Stephen Sondheim © Broadway World

The Critics Circle


The winner of our 24th Annual Award for Services to the Arts which will be presented at a lunch held at the Menier Chocolate Factory on March 9.

William Russell

Published: 17/11/2011

The winner of the 24th Annual Award for Services to the Arts is the American composer and librettist Stephen Sondheim. The Award is voted for by all the members of the Circle. Each of the five sections puts up a candidate, and this year they were - the architect David Chipperfield (Visual Arts), the actress Claire Bloom (Film), the conductor Antonio Pappano (Music), the Royal Ballet's Dame Monica Mason (Dance) and Stephen Sondheim (Drama). It will be presented to him by our President at a date to be decied in the spring of next year.

Stephen Sondheim, who turned 80 last year, the most influential of all Broadway composer/lyricists alive today, is responsible for shows such as Sweeney Todd, revived this year to great acclaim at the Chichester Festival Theatre with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. It will to transfer to the Adelphi Theatre in the West End in March. He has described it as his love letter to London. Of his other shows, Company is soon to be revived at Sheffield, Follies, one of his Broadway hits, is back on Broadway, and his most recent show in London was the 2008 Road Show staged at the Menier Chocolate Factory. A much worked on piece - originally  known  in 2003 as Bounce - this production was considered to be as good as it gets and proved very popular. His other musicals seen here in recent years include Pacific Overtures, Sunday in the Park With George,  A Little Night Music directed by Trevor Nunn, Passion, Assassins, and Into The Woods - the last one several times, notably in the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. They have been performed in the West End, at the National Theatre, in fringe theatre and throughout the country.

He has not always been a critic's darling, let alone the public's darling. The London production in 1980 of at Drury Lane Sweeney Todd starring Sheila Hancock and Denis Quilley was a notorious flop, and the original  production of Into The Woods with Julia Mackenzie as the Witch was only a qualified success although it has since been revived several times to general acclaim, as indeed has A Little Night Music seen last with Hannah Waddington in London and on Broadway with Catherine Zeta Jones as Desiree singing Send In The Clowns, arguably his best known, although not necessarily his best, song. Sondheim songs are the staple of many a cabaret performer rather than of the hit parade. The last Broadway revival also starred Angela Lansbury, who began her musical career in a Sondheim show and was the original Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

 He has won seven Tony Awards and his Sunday in the Park With George earned him a Pulitzer Prize.  His shows seem to improve like good wine with the passage of time. It was probably the hit 1976 revue, Side by Side by Sondheim compiled by David Kernan and Ned Sherrin, which contained songs from his shows, that turned him into a favourite with London audiences. He was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein in the early years of his career and as a lyricist wrote the words for West Side Story and then Gypsy - he had written the music, but the star of the show, Ethel Merman, demanded a more established composer and the job went to Jule Stein. His first stand alone musical, the 1962 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Zero Mostell, was his first Broadway hit. Frankie Howerd starred in the successful London production. His career has had its  highs and lows. The lows on Broadway included Merrily We Roll Along - which lasted for 17 performances - and Anyone Can Whistle with Lansbury - which ran for nine.  But the highs outnumber them. He won an Oscar for the song he wrote for Dick Tracy, and wrote the lyrics for Richard Rogers' Do I Hear a Waltz? He is quite simply a colossus of the theatre who adds lustre to the Circle's already distinguished list of winners many of whom are still going strong.


Awards have three things to offer:cash, confidence and bric-a-brac. A few offer all three, but even though some of the bric-a-brac is handsome indeed, the only awards that have significant value are the ones the come with cash. They strengthen the artist by helping him to subsist and continue. (I bought a piano with one.) The confidence boosters have a temporary strengthening effect but, like good reviews, are dangerous:they lead recipients to overestimate themselves, and make them vulnerable to the disappointments that inevitably follow......

For the awardee, the most depressing is the lifetime achievement, which signifies one more nail in your coffin. It denotes the slippage from respect into veneration. (A retrospective is almost as dismaying but if you like your own work, a retrospective at least comes with an element of pleasureable pride.) In my blackest moment, I think it as the Thanks-a-Lot-and-Out-With-the-Garbage award.

