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£400 tickets for West End Cock? No thanks.

Well….

The cynic, as Oscar Wilde put it, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. For commentators, that switches into reverse: indifferent to price, we are expected to deliberate value. 

Full disclosure, I am privileged to not have to usually pay for tickets. Occasionally, though, I despair. I feel there is no place for the working class in theatre. This is by no means my first rodeo, either.

This week, premium tickets for Mike Bartlett’s play Cock – starring Jonathan Bailey and Joel Harper-Jackson – were put on sale with ticket prices that had been spiked to £400.

If you thought that was bad, though, add the additional burden of ATG’s booking fees, the total came to £460. £460!  A sorry state of affairs.

Let’s do a brief summary: Cock is directed by Marianne Elliott and made headlines after understudy Harper-Jackson stepped into replace Taron Egerton who left suddenly due to ‘personal reasons’ having fainted during the first preview.

A spokesperson for the 90-minute play defended the unprecedented ticket prices as the result of “supply and demand.” That’s showbiz, honey. However, following backlash producers Elliott & Harper subsequently reduced the cost of the seats significantly.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The world may be shifting, but we must remind commercial producers – especially those recently in receipt of three rounds of significant Culture Recovery Funds – the value of accessible and affordable tickets, and a sense of the very real dangers should they discard it.

The risk of knowing the price of everything is that you can end up forgetting about its value.

Nevertheless, 15% of tickets sold have been at £20 and there is a daily lottery with tickets at this price point. Ambassadors Theatre is also a small house with only 444 seats. But most of these £20 tickets require a degree of flexibility not compatible with most people’s lives.

Still, the West End is a supply-and-demand business – and if there is escalating demand, there will be little pressure for a ceiling on what producers and theatre owners will seek to earn from. Even so, accessible tickets equal sustainability, as fair ticket prices encourage theatre-going generally and are key to the creative industries survival.

Data collected by the Society of London Theatre for 2019 found that the average ticket price for its member venues, which include all of the commercial West End and London’s major subsidised theatres, was £52.17. 

Anyway, Cock briefly became the most expensive play in West End history, thanks to dynamic pricing. First developed for the retail sector, dynamic pricing software uses algorithms to tell a theatre what they can get away with charging. It felt like a tipping point.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Top-price Cock premium seats are now £175. Ones that had been greedily priced at £350 are now £150, additionally £300 tickets are now on sale at £125 plus booking fees. Quite frankly, still absurd for a 90-minute play.

In reality, however, inflated ticket prices – particularly West End ticket prices – risk alienating an entire generation of future audiences as increasingly unaffordable tickets further limits audiences to very rich white people – whose wealth largely surged during the pandemic.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) have predicted the UK will fall into recession this year. What’s more, an estimated 1.5 million households across the UK will struggle to pay food and energy bills, as rising prices, and higher taxes squeeze budgets. This, coupled with the ongoing decimation of cultural education in our state schools, is a theatre time bomb. Potential audience members now face the choice between heating and eating, rather than whether to have an interval ice cream.

Yet the ever more pressing wider issue is that theatre’s future, and indeed recovery, rests entirely on the next generation of theatre-goers. Price them out at your peril. Habits are changing fast; with disrupted education, rising rents and low wages.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Producers Elliott & Harper have stated that they will not be commenting further, but this outcome speaks for itself.

This U-turn was not just a people-power social media victory: this was direct action. A historic watershed.

That is all.

Cock is at the Ambassadors theatre, London, until 4 June

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Review: Oklahoma! — beguiling, brave & occasionally contentious

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical is no cinch to sell to a modern audience. So fair play to Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein’s stirring Tony-winning production for shooting for something new.

Oklahoma! Photo credit: Marc Brenner

It does so by bringing bring to the stage a most wonderful selection of songs; it does so in a stark and dynamic version and an ending that needed special negotiations with the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. 

