not. With so much talent on stage, it's easy to get distracted by the choreography and sets on stage but to close your eyes and truly appreciate the music and lyrics is something that shouldn't be overlooked. 

Sweeney Todd is not just my favourite Sondheim, but also my favourite musical of all time, and my love for musical theatre began with the Michael Ball production. Hearing him reprise the role after many years is the highlight of the album for me; particularly the deliciously smooth, "My Friends" and "Pretty Women" with Jeremy Secomb

Judi Dench's rendition of "Send in the Clowns" is both raw and impactful. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it makes more of an impression with just audio as you can truly appreciate the heartbreak in her voice. The way Dench acts through music is simply stunning.

While we're likely more used to the more serious side of Sondheim, there is no shortage of laugh-out-loud moments on this album. "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid", "The Boy From..." and "The Little Things You Do Together" are comedic genius. Even without visuals, it's difficult not to laugh.

It's difficult to select just a few highlights as the album is overflowing with talent. However, other standout songs for me are "Comedy Tonight", "I'm Still Here" and "Tonight Quintet". It's widely known that Sondheim wasn't the greatest fan of his work in West Side Story, but it's one of my favourite musicals, so I'd love to have heard more from the musical itself.

The Sondheim Orchestra, led by Alfonso Casado Trigo, bring the grandeur and magnificence the music needs. The arrangements from Stephen Metcalfe are inspired and make this, what I think, an unforgettable cast recording.

I will continue to devour this production in any format that becomes available. Audio, TV, live theatre - it's simply unbeatable. As I said in my original review of the production, it's "a simply stellar show that you feel privileged to be experiencing" - and the cast recording is no different.

You can buy the CD here, or stream on all music platforms from December 8th 2023.

**photography by Danny Kaan**

No comments