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.