This is a modern, edgy and disquieting take that injects adventure and sexuality into a classic musical, making it fresh-minted.

Yet, in some ways, not everything works. Some artistic choices are obtrusive and clunky. No overture?

Still, the result is a beguiling, brave and occasionally contentious 3 hours of flying corn, racial tension and lust. Lots of lust. 

Using Daniel Kluger’s plucky arrangements, the nimble 7-piece band keep things ticking over. There’s stunning dance and startling close-up video projection work.

Oklahoma! photo: Marc Brenner

Then there is the design, or rather the anti-design, by Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher. They set everything in a sort of sun-soaked village hall with trestle tables and the audience traverse on two sides. There is light – a lot of light. And then sudden darkness. 

For her part, lead cow girl Anoushka Lucas is a star. Her Laurey, stunning to watch is torn between guitar wielding Curly (Arthur Darvill) and shy Jud (Patrick Vaill). 

While containing the giggling frisky Ado Annie (Marisha Wallace), the “girl who cain’t say no”, tears the roof off the Young Vic with her number. 

The Oklahoma! company

Having said all that, this revisionist production is a mixed blessing, but it is a masterful reinvention that should win new fans. The American Dream wins, but at what price?

The Young Vic continues to be an essential theatrical destination.

At the Young Vic, London, until 25 June

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella: Not So Happy Ever After

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cinderella will close next month less than a year after its West End premiere.

Cinderella at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

And so to how the day unfolded. The Stage ran a Sunday ‘Exclusive’ – on a Bank Holiday weekend – that the doomed musical was closing in June, as the creative team prepare to launch the musical on Broadway, where it will supposedly preview from February 2023. 
To recap, the current cast were told at 5.45pm — a statement was released at 6.30pm on Sunday.

LW Management wrote to the cast and crew

Dear Cinderella Family,

It is with regret that we’re writing to let you know that the Really Useful Group’s production of Cinderella will perform its final show at the Gillian Lynne theatre on Sunday June 12th…. Thank you for your immeasurable contribution to the show. We should all be very proud of Cinderella and all that we have achieved together, and we look forward to our paths crossing again before too long.

Having made his peace with losing out on Employer of the Year 2022, Lloyd Webber said: “I am incredibly proud of Cinderella. Not only did it get some of the best reviews of my career, but we led the charge to reopen the West End, ensuring that theatre and live entertainment remained relevant and in the news.”

He added: “mounting a new show in the midst of Covid has been an unbelievable challenge”.  

I can tell you that a mere four months ago, I attempted to discuss the beleaguered Cinderella with Lloyd Webber at the Palladium and he literally ran off down a corridor.

Anyway, In a 164-minute video on Instagram, actress Summer Strallen (who was due to join the cast as the Queen in July) discussed the situation in detail, saying that, while her agent received an email, she “basically got fired by social media, which is just not OK”.

Needless to say, we’ve been here before with School of Rock closing and a broken-hearted cast finding out on Twitter. The way present and future creative teams, crew and casual front of house staff continue to be discarded is completely unacceptable. 

The cast and crew of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Cinderella at the Gillian Lynne Theatre (Andrew Lloyd Webber/PA)

Lloyd Webber is believed to have been making escalating losses, LW Theatres suffered pre-tax losses of £28.1 million in the 12 months to June 2021, with box office revenues down 97% on the same period the year before. 

Furthermore, company’s annual accounts show the company’s staffing reduction as a result of the pandemic, with LW Theatres employing a monthly average of 418 people in the year ending June 2020 and 217 in 2021, a reduction of almost half. If Cinderella, backed with Lloyd Webber’s millions, can fail, so can many others.

A spokesperson for the Really Useful Group said on Monday: “Everyone involved in Cinderella was contacted by call, email or in person (some through agents) before the news went live in the evening. Every effort was made to ensure people were notified before it went live, while trying to manage how quickly it would move on social media once people were informed.”