Stephen Sondheim


Past winners of the award are listed on our History page

The Stephen Sondheim Society


Enquiries about the Critics' Circle should be made to the Hon Gen Sec Rick Jones by email or telephone 020 8698 2460. 


The Critics’ Circle is the oldest organisation of its kind in the world and to date has over 500 members who work in the media through the United Kingdom. It is not a trade union but a professional association of critics of drama, art and architecture, music, the cinema, dance and books. As such it has no power but plenty of prestige and not a little influence. Its objects are to promote the arts of criticism and to upholds its integrity in practice, to foster and safeguard the interests of its members, to provide opportunities for social intercourse among them, and to support the advancement of the arts, Admission to membership is by invitation of the Council, who in assessing the qualifications of a candidate are influenced though not bound by the recommendations of the Circle’s competent Sections.

    In 1907 a Society of Dramatic Critics was formed. Among those present at its inaugural dinner held in Romano's restaurant were A B Walkley in the chair, J T Grein and John Parker. By 1913 the society had become inactive although there had been an attempt by Richard Northcott to prepare the ground for the creation of a Critics’ Circle. Then Sir Robert Donald, editor of the Daily Chronicle, and President of the Institute of Journalists, suggested to his dramatic critic S R Littlewood that critics might with advantage be organised in a new body under the auspices of the Institute. Littlewood put the proposal to Grein, and he, with Parker in support, was enthusiastic, meetings were convened and the Critics’ Circle was born. At it first general meeting in the Hall of the Institute of Journalists Jack Grein took the stage and said – “Well, gentlemen, here we are! Let us do something. I propose that we begin by electing William Archer to the chair.” Archer then became president and Littlewood its Honorary Secretary to be succeeded in 1925 by Parker, who remained in that office until his death in 1952. In 1913 he had just finished the first edition of his now famous Who’s Who in the Theatre.

    Music as well as drama critics were declared eligible for membership of the Circle, and indeed the very first notice to be written by a member was of a pianoforte recital at the Queen’s Hall, to be followed a few nights later by the first play to be covered, George Alexander’s last revival, starring Mrs. Patrick Campbell and himself, of The Second Mrs Tanqueray, In those early days the Circle’s meetings were held in the hall of the Institute of Journalists in Tudor Street. The annual subscription was five shillings. Today it is £25.

    With the three founders being drama critics it was perhaps natural, if a little unkind, that the music members were styled the Music Committee (created in 1918 with Herman Klein as its chairman) whereas the drama representatives were named members, an anomaly not put right until many years later, In 1916 women were admitted to membership, The first lady members were Mrs Mabel Koopman who wrote for The Era and Mrs Cora Lawrence who wrote for Town Topics.

     In the following year a List of Members was issued (there were 80) with a foreword stating that the circle had been able to mediate successfully in several cases of differences of opinion between individual critics and theatrical managers and concert directors. In 1917 representations were made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding exemption of tax on Press Tickets, thanks to the support of an MP and the Institute of Journalists. This was the forerunner of many such intercessions, one of the most notable being the case of E Arnot Robertson, a film critic, who in 1948 brought an action for libel and slander against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and was awarded £1500 damages and costs. This judgement was reversed on appeal, and again on a further appeal to the House of Lords. The total cost to Miss Robertson was over £8000, but the Circle raised the money from it own funds, from individual members, and from the public.

    Another feature of the Circle’s activities was its annual dinner. Guests at these functions have embraced practically every leading practitioner of the performing arts – except Sir Thomas Beecham and Peter Sellers, both of whom accepted but did not turn up, In 1922 at the dinner held at the Savoy Hotel with Walkley in the chair one of the guests was Sir James Barrie, who dispensed with such formalities as “Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,” and began his speech -  “Scum. Critics to the right of him, critics to the left of him, critics upper entrance at the back leading to conservatory, critics downstage centre, into that Circle someone has blundered.”

   The chairman at these dinners was always the current president of the Circle, many of them have been celebrities in themselves. By this time membership of the Circle and risen to 100 and in 1924 the annual dinner was attended by 70 members.

