The Odyssey Pays Tribute to Stephen Sondheim with Side by Side

Before Broadway had hits like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hanson, there was the steady and phenomenal impact of Stephen Sondheim. Now 88 years young, the New York native paved the way for such ground-breaking works we’ve seen from the stage in recent years with pieces like Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd.

I was first introduced to the 8-time Tony winner over 10 years ago. At that time, I was someone who had only been exposed to old-school musicals like Guys and Dolls and Brigadoon. Seeing  A Little Night Music and Company opened a new genre of live theatre to me. While many musicals rely on the song and dance numbers merely for the spectacle, Sondheim composes to dig deeper into the plot. Often, a character is entirely revealed in just 1 song. Think Send in the Clowns or Being Alive.

I was thrilled to head to the Odyssey Theatre on the West End to see their production of Side by Side by Sondheim. A lovely musical tribute with some of his most beloved songs performed, I was especially interested to see how my husband would enjoy the show; he had not heard of Stephen Sondheim. Blasphemous!

Side by Side by Sondheim

I’ve enjoyed a few musical tributes in my day like Frank Sinatra’s My Way and Forever Plaid. I was unsure what to expect with a homage to Stephen Sondheim. For my husband’s sake, I was hoping they would give the audience some backstory on the Broadway great as oppose to simply singing a variety of his greatest hits.

We were in luck. Side by Side not only brings together a wonderful body of work from some of Sondheim’s most beloved shows, but there’s also plenty of back story to him and his songs.

Conceived when David Kernan, performing at the time in the original London production of A Little Night Music, was approached and agreed to put together a Sondheim performance of some kind for a benefit. He wrote to the man himself for permission to use his music in a revue, and received a telegram back saying, “By all means try, but I can’t think of anything more boring except possibly the Book of Kells.”

As it turns out, the benefit went over very well. Cameron Mackintosh, just starting out as a producer, saw the show and agreed to move it to London’s Mermaid Theatre. Sondheim agreed to come over and work with the cast, and ended up essentially directing. The show ran there for eight weeks and then moved to the larger Wyndham Theatre, where it ran for three years. Hal Prince produced the Broadway version, which received Tony nominations for the show and all four actors.

Chris Kerrigan, Sarah Busic, Rachel McLaughlan, Mark D. Kaufmann
Sarah Busic, Rachel McLaughlan, Chris Kerrrigan
Photo by Enci Box
The Odyssey Theatre

The 99 seat theatres in LA are true hidden gems. The Odyssey Theatre ranks among my favorites. An un-assuming venue on Sepulveda Boulevard, the Odyssey has been producing top quality productions since 1969 in their intimate 3 theatre space.

Narrated by Mark D. Kaufmann, Side by Side has a small but dynamic cast of 3 vocalists: Sarah Busic, Chris Kerrigan and Rachel McLaughlan. With the accompany of keyboardists Richard Berent and Cheryl Gaul, we embark with the performers on a musical love letter to hear some of the best music from Broadway.

The trio kick things off in true ensemble form with a rousing opener of Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened to me on the Way to the Forum. I was especially looking forward to the several songs we’d hear from Company, my favorite of his work. While the Little Things you do Together was an ideal match for the singers, as was Kerrigan’s Marry me a Little, Getting Married Today left me a bit underwhelmed. Yes, McLaughlan had the vocal capabilities, but this is a song that requires manic delivery, and I did not get that rush from the number.

She also had big shoes to fill in act 2 for Sondheim’s beloved hit, Send in the Clowns, from A Little Night Music.  Mclaughlan gave such a compelling performance. You could have heard a pin drop. Same for Kerrigan’s Anyone Can Whistle.

Another powerful moment was Busic and Mclaughlan’s rendition of West Side Story’s A Boy Like That. Fierce and intense, I feel Sondheim himself would give a nod to the ladies duet.

Sarah Busic and Mark D. Kaufmann
Photo by Enci Box
Sarah Busic and Chris Kerrigan
Photo by Enci Box

Although many of Sondheim’s stories explore a darker side, that’s not to say there’s never any humor. Follies’ Ah, Paree! and Gypsy’s You Gotta Have a Gimmick were excellent examples of the playful side to Sondheim’s writing style. And, showcased Busic’s love for tooting her horn!

If You Go

Side by Side by Sondheim plays at the Odyssey Theatre through September 16th. Get more info and book your tickets HERE.  Not only did I love it, but if you’re wondering how Michael enjoyed-he left an official fan and especially was moved also, by A Boy Like That.  This makes me very proud to have given the theatre ‘bug’ a bit to my spouse!

(*Disclosure: I attended Side by Side by Sondheim on behalf of this review. All opinions are my own.)

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