Which seems a little on the nose, even by the debased standards of the age. Like they weren’t in control of the timing of this announcement? Despicable.

The cast and crew of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Cinderella at the Gillian Lynne Theatre (Andrew Lloyd Webber/PA)

In the meantime, what we really need now is systemic change so this can never happen again. In theatre, few creative freelancers and performers speak out for fear of losing work or being labelled ‘difficult to work with’. Change is overdue and every employer has the legal duty to ensure that their staff are treated with dignity. Until then there can be no happy ever after – for anyone. 

I admired Lloyd Webber for keeping theatre in the news during the darkest moments of the Covid lockdowns; The 74-year-old even said that he was prepared to be arrested if authorities tried to intervene in his reopening plans.

He also volunteered to personally take part in an early Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine trial.

About 60 people attended an EQUITY protest against the handling of Cinderella closure

In the end, though, bungling the closure of Cinderella after a global pandemic is the ultimate measure of failure from Lord Lloyd Webber. 

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First Look: Prima Facie starring Jodie Comer at Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Photo credit: Helen Murray

Prima Facie is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 18 June and will stream in cinemas via NT Live on July 21

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CONTACT’s new boss Keisha Thompson: “The doors will be open, and everyone is welcome. That’s what CONTACT is there to do.” 

“The doors will be open, and everyone is welcome. That’s what CONTACT is there to do,” says Keisha Thompson, its new chief executive and artistic director,

Thompson, 32, is a Manchester based poet, performance artist and producer. From June, she will be the first black woman, Mancunian, and the youngest to run the organisation in its 50-year history. She has both the experience and the confidence to redefine what an artistic director does and how a youth led arts venue might work for the city.  

Keisha Thompson
Keisha Thompson

She was supported through CONTACT’s dynamic engagement programme as a young poet, writer, and performance artist and in 2015 became part of the core staff team after being encouraged by a fellow staff member to see herself as a producer. 

Thompson bubbles with energy, and beams when I congratulate her and ask her what the best thing about theatre is? “The beautiful thing about working in this sector is the care and the freedom. I like to call it tangible ambition – being around people who speak amazing things and bring things into existence. I really enjoy that.” 

And the worst? “I suppose people who are outside of theatre can often feel very excluded, and that makes me feel very sad… The fact it can seem so insular, or esoteric to people. That upsets me.” 

She expands on the role the institution has played in her career: “CONTACT is very much an organisation that took me under its wing and never let me go. Growing up, I was one of those young people that engaged with culture across the city, bursting with creative people. CONTACT gives you that infinite sense that you can be an artist, you can collaborate with likeminded people – it has given me that understanding of the sector and of myself.” 

CONTACT, Manchester

She says she was greatly inspired by creative practitioner Gaylene Gould. “I remember Gaylene saying two things that landed with me. In fact, one of the things I did to get this role. Firstly, the need to be your full self; don’t be in any situation, role, or place if you are not allowed to bring your authentic self. That’s where you are in your power and that is when you thrive. Secondly, to get into a senior role at BFI Gaylene realised that she needed to leave. To step away, get experience elsewhere and come back. I was the Young People’s Producer at Contact for 5 years – and I loved it – but I could feel that I was starting to outgrow the role. I went away to the Arts Council to do the job that I am doing currently with the World Reimagined project and returned.”

Thompson answers my questions thoughtfully and her soft Mancunian accent, is just as compelling in its studied cadence and tone. “I remember being a teenager and I knew all the cool young people went to CONTACT. I didn’t always feel comfortable when I went into theatre buildings. CONTACT was different. It immediately gave me that sense that you could just be an artist, collaborate with people who looked like you. It taught me that understanding of the sector and of myself,” says Thompson. 

