In the pool with Steve

Sondheim's admirers talk among themselves.

Sondheim at 80
Radio 3

“And of course," Stephen Sondheim was saying when I flicked over to Radio 3's transmission of the Sondheim at 80 Prom (31 July, 7.30pm), "we ended up with Mandy up there and Bernie down here . . . and in the case of Angela you just can't tell . . ." From the audience, appreciative laughter as they drank all the first names in. "I just wanted to get the great British Sondheimians together," cooed SS's interlocutor. "Janet and Maria?" "Maria, of course!" "Simon?" "Yes!"

(I should stress that this conversation was happening in front of a live audience of hundreds - and not at Joe Allen at the tail end of the evening when you realise the tears you've been shedding for half an hour are just chemical condensations and you're smiling at strangers horribly in that "my people will contact your people" way.)

“Y'know, most of the shows I've written have very strong librettos," admitted SS - at first modestly, and then, what the hell, putting his full weight behind the statement. "They are shows that last. Young performers and actors today would rather perform my shows than be connected with Rodgers and Hammerstein, which is very popular, but not as rewarding for the performers. Mine are characters with substance. I'm a playwright manqué! Songs are little plays, basically. Which is something I learned from Oscar, of course."

Throughout this monologue, which was delivered unconvincingly, guiltily almost, as though the speaker knew he was metaphorically skimming money while buying the drinks, SS's interviewer took a well-earned break. "What makes you so remarkable, Stephen," he interrupted after a while, "is - as the critic from the Times points out here - you're 'a revolutionary in a reciting form'."

The audience, like a congregation woozy from fasting, murmured their comprehensive assent. One could even picture several of them raising their fists in salute. "It's true," agreed SS, "I'm like Ronald - writing madly off in all directions . . ."

(Which critic from the Times? I hate critics. Or, more specifically, I long for the days when the only critic that mattered was Barry Norman, with his hair the colour of an industrial disaster and his collapsed face, looking permanently as if he were about 30 minutes into a film and knew he was in for another hour of rubbish.)

Next, a montage of soundbites from actors in tonight's show. In the background, the noise of an orchestra tuning up and technicians consulting each other. I imagined the scene: sound desks flashing like Geiger counters detecting bodily activity. The Sondheimians, tubed scores in hand, raising a harassed eyebrow to a passing assistant. "Musically it's very challenging," confirmed one. "But even more challenging are the demands Stephen makes on you to be emotionally honest."

The background noise was subtly dimmed - a system Radio 3 uses to bestow extreme status on the next speaker. By now your reviewer was cringing in anticipation at the completely inevitable contribution from Dame Judi. Or Judi, rather. "I actually met Stephen in Majorca a long time ago. We arrived and he was in the pool and they said to Michael and Finty and me, 'Oh, that's Steve," and - I say this with not a degree of exaggeration - we've got Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, the music of Beethoven. And we have Stephen Sondheim."

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days