Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damn few!” The lyric, of course, comes from Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” but it’s perhaps fitting that on June 7 and 8 — and for those nights only — the closing two words were delivered solo from the stage of London’s Lyceum Theater by a kilt-wearing Cameron Mackintosh in front of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and nearly 2,000 others. Some might think the lyric appropriation to be a monumental act of ego — a master producer seizing the limelight at the end of a self-exaltation called (in yet another Sondheim borrowing) “Hey Mr. Producer!” But who wants a modest impresario? The point — as a mostly astonishing gala bore out — is that in this day of producing by committee, not to mention conglomerate, Mackintosh truly does stand alone. If anyone is entitled to toot his horn, surely it must be he, even if the occasion’s most attention-grabbing turn with a trumpet came from a visitor to Britain in the delectable form of Bernadette Peters.
This London season has been rife with such occasions: “Hey Mr. Producer!” was the third in as many months, following evenings devoted to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim, and it will live on in the form of a double-CD and video and TV program coming your way soon. (Indeed, satirist songwriter Tom Lehrer, in a rare and invaluable return to public performance, spoke with characteristic wryness of “the tribute of the week.”) That Mackintosh’s was far and away the best of the trio is not in itself a surprise — as a producer, he has made a career out of making an occasion of the theater.
What was unexpected was the emotional impact of a show that in its way seemed as close as Britain may ever get to the sort of quintessentially New York event that defined “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” Sure, one could argue that as a money man, Mackintosh merely controls the purse strings, rather than generating the vision. But who else in a 30-year career encompasses (for starters) Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Boublil and Schonberg, and — in the show’s most dizzying pairing — Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, who teamed up to sing, among other things, a hilarious rewrite of “Send in the Clowns”? (“God but he’s rich,” Lloyd Webber was heard whispering of Mackintosh. “Richer than me.”) The answer: damn few.
Given the plethora of these paeans, “Hey Mr. Producer!” deserves praise, to start with, for not seeming all too familiar. Sure, Elaine Paige blasted “Memory” as she had in April at Lloyd Webber’s 50th birthday fete, though on that occasion she was rather more elegantly attired. Michael Ball, meanwhile, is clearly a gala fixture, where he is making a dubious habit of pilfering Sondheim’s greatest songs for women — “Broadway Baby” one minute, “Losing My Mind” the next. (Even Ned Sherrin’s patter, a foolproof “vicious queens” joke included, was beginning to sound recycled.) But just as “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” offered an all-too-brief glimpse of a vanished world, so in its own, entirely different way, did “Hey Mr. Producer!” remind us of three decades of blinding musical theater talent, all of it overseen by one man working from the heart.
To that end, it was thrilling to see Lehrer, drollery undimmed in the 18 years since Mackintosh spawned “Tomfoolery,” the revue named for him. (And who would have thought a decades-old piece of anti-bomb japery like “Who’s Next?” would prove so eerily prescient?) Not to mention Jonathan Pryce, selling “The American Dream” with the definitively sleazy sizzle that made his performance in “Miss Saigon” the career pinnacle that it remains. And, heading anyone’s list, Peters, the Tony-winning star of the Mackintosh–Lloyd Webber “Song and Dance,” bravely forging ahead with a British accent before an auditorium full of the real thing — and, in the second act, stopping the show twice, her trumpet-tooting included.
In essence, the program consisted of elaborate set pieces from the best-known musicals interspersed with surprising solo and ensemble turns, Peters’ among them. The obvious risk: an eventual heaviness that, to quote “Forbidden Broadway” on “Les Miserables,” would leave the audience feeling “at the end of the play, you’re another year older.” In fact, the prevailing effect couldn’t have been headier, notwithstanding the realization that “The Phantom of the Opera” sounds even slushier and more generic than I remember it.
Tellingly, almost all the Brit-hit excerpts were accompanied by dry ice gushing out from the wings, whereas it took the singular talent of Judi Dench — performing “Send in the Clowns,” her voice cracking in sympathy with Desiree Armfeldt’s heart — to moisten an audience member’s dry eyes.
The show folded in sentimental favorites — Jimmy Logan and the Scottish Pipe Band’s “I Love a Lassie” from a 1976 Mackintosh venture called “Lauder” vied with “Oliver!” on this front — alongside bracing blasts of the new: John Barrowman belting “One Two Three” from “The Fix,” perhaps Mackintosh’s most underestimated project to date, and Maria Friedman introducing a new song from the ever-changing “Martin Guerre,” this one hinting that the show’s creators are finally putting the emphasis where it belongs, on female lead Bertrande.
No party is complete without a host, and “Hey Mr. Producer!” offered up a compere to treasure in an eternally gracious and graceful Julie Andrews, who looked as if she was breaking her own no-singing rule by joining in on the closing chorus of “Old Friends.” By that point, the audience had established its own kinship, and not just because we’d been seated for 3 1/2 hours. Watching Mackintosh take his bow behind Tal Landsman, the boy chosen to suggest the impresario as a stage-struck 8-year-old, one was struck by the incurable enthusiasm of a producer who has made his youthful passions ours, reaching out to a vast, unknowable public so that they feel like, well, friends.