We talk about community, she tells me that arts organisations “need to be responsive to its communities,” and that it requires listening and sensitivity, as well being engaging. “It’s not enough to just put on a show, really. You must honour the stories that you choose to tell. Ask yourself if you are, in fact, the right venue to tell it and if you are going to do so maybe understand what things need to be in place. Make sure that those people and those stories are fully taken care of.” 

Keisha Thompson

As for the future, prioritising youth voice has meant CONTACT is always at the forefront of important issues; local young people and artists lead decision-making, the board of trustees is 50 percent under 30. The chair is 28. “Theatre can change lives,” she says. “I want CONTACT to feel like a second home, where people can spend time, watch shows and have fun. I want individuals to walk in and just get stuck in. I cannot wait to have a big party with everyone. The doors will be open, so come and say hello.”

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Normal has walked the plank & theatre is in flux

January 2022

As we await the known unknowns of Omicron, one’s sanity becomes an object of speculation among one’s acquaintances. 

I am fed up. Jaded. Exhausted. None of this is normal. Normal has walked the plank.

Life of Pi

I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read this, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.

Alas, The Music Venue Trust, which represents grassroots music venues around the country, has warned of combined losses of £22 million by the end of January – effectively undermining “the entire ecosystem that is the bedrock of a £5 billion world-leading music industry”.

Crisis management, particularly in a health emergency, demands leadership that’s firm, fast, decisive and calm. This government have failed us.

More than 150,000 people in the UK have now died within 28 days of a positive Covid test since the pandemic began 22 months ago. Every one of those 150,000 lives lost leaves its own story, and grief, behind. 

Unfortunately, hopes of building a fairer society and improving the lot of key workers are being trumped by a wish to return to normal.

The winter has been a disaster for hospitality and entertainment venues. Christmas – the time that institutions rely on for 40% of their annual income – was a wash out for the second year on the trot for most UK theatres. Omicron and Plan B turmoil emptied our auditoriums as audiences stayed home and creative teams self-isolated.

The industry continues to face insurmountable challenges. 

Nightclubs are shut in Wales
, with limits on hospitality, sports events and who people can meet.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the government has ordered capacities for seated indoor performances are cut to 200 and social distancing is back for at least three weeks.

In the past month, theatre producer Sonia Friedman has cancelled more than 158 shows and lost more than £4 million because of the continued uncertainty. “We are seeing drops in our box office of 25 and 50 per cent. There’s fear, despair and confusion all round,” she said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “The government think we are OK but we are not.” 

Still, in ‘normal times’ live events are estimated to be worth £70 billion a year, yet the Culture Recovery Fund largely failed to reach freelancers, who do the work. The government continues to stand by. 

Pride and Prejudice* (sort of*

Last week, critic Dominic Maxwell presented a vital summary of the state of play, with producer of Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) David Pugh stating: “I don’t know how long we can keep going. Some people are giving the impression that everything is fine. It really isn’t. It’s beyond serious.” The production will close in London next month and hopefully tour.

Meanwhile, in the same article, artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris admitted that the institution will have to dip into reserves after the covid-cursed musical Hex was cancelled multiple times and will end the current run without a press night. “We are recognising that it is going to be grim over the next couple of weeks. But we will do whatever we can to keep open.” Norris says. 

In London’s West End Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye states that the lack of a robust central, unified voice of information is leaving audiences and the industry beleaguered and baffled. “The West End has a body, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), that’s supposed to represent theatre owners and producers. But it has been hopeless at communicating the changes that are affecting show schedules daily basis…” he says. “Come on, people, get organised! You’ve had two years. Productions are on a precipice. Thousands of jobs are on the line.”

Indeed, Julian Bird, the current chief executive of the SOLT and U.K. Theatre, has acknowledged his own gathering irrelevance by announcing he will step down from the position, effective May 2022.

Hex

Bird, who has been with the organisations since 2010, said: “It had always been my intention to think about moving on around the 10th anniversary of my time in the role, which would have been in November 2020. As with so much, the pandemic intervened in that.” 

Well, quite. 