    At another dinner in 1936 Sir Seymour Hicks presented to the Circle one of his most treasured possessions, Charles Dickens’ crystal drinking goblet, asking that it be used by the President “on all high occasions.” The goblet had been given to Hicks in 1901 by Dickens’ daughter Mrs Hogarth. It is still used “on all high occasions” notably at the annual lunch when the Circle's award for Services to the Arts is presented.

    At  the 1925 Theatrical Garden Party, then an annual event in aid of the Actors’ Orphanage, the attractions  included a short play written for the occasion by Ivor Brown with prologue spoken by Charles Morgan. The cast were all drama members of the Circle and notices appeared in the next day’s papers written by Seymour Hicks, George Grossmith, Evelyn Laye, Madge Titheradge, Gertrude Elliott and Lady Diana Manners, who all presented their fees to the charity. The dinner of that year was reported in the Daily Chronicle by James Agate.

    Film critics became eligible for membership of the Circle in 1926. Among the first was Iris Barry, then the film editor of The Daily Mail, who subsequently moved to America where she founded the film department of the Museum of modern Art and later became a curator. A year later in 1927 art critics were invited to become members, but this never really took off. (It was not until 2007 that an Art and Architecture section came to fruition). Critics of Ballet, subsequently renamed Dance, joined in 1951.

    In 1940 the designations Music Committee and Film Committee were at last abandoned and the three categories became the Drama, Music and Film Sections with a degree of individual powers, provided that their proceedings were reported to the main Council. A Television and Radio Section was inaugurated in 1971 – Broadcasting critics had been allowed in since 1924 – but this was abandoned a few years later because of the formation of the Broadcasting Press Guild.

    For many years the Circle held out against granting of awards, on the ground that criticism is essentially a matter of personal opinion and judgement and that any collective pronouncements are therefore worthless, since minority views would not be represented. Every individual favourable notice, it was argued, was an award in itself. This was upheld by a small majority in a 1956 referendum, though only some 20 per cent of members voted. However, this decision was reversed by a further referendum in 1980. The Film Section was first off the mark in organising awards which in the last few years have grown to the extent that they are now staged in a large West End hotel in aid of charity, attracting many celebrities from the industry, and being accepted as an extremely prestigious honour. The Drama Section Awards are deliberately more informal being presented by the critics themselves at a lunchtime gathering, which ensures that a high proportion of the winners are present. The Dance awards, known as the National Dance Awards since they are the only awards for dance in this country, were inaugurated in 2000. They have achieved considerable recognition in the dance world both in the UK and abroad. 

In 2011 the Music Section and Visual Arts Section presented their first awards, thus completing awards from all sections of the Circle.  The Music Section gave three awards for Exceptional Young Talent and one award for the Outstanding Musician.  The awards were presented to the winnners at events where they were performing thus receiving public recognition as well.  The Visual Arts Section first award went to an architect and an award in the form of a trophy created by a student at the Royal College of Art was gvien at an informal ceremony in London.

    Since 1968 the Circle as a whole has presented a special award to honour those who have rendered long and distinguished service to the arts. This now takes the form of a luncheon to which the winner is invited. The first recipient was Sir Peter Hall, the most recent being Peter Brook. Others to whom the award has been presented are Dame Ninette de Valois, Sir Michael Tippet, Paul Scofield, Sir David Lean, Sir John Mills, Sir Peter Ustinov, Sir John Drummond, Sir Peter Wright, Sir Richard Eyre, Dame Judi Dench, Alfred Brendel, Sir Edward Downes, Harold Pinter, Dame Alicia Markova, Sir Ian McKellen, Mike Leigh, Alan Bennett, Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Tom Stoppard.



The Archive

Ten boxes of old letters, press cuttings, menus and membership books of the Criics Circle since its beginnings on the eve of the First World War are kept in a temperature controlled barn belonging to the Museum of Theatre History in Bristol. Nothing of ours is on display in the rather limited space, but that is not to say the contents lack entertainment value. The type-written correspondence with Peter Sellers gives away his panic on the day of the Circle dinner, for instance. At least he sent a note. Beecham gave a few days' notice and spoke at other dinners to the one he missed. Only the time it took (9.23-9.40pm) is recorded of his 1927 oration.