London is smitten with Sondheim

Spate of U.K. musical production ahead

As New York comes off a major round of Stephen Sondheim tributes, all inspired by the composer-lyricist’s 80th birthday earlier this year, the U.K. is having its own streak of Sondheim productions — one that’s set to extend through 2012.

On the heels of recent revivals of “Into the Woods” and “Passion” is Sondheim’s latest outing, “Road Show.” Menier Chocolate Factory a.d. David Babani tells Variety that John Doyle’s production, seen at the Public Theater in 2008, will receive its European preem at the London venue next summer.

Daniel Evans will play Bobby in a revival of “Company” at Sheffield’s Crucible Theater at Christmas 2011. Show will be helmed by Jonathan Munby, whose “The Prince of Homburg” at the Donmar was much admired by Sondheim.

Maria Friedman will turn her hand to helming for Christmas 2012 at the Menier. For her directing debut she’s picked a show she once starred in: the beloved 1981 flop “Merrily We Roll Along.”

All that follows two recent revivals that successfully rethink the originals.

Jamie Lloyd’s production of “Passion” at the Donmar Warehouse is 15 minutes shorter than the 1994 Broadway original. That’s due to conflating smaller roles, trimming back the number of soldiers, excising lengthy transitions and a livelier pace. Lloyd’s fleet production — set changes are often effected solely via Neil Austin’s lighting — means that Sondheim and James Lapine’s original intent of a rhapsodic rush is restored.

That’s not the only revelatory London revival that won high praise from both Sondheim and audiences. Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s recent “Into the Woods” used two masterstrokes that transformed the show.

First, they staged it at Regent’s Park Open Air Theater on a set akin to a jungle gym among the trees, taking the tuner literally into the woods. Then they solved the problem of the division between the differently toned acts.

Those who traditionally deem the late-arriving songs about parenting (“No One Is Alone,” “Children Will Listen”) as sentimental were brilliantly surprised by the narrator being played as a young runaway who conjures the characters up from his toys. At the end there’s a reveal that shows the emotional climax was set up from the start. Although the limited run is over, audiences worldwide are likely to be able to see it, since the production was filmed by Digital Theater. Subject to final negotiations, the musical should be available as part of the next batch of downloadable productions that Digital plans to release in the fall.

On top of all that, there’s “Finishing the Hat,” the first volume of Sondheim’s collected lyrics, complete with the lyricist’s unsparing analysis of his own work, as well as fascinating disquisitions upon predecessors and peers. American readers have to wait until Oct. 28 to get their hands on it, but it’s already published in the U.K.

Included are lyrics of every song from “Saturday Night” (1954) to “Merrily We Roll Along” — but also a trove of hitherto unseen cut numbers, preliminary sketches, first ideas, second drafts and literally hundreds of backstage and onstage photos.

It’s a lot of Sondheim for one city, but London seems to have the appetite. A public discussion with Sondheim at the Donmar prior to a performance of “Passion” sold out in 18 minutes

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