Off West End, emerging work and young talent is once again under serious threat. Also last week, as you might have seen, The Vault Festival, an annual London fringe event was cancelled for the third year in a row. 

The Vaults is an essential part of the theatre ecology – roughly six hundred shows, featuring over 2,500 performances over several months – and is often a calling card for young, underrepresented, and diverse artists. The other benefits of appearing at the festival are incalculable. 

The official statement reads: “We have to make brave and proactive decisions to prioritise and protect the mental health, wellbeing and safety of our staff, artists, and audiences. We work with a lot of vulnerable people, for whom participating in the festival is no longer viable in light of the ongoing developments.”

The VAULT Festival sign above one of the underground venues

Nevertheless, the generosity and offers of advice to those affected from some sections of the theatre community have been nothing short of inspiring. More please, folks.

I have been buoyed by scenes of understudies, swings and covers saving the day – and everyone who has kept theatre going against all odds in recent weeks. Pandemic heroes.

Anyway, let us hope that new medicines and stronger vaccines are reasons for real optimism. Spring will come around and *there is a chance that* 2022 will be the year we live alongside the virus – a hope for an industry so savaged by lockdowns and government abandon. 

If you or your show have been affected by anything mentioned in this blog, need advice or help do not hesitate to contact me: mrcarlwoodward@gmail.com

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Cabaret, review: the show of a lifetime


Stunningly designed by Tom Scutt, London’s Playhouse Theatre is transformed into the Kit Kat Club – and Eddie Redmayne is its emcee – for this jaw dropping – expensive (the lowest price in the top two ticket price bands is £120)- production.

Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley in ‘Cabaret’
(Marc Brenner)

In this grand, in the round space, these Kander and Ebb songs recall, rather strangely, the toughest emotional moments of opera, and powerfully re-render them.

The devil is in the detail.

I don’t think I have ever seen a more demented Emcee. I fell headfirst into Redmayne’s shape-shifting approach here. There was a strange menace to his otherworldly appearance, standing alone, facial features altered by extraordinary makeup.

In his party hat and Bowie attire, Redmayne resembles some kind of pale, alien clown being. Staking the stalls and swinging from the circle – you can’t take your eyes off the Oscar winner. His crumpled physicality is a marvel. 

Like a first-rate evil clown, he twists his impish body and tongue around the slippery role. He also has a beautiful singing voice.

Eddie Redmayne as Emcee / Marc Brenner

This A list casting might have triggered a frenzy, but make no mistake, this is director Rebecca Frecknall’s production — and it’s a radical reinvention with real political intent. Each possibility is laid out with complete clarity and assessed.

Her Cabaret is one of the most visually and atmospherically expressionistic productions I’ve ever seen, of anything, ever. The creative team’s theatrical ambitions are astute and dense.

Mind you, supporting cast (including an outstanding Anna Jane Casey as Fraulein Kost) may have big names to lean on but they make it look effortless; everyone is on magisterial form.

With Liza Minnelli erased from memory and Fosse’s iconic choreography stripped from this production, the audience are forced to confront the dark heart of the material. Julia Cheng’s twitchy choreography sweeps over the stage in waves. The gender-fluid ensemble frequently make you gasp. 

Omari Douglas and Jessie Buckley / Marc Brenner

Sardonic, seductive, uniquely done. This Cabaret is an distinctive, shattering, deeply humane evening. It is also genuinely cathartic, in the great, transcendent tradition of classic tragedy.

In a superb piece of acting, Jessie Buckley plays an anti-Sally Bowles; her subdued rock star approach to ‘Maybe This Time’ reduces the audience to hushed awe. But her voice rings out clear and she in total command.

Buckley gives her character a bewitching vulnerable finish that makes Sally both more life-size and broken than she’s ever been before. Her nervous breakdown performance of title song ‘Cabaret’ is distressing to watch.

