Stephen Sondheim celebrated by Dench, Peters at London gala

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LONDON — Judi Dench was given a standing ovation for “Send in The Clowns.” Bernadette Peters bent over with her back to the audience and with her head between her legs blasted her trumpet to “You Gotta Get A Gimmick.”

Petula Clark, 89, belted out “I’m Still Here.” And Imelda Staunton set off a huge ovation with “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

What the four had in common was devotion to Stephen Sondheim, the groundbreaking Broadway composer/lyricist who died in November at age 91. On Tuesday, dozens of actors from musical theatre gathered for an event called “Old Friends”, to help raise funds for the Stephen Sondheim foundation.

“He always considered London his second home,” producer Cameron Mackintosh, who organized the event, told the sellout crowd of about 1,100 at a theater renamed the Sondheim from the Queen’s in 2019. “He brilliantly has left his incredible legacy of work to the support of future generations of artists through his foundation.”

Lending drama to the evening, only the scheduled songs were included in the program, with the identities of the attached singers provided to the audience only as people filed out. The program showcased Sondheim’s Tony, Olivier, and Pulitzer Prize-winning works. There was no set. Some cast members were dressed in costumes.

Peters, 74, who created the roles of Dot in “Sunday in the Park with George” and the Witch in “Into the Woods,” made a dramatic entrance cloaked in a cape as Little Red Riding Hood to Damian Lewis’ Wolf. Marshalling her voice for drama and impact, Peters was included in eight of the 40 selections sung over 2 hours, 45 minutes, most notably a “Losing My Mind” rendition that left some of the audience in tears.

Michael Ball was given a central role in selections from “Sweeney Todd” that included a witty “A Little Priest” with Maria Friedman, an actress who has become a heralded director of Sondheim. He also sang a gender-switched version of “Could I Leave You?”

Dench, reprising what many consider the definitive version of Sondheim’s most-well known song, stumbled over some of the words but still created an indelible performance. The 87-year-old, who has limited vision, was helped to her chair for her performance.

Julia McKenzie, whom Mackintosh said had not appeared on stage in 24 years, returned at age 81 to join ensembles for “Side by Side” and “Not A Day Goes By” and a 10-woman rendition of “Broadway Baby” that included Helena Bonham Carter, Rosalie Craig and Jenna Russell plus Gary Wilmot.

Sondheim’s humorous side was on display when Lewis, Rob Brydon and Julian Overdon put domestic uniforms over their tuxedos to join 88-year-old Sian Phillips in “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.” Janie Dee hammed up “The Boy From …” a parody of “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Members of the Royal Academy Musical Theatre Company and the Mountview theater academy lent youth with the “Tonight Quintet.”

Conductor Alfonso Casado Trigo led a 26-piece orchestra that was on stage, photos of Sondheim from youth until old age were displayed during an ensemble of “Not A Day Goes By” and a video was shown of Sondheim and fellow composer Andrew Lloyd Webber at a piano parodying their own work.

Tickets were priced at 75 to 1,250 pounds ($94-$1,563) and the program was simulcast to the Prince Edward Theatre a few blocks away, leaving a recording that could be released if permissions are secured.

As young singers joined the full company for the concluding “Our Time,” Peters crossed the stage exchanging hugs as confetti fell and Dench appeared to be holding back tears. It was as unforgettable for both the audience and the cast.

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