It’s not often one has the opportunity of seeing two Sondheim related shows on a Sunday, even in London, but last weekend proved to be a welcome exception. In the afternoon, twelve lucky students who had been chosen as the finalists in the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Competition 2012 (or SSSSPOTY for short), got the chance to perform on the stage of the Queens Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. SSSSPOTY has been around for six years now, and at Sondheim’s request the students also sing new songs by up-and-coming musical theatre composers. After a stirring group number, ‘Everybody’s Got It Right’ from Sondheim’s lesser performed Assassins, the students all got the chance to perform one Sondheim song and one new song. The standard was high (the best yet according to the judges) and there were no weak links.

The Sondheim numbers chosen this year included some lesser-known numbers. Charlotte Smith chose ‘Don’t Laugh’ – a number I hadn’t previously heard – from Hot Spot, a 1963 show that Sondheim had composed additional music for. Hatty Preston gave a sultry version of ‘Sooner or Later’, a song that Sondheim wrote for the 1990 movie Dick Tracy. Ewan Black gave a witty version of a song cut from Company, ‘Multitudes of Amys’, and Kris Olsen did well with the witty Buddy’s Blues from Follies. The old Sondheim faithfuls were also featured, of course, and I particularly enjoyed Matthew Cavendish’s well-judged ‘Good Thing Going’ from Merrily We Roll Along and Bryan Parry’s confident rendering of ‘Everybody Says Don’t’ from Anyone Can Whistle.

George Stiles and Anthony Drewe were there to present their Best New Song Prize and the standard and accessibility (on first hearing) of the new songs this year was high. Jennifer Greenwood made an early impression with Charles Bloom’s Easy, as a woman who has just freed herself from a difficult relationship. Kris Olsen gave a moving rendering of ‘If They Only Knew’ from Chris Passey’s musical Bridges, as a man left bereft by the passing of a married man with whom he was deeply in love. Another song from that show, ‘Blue Sky Thinking’ was sung by Hatty Preston, playing a struggling actress who has been offered work in New York and is contemplating leaving her old life behind. Emma Salvo gave a savvy rendering of Dougal Irvine’s ‘Do You Want a Baby, Baby?’ from The Busker’s Opera, sung with much verve. And charismatic actress Tia Renée Konsur scored with Alexander Bermange’s ‘Somehow I’ll Be Famous’ from The Route to Happiness, where her character, an actress, has learned that she has just failed another audition, sung with wit and heart.

The compere for the afternoon was the lovely Claire Moore, an actress who although best known for originating roles in Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, has done her fair share of Sondheim, including Follies and the British premiere of Putting It Together in Oxford. Indeed, Moore regaled the audience with her own Sondheim story of finding the great composer sitting listening to her jazz pianist father playing in a secluded corner at the opening night party of Putting It Together. Moore also gave an emotional rendering of ‘Losing My Mind’ at the first half curtain, and treated us to ‘Just Beyond The Stars’ from Stiles and Drewe’s Peter Pan, which she starred in at the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago (‘I had such a long break off stage that I took singing lessons in between scenes’ she joked). Stiles and Drewe’s new show Soho Cinders, about to open at the Soho Theatre, also got a look-in, with a sassy and saucy ‘I’m So Over Men’ from Beverly Rudd and Suzie Chard, wetting the appetite for that forthcoming show. The judges – led by broadcaster and journalist Ed Seckerson and Sondheim leading lady Julia McKenzie – gave a well-deserved runners-up prize to Emma Salvo, with the fantastic Kris Olsen taking home first prize from the Queens Theatre stage.

It was on that very stage at the Queens Theatre where I saw Stephen Sondheim’s Passion in 1996, and the leading lady from that musical, Maria Friedman (who won an Olivier Award for her performance as Fosca), featured in the second Sondheim show of the day. Friedman – who has emerged as the leading exponent of Sondheim’s work in this country over the last 20 or more years, gave an evening concert Sondheim and Me at the Rayne Theatre at Chickenshed Theatre Company in North London. Some 40 minute tube journey from Central London, the theatre is set in its own lovely grounds, and the auditorium is wonderfully intimate and acoustically brilliant. An all Sondheim programme featuring Friedman alongside regular collaborator, pianist, composer and arranger Jason Carr, this one-off fundraising event was a memorable and magical evening.

Friedman’s Sondheim programme included selections from Sunday in the Park with George and Sweeney Todd in which she has starred, as well as Follies, Company and many others. Explaining that she first met Sondheim when she was asked to sing ‘Broadway Baby’ at a gala when someone else dropped out at the last minute, he then saw her in a play she was doing and she was eventually cast in her first Sondheim show Sunday in the Park with George at the National Theatre. Opening her programme with ‘Broadway Baby’, Friedman’s take on that song is not an overly-done showstopper like so many versions, but a tender and urging plea from an aspiring performer desperate for a break. Friedman offers honest and well-judged renderings of Sondheim’s songs, from a tender ‘Marry Me A Little’ from Company to an earnest and direct ‘Children Will Listen’ from Into the Woods, even coercing a reluctant audience member to join her in Mrs Lovett’s pie shop for ‘The Worst Pies in London’ from Sweeney Todd.

Friedman is a witty and engaging host who has the ability to make every member of the audience feel that she is speaking to them personally. Indeed, she invited questions from the audience in the second half, talking about the Sondheim shows she has appeared in and her love of his music. Later this year, Friedman will direct Merrily We Roll Along, a Sondheim show she appeared in at Leicester Haymarket some years ago. Explaining that they are currently in the process of casting the show, she promised that there would be some wonderful talent involved. One member of the audience asked Friedman why she had not included any songs from Passion in her programme, and Friedman and Carr joked that they had rehearsed a whole section of songs from Passion but that Friedman liked to change the programme at the last minute (‘but it always works!’ she protests), and they weren’t sure how many of the audience would know those songs. By popular demand, Friedman curtailed the questions and performed the Passion segment, bringing back many memories of her moving and challenging performance in that show. It was a particular pleasure to hear ‘Loving You’ again, a short segment of a song that says so much in so few lines, sung here with truth and integrity.

Stephen Sondheim is, of course, well known as a composer who writes challenging lyrics which can cause difficulty for even the most experienced musical theatre performer. Friedman’s first attempt at ‘Getting Married Today’ from Company ended in a fit of giggles, as it is so full of tongue-twisting lyrics sung at a very fast tempo. Friedman vowed to get it right and not to finish the show until she did. A successful rendering and another standing ovation later, Friedman ended her Sondheim evening with ‘Isn’t He Something?’ from his latest musical Road Show, which played at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year, bringing to an end a beautiful May day filled to the brim with Sondheim songs. ‘Isn’t He Something?’ – indeed.