Her voice is full of charm and hurt, an elemental howl that appears to affect the fabric of time. Towards the end, she roars with unruly splendour. 

Omari Douglas plays Cliff / Marc Brenner

But Omari Douglas! Holy smoke, what an actor! It would be easy to forget he is up on stage amidst the pandemonium and moments of rising fascism. But keep looking up, because occasionally there will be a scene he is in, and Douglas will be up there on the stage, apparently doing not much more than speak. Douglas gently presents the bisexual American novelist, Clifford Bradshaw.

As it is, the fact this triumphant production has been achieved 20 months into an ongoing medical emergency is nothing short of miraculous. 

Kind of amazing, I came out stunned into submission, admiring the musical more than ever: the accustomed world had shifted.

Cabaret is at the Playhouse theatre, London, until 1 October 2022.

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Lancaster Playwriting Award winner announced

Joseph Irwin

A ‘spiky and tender’ story about relationships has earned a writer from Liverpool the Lancaster Playwriting Prize 2022, it was announced today (December 6).

Joseph Irwin
Joseph Irwin

Winner Joseph Irwin, who was selected from 30 entries to win the award, will now have a rehearsed reading of his debut play Mama in early 2022, a cash prize of £1,500, and professional mentoring.

The shifting remit of the competition, now in its third year, makes it unique and is run in partnership by the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University and The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster.

“I’ve been in a state of utter disbelief since I heard and I feel very honoured,” says Joseph. “I was just so happy that someone was going to read my play, I didn’t think I’d actually win.

“I’m really grateful to Dukes, Lancaster University, the judges and the sponsors for the opportunity and I just hope they continue to support up-and-coming writers who just want to get their work out there.”

The 2022 award, which aims to support and showcase emerging writers in the North West of England, was this year open to any writer identifying as LGBTQAI+.

Each playwright entered anonymously, meaning all scripts were judged on their own merit by impartial readers, with no knowledge of the writer’s background or previous experience.  Furthermore, every entrant receives feedback on their script.

 The five shortlisted plays were: 

  • Senses of Responsibility by Lekhani Chirwa, Manchester 
  • Souvenir by Matt Gurr, Cumbria  
  • Great Wars by Laura Homer, Manchester  
  • Mama by Joseph Irwin, Liverpool 
  • Other People’s Gravy by Alex Joynes, Bolton 

Creative Communities Manager at the Dukes Carl Woodward said: “These 5 LGBTQAI+ writers have shared their bold stories with us, the plays are diverse in subject matter, size and style. It is now more important than ever to celebrate their stories.” 

This year’s judges were Lancaster University alumna and prize funder and actor Lucy Briers, Lancaster University’s Dr Tajinder Singh Hayer, Director of the Dukes Karen O’Neill and writer Ben Weatherill.

Judges’ comments:

Lucy Briers: “The panel unanimously chose ‘Mama’ as the winning entry for the LPP 2021. For me, I was immediately engaged with the characters of George, his Sri Lankan born mother Shahana, his white British born father Peter and his old school friend Stephen. ‘Mama’ delicately explores the Sri Lankan immigrant experience, George’s sexuality and the eternal mother/son/father relationship. It’s funny, heart-warming and tough all at the same time. The sign of a good play is being disappointed when you turn the last page. I felt this keenly, and thought about this complicated and heart strong family for days afterwards. A worthy winner and I wish the play and Joe a great future.”

Karen O’Neill: “This is a thoughtful and charming story about the contrast of relationships and their impact on our sense of self. Full of humour and heart these are characters that are new to the stage with a vibrant new perspective. It is a challenging and exciting piece of theatre.”

Ben Weatherill: “”Joe’s writing is painfully true, grounded and incredibly funny. The world of the play is conjured with careful detail, the lead character of George and his family are unforgettable, and this is a story we haven’t seen on stage before. Big hearted and punchy writing set in Blackpool.”

