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Thursday in the Park with Sondheim

Do I Hear a Waltz? at the Park Theatre. Photo: Bill Knight
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I spent most of yesterday regretting that I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic to go see the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s four night run of Sweeney Todd that opened on Wednesday night at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.

I knew that Emma Thompson was giving us her Mrs Lovett, which should have been reason enough to go (it was her first return to a stage musical since her turn in the West End’s first reincarnation of Me and My Girl all those years ago), and that Bryn Terfel was playing the title role.

But I’d been once stung before when he was announced to play the role in another New York concert production, also with the New York Philharmonic, back in 2000 opposite Patti LuPone as Mrs Lovett, but he’d had to withdraw after I’d already bought my tickets and made my plans to travel to New York; he was replaced by George Hearn, who had taken over from Len Cariou in the show’s original Broadway production. Hearn’s performance is already preserved forever on a DVD with Angela Lansbury. (Terfel subsequently did it instead at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in 2002, and in a concert production at the Royal Festival Hall in 2007, opposite Maria Friedman as Mrs Lovett).

But the reason for my extra regret at not going to New York this time was because Philip Quast was making his New York stage debut as Judge Turpin (a role he’d also played, coincidentally, at the Royal Festival Hall), and regular readers of this blog will know both what a fan and friend I am.

Still, I’m pleased to see him mentioned in Charles Isherwood’s review for the New York Times today:

The veteran Australian-born actor Philip Quast intriguingly eased up on the sinister aspects of Judge Turpin, turning this stock villain recognizably human (although he lashed himself, both vocally and literally, with sturdy fervor in the judge’s juddering aria of self-disgust).

And Isherwood also summonsed up the sense of the event it clearly was by writing,

Despite the body count to rival an action movie, the scenes of human flesh put through a sausage grinder, and the protagonist who announces in ringing tones that we all deserve to die, Sweeney Todd has an uncanny way of sending musical theater audiences into raptures of glazed-eyed bliss. That was certainly the case on Wednesday night… Gala audiences tend to sit on their hands, saving their energies for the air-kissing over dinner, but members of this crowd were flapping their fins from start to finish.

Never mind. I can’t be everywhere, as I constantly remind myself. And although it was only a very small consolation, I was seeing a Sondheim show already last night. Admittedly, there’s a bit of a difference between Lincoln Center and Finsbury Park, but I was at the Park Theatre at the latter to see a rare outing for Do I Hear a Waltz?, the 1965 musical that Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Richard Rodgers’s music for, after the death of Rodgers’s usual writing partner Oscar Hammerstein II, the latter of whom had been Sondheim’s mentor so he was repaying a kind of debt to. (Fiona Mountford, reviewing it for the Standard, reminded me before the show started that it’s not quite as rarely seen as it is sometimes thought: in 2005, it was revived at the Landor).

It was famously not a happy collaboration, but the show is now a fascinating bridging of the worlds of two absolute giants of 20th century musicals. And although I personally wish that last night’s outing was better staged, it was nevertheless a pleasure to bask in some absolute gems from both of them.

What wasn’t a pleasure, though, was the astonishing behaviour of one member of the audience seated in the centre of the very front row. The moment the show started, he got out his iPhone and started filming the entire show! And he was being completely shameless, too, doing wide scanning shots and holding the phone high above him, until people behind him started remonstrating. But he continued nonetheless, holding the phone at a lower level throughout the first act.

I’m surprised no one from the theatre – who clearly knew of his behaviour as it was being pointed out from above – tried to intervene, though his position in the middle of a row made it obviously difficult. But to their credit, the moment the interval came he was spoken to and made to delete the footage he’d taken.

“Where’s Patti LuPone when you need her?”, my friend Bert Fink asked me, referring to the incident when she stopped a performance of Gypsy on Broadway mid-way to remonstrate with a person taking photographs of her (which in a double irony, has been immortalised in an audio clip that someone was recording, too).

I, of course, once had my own Patti LuPone moment, when I publicly berated Bianca Jagger after she’d spent a performance at the Barbican taking flash photographs. It’s clearly a problem that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

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