Side By Side By Sondheim was originally conceived back in 1976 as a fund-raiser for a regional theatre owned by Cleo Lane and Johnny Dankworth. A simple musical revue showcasing the songs of Stephen Sondheim. In the audience and just starting his producing career, Cameron Macintosh decided to stage the show at the Mermaid Theatre in London. Sondheim himself got involved, working with the cast to arrange the songs and since then it has popped up a number of times including spawning the 1992 rework, Putting It Together, created by original Side By Side cast member, Julia McKenzie.
There is very little plot. They tell you that right up front. What you do get is exploration of some of Sondheim’s regular themes, such as marriage and relationships. Each song either grouped by a common thread or simply from the same show. Because this revue was created in 1976 it only includes the Sondheim canon up to that point, but that’s still a pretty impressive list nonetheless. Opening with extracts from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, dipping into A Little Night Music, West Side Story, Gypsy and all-out plundering from Company and Follies, there’s a lot of Sondheim here to appreciate. There are some cuts from the original production, but it would seem no two Side By Side productions ever come up the same. Shoehorning this amount of music into a Fringe-friendly one-hour-twenty is no mean feat and whilst we lose a couple of numbers from the cast recording version, it’s good to see some of the rarities like I Remember from Evening Primrose and Everybody Says Don’t from Anyone Can Whistle didn’t get trimmed in favour of more popular numbers.
The Fringe always throws up a healthy crop of Sondheim shows, but that can be a double edged sword for fans of the composer. His music and lyrics are unforgiving to the less-able voice and listening to Sondheim done badly is not a pleasant experience. Thankfully this professional troupe of three girls and two boys know their way around a tricky score. They pull props from a dressing-up box, which also serves as a handy platform to occasionally give the director some height to play with. The whole thing is dynamic and fluid and never dips for a moment. Stand-out performances came from Matthew Ronchetti singing an emotionally charged yet fragile rendition of Send In The Clowns and Emma Ralston belting out – yes – Broadway Baby. I will admit to a wry smile on my face as she delivered the line ‘I’m just a Broadway Baby’ whilst looking directly at me.
My only criticism of the show is that it’s a little dated. This isn’t their fault, obviously, since it’s just how the show is written, but if you’re after a Sondheim revue then Putting It Together is a better option. Not only is the structure a whole lot more solid, the Sondheim Songbook up until 1992 widens the net to include Sweeny Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday In The Park With George, Into The Woods and Assassins. As it stands, Side By Side By Sondheim is a gem of a show, but it just happens to be locked in a time capsule.