Dr Tajinder Singh Hayer: “’What strikes me about Mama is how it manages to be both spiky and tender in such a deft manner. There will be moments when characters are cutting each other to the quick (often with very dark humour), but then there will be moments of unexpected gentleness and vulnerability. The central character of George is an actor’s gift, but he never just becomes a vehicle for grandstanding; you just can’t take your eyes off him.”

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Stephen Sondheim was a genius – we shall not see his like again

I never thought Stephen Sondheim would die.

Oh, I know we all do eventually, but he carried with him such an aura of invincibility that if anyone could cheat the passage of time, I assumed it would be musical theatre’s God. (The New York Times even once ran a story on the phenomenon, asking if Sondheim and God had ever been seen in the same place).

Sondheim, the maestro who reinvented musical theatre has passed at his home in Connecticut suddenly at 91.

His attorney, F. Richard Pappas, also confirmed the composer’s death: “The day before, Mr. Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner with friends in Roxbury,” Pappas said in a written statement. “And he spent all day Wednesday seeing the matinee and evening performances of Dana H and Is This a Room — doing what he most loved to do.”

West End theatres will dim their lights on Monday 29 November at 7.00pm for 2 minutes. This tradition is reserved for the industry’s most celebrated figures and last occurred over here in 2018, following the death of trailblazing choreographer Gillian Lynne.  

In truth, what mattered to Sondheim, widely considered the most influential composer-lyricist in the American musical theatre of the 20th century, was his art, in all its guises. His legacy is eternal.

Stephen Sondheim

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for best score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday in the Park), an Academy Award (for the song Sooner or Later from the film Dick Tracy), five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. 

He was born into a Jewish family in New York City, and his career began in the 1950s, a decade in which he wrote the lyrics for Broadway classics Gypsy and West Side Story. For his fans, his audience, this is a moment of infinite sorrow. 

Looking back, I finally got Sondheim musicals– there’s cynicism, endless philosophy, and pure emotion in his work – when I turned thirty.

Seeing Dominic Cooke’s Follies and Marianne Elliott’s gender flipped Company within months of each other, it’s fair to say, hit me during a life affirming period of reflection and recalibration. 

The West End company of Company
© Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Think of modern musicals like Hamilton and even Fun Home and you’ll find the composers owe their style, as well as the roof over their head and the food on the table, to the genius of Stephen Sondheim. 

All in all, losing Sondheim in 2021 is all the more surprising after he so joyously attended the current revival Company on Broadway earlier this month. A ripple of murmurs and a rapturous standing ovation greeted the masked nonagenarian as he emerged from a side entrance shortly before showtime, walking along the fifth row to his aisle seat. 

Stephen Sondheim attends Company on Broadway

He was a keen teacher and mentor and used his talent always to make a difference. Art isn’t easy.

I asked Robbie Rozelle, A&R Director at Broadway Records for a few words on Sondheim’s legacy and impact. He said: “Taking the foundation that Oscar Hammerstein laid for him, Sondheim proceeded to become the greatest architect of musicals. He was also an important teacher, who worked with people to stretch the form even further – Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown, so many. He was the bridge between the Golden Age of musicals and the new form of musical, and what a beautiful bridge he was.”

Sondheim was also generous with his time, and with his encouragement, just very, very giving. 

An unsurpassed musical theatre super-hero. 

In short, he was an insightful, shrewd operator who could spot a contradiction at 50 paces. The irony of this, and the debt we all owe him, is not lost on me. He is survived by his husband, Jeffrey Scott Romley, whom he married in 2017.

“You have to work on something that makes you uncertain – something that makes you doubt yourself,” 

“If you know where you’re going, you’ve gone, as the poet says. And that’s death,” Sondheim said in 2017.

I’d like to propose a toast. Stephen Joshua Sondheim, may peace be upon you.

