On March 9, 2012 a group of “prickly, opinionated writers on the arts” gathered for lunch at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark, United Kingdom. These giants of artistic criticism congregated not to discuss the Factory’s production of ABIGAIL’S PARTY. And though MTI family member, Stephen Sondheim was in attendance, the group did not come together to discuss the Pleasance Theatre’s upcoming production of ASSASSINS. In fact, the topic of discussion was Mr. Sondheim himself. This meeting of “The Critics’ Circle” was called to order to honor one of America’s most celebrated composers with one of London’s most celebrated awards: The Critics’ Circle Annual Award for Distinguished Services to the Arts.
In the company of artistic legends such as Dame Judi Dench (1997), Harold Pinter (1999), Sir Ian McKellen (2003), & Sir Tom Stoppard (2007), Stephen Sondheim is the only American to receive the prestigious honor.
“[The award] based on a majority of votes from five warring tribes of prickly, opinionated writers on the arts represents something quite a bit different from the Oscars, Tonys and Baftas,” explained the circle’s President Tom Sutcliffe. He continued, “It is great you are here, and welcome to our British Pantheon.”
The Award is among countless other actions which affirm Sondheim’s musical genius in the eyes of the United Kingdom. Musicals bearing his name have been staged by the Royal Opera, National Theatre, and English National Opera, to name a few. The work of Stephen Sondheim was also the subject of a BBC Prom in 2010 (see below) for his 80th birthday, and just one night after The Critics’ Lunch, SWEENEY TODD began performances at the Adelphi Theatre.
In regards to Sondheim, The Guardian explains, “If we have embraced Sondheim’s work, it is because he experiments within a popular tradition and accepts that the function of art is to challenge and stimulate, not soothe and reassure.”
Though a few of his opinions towards critics have teetered toward disdainful when dealing with his own work, Mr. Sondheim is not blind to the powers of a gifted wordsmith. “A good critic can persuade you to attend something you’d never have imagined going to. A good critic is an entertaining read. A good critic is hard to find.” And in an interview with The Guardian, Sondheim recalled fondly the reviews from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM in the United Kingdom. “The first good notices I ever got in my life were for the British production of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, which was slammed to death by the critics in New York.”
So in this room packed wall-to-wall with critics, after a lunch that was one of the most highly attended in the history of the awards, and following a performance by Maria Friedman of three iconic Sondheim songs, the foremost composer-lyricist of his generation was given another good notice from the United Kingdom in the form of an engraved rosebowl and a smattering of kind words. Said The Circles’ drama chairman, Mark Shenton, “It was a pleasure last Friday to welcome Stephen Sondheim to be amongst some critical survivors, and to bestow more than just our words of approval but also an award of it.”