Steve

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Manchester International Festival 2021 / Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

On reading the words ‘Manchester International Festival’, you know you’re in for quite the experience. I mean, it’s not everyday you get the opportunity to attend a biennial international arts festival, during a pandemic, with a specific focus on original new work.

There is more free, outdoor public art than ever before and the city is alive with accessible, vibrant and exciting art. So with some degree of excitement, I made my way to Manchester last week, and here are some things I experienced.

First up, an impressive 42m (138ft) sculpture replica of Big Ben has crash landed in Piccadily Gardens. ‘Big Ben Lying Down With Books’ – the UK’s biggest participatory art spectacle in years – has been created by Argentine artist Marta Minujin and is covered in 12,000 politically-themed books. I fully immersed myself in this impressive and quirky statement on Brexit, disillusionment and democracy. Brilliant – and – free.

Marta Minujin’s sculpture is called Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books

The Arndale shopping centre, meanwhile, has been turned into a makeshift art gallery for Cephas Williams’ Portraits of Black Britain, which features giant banners showing high-achieving black Britons. Powerful stuff.

Playing to a socially distanced, masked audience may not be every singer’s dream but Arlo Parks gig at the cavernous Manchester Central was a performance of stunning tenderness.

Arlo Parks at Manchester Central

For the last six songs, Royal Northern College of Music string players joined Parks on stage to enrich the songs and add layers of heartfelt nuance. Parks – a 20-year old London singer-songwriter-poet bagged the Brit award this year for best new artist. She expresses herself with a rare lightness of touch on her remarkable debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. Pure joy.

Elsewhere, Cloud Studies at the seriously trendy Whitworth Art Gallery just out of town features clouds being considered by Forensic Architecture as toxic. This gripping exhibition explores the various ways in which the air – far from being neutral or free – is witness to a lopsided world.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the first phase of an investigation on environmental racism in an area known as ‘Cancer Alley’. In a US region heavily populated with petrochemical facilities, majority-Black communities, the descendants were historically enslaved on those very lands, today contain the most toxic air in the country.

Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies at the Whitworth Art Gallery.

MIF has also commissioned choreographer Akram Khan to produce a stylish and moving 17 minute short film. Breathless Puppets is a 17-minute animation co-created by Khan and animator, writer and director Naaman Azhari.

This brilliant animation utilises retroscope technology; basically whereby a live action is sketched over to give a constantly moving, line-drawn aesthetic. Breathless Puppets tells the story of a young man called Nicholas who wants to be a dancer, despite his family urging him to go into medicine. 

Manchester’s beautifully restored Central Library played host to ‘I Love You Too,” This project featured Eleven Manchester-based writers that collaborated with participants, putting their words to page and composing love letters that reflected and reinterpreted the individuals. Furthermore, together with the publication, the stunning domed Reading Room played host an exhibition of Wa Lehulere’s new sculpture, created especially for the space.

Conceived with the intention of creating a global love library, “I Love You Too” marked the beginning of a new series – one that’s set to become an international encyclopaedia of devotion.

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

I was delighted to snag a ticket to the raggedly charming “Bloody Elle” at the Royal Exchange. It has reopened with Lauryn Redding’s emotional, wild and honest ‘gig musical’. This gauche kitchen-sink theatre is smart in its portrayal of a queer love story. Right on.

Bryony Shanahan’s supple solo production makes the most of the in-the round setting of the main space – it feels like a epic late-night show at Roundabout at Summerhall during Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The songs are spry and melodic with a forthrightness that is refreshing.

Bloody Elle is a ‘semi autobiographical’ show that is simultaneously confessional, sprawling and occasionally indulgent.

It moves in the course of the evening from noise to quietness, from non-stop crassness to moments of musical tenderness and expressive gesture. Admittedly, it is all a bit drawn out, and could do with losing 30 minutes, but it is often a perky evening and during these Difficult Times, well worth the effort.

A very pleasant surprise. 

Manchester International Festival runs until Sunday 18 July

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical runs until 17 July