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David Kernan (23 June 1938–26 December 2023)

Portrait of David Kernan
David Kernan, who passed away on Boxing Day 2023

It’s with much sadness that we learned on Boxing Day of the passing of our patron David Kernan. David played a key role in popularising the work of Stephen Sondheim in the UK (and beyond), thanks primarily to the revue show Side by Side by Sondheim.


David conceived of the Sondheim revue in 1975 as a Sunday-night benefit concert for Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, who ran The Stables Theatre in Wavendon, Buckinghamshire. He was playing the role of Count Carl-Magnus in the Original London cast of A Little Night Music at the time, and came up with the idea of a revue of Sondheim songs as yet unproduced in the UK - originally entitled The Sondheim Songbook - after discussions with Night Music’s MD Ray Cook and assistant MD Stuart Pedlar. 


Montage of images celebrating David Kernan

David sought help from director Ned Sherrin, with whom he had worked on the satirical TV series That Was The Week That Was. Sherrin agreed to produce and narrate the show, and the pair brought on board Julia McKenzie and fellow TW3 star Millicent Martin. Following its debut at Wavendon in October 1975, with Cook and Pedlar as MDs, the show was produced at various theatres now, thanks to a suggestion from Julia, renamed Side by Side by Sondheim  before reaching London’s Mermaid Theatre. Its producer this time was a young Cameron Mackintosh, who, despite not seeing the original Wavendon performance, was convinced to bring it to the capital by none other than Christopher Biggins!


The show proved to be a huge success and transferred to Wyndhams in July 1976 then to the Garrick, finally closing on 29 April 1978.


Hal Prince, who was invited to the opening night at the Mermaid, was convinced to take SbSbS to New York, insisting to Equity that the UK cast must be transferred. So it was that David’s “Broadway baby” opened on the Great White Way in the Music Box Theatre on 18 April 1977. David, Julia, Millie and Ned all received Tony nominations for their performances. As it did in the UK, the show also did wonders for Steve’s popularity, finally convincing audiences that he could “write a tune you can hum”!

Beyond Sondheim, Kernan’s credits included On the Bright Side (195960), Gaolbreak (1962), Mix Me A Person (1962), Farewell Performance (1963), Zulu (1964), The Avengers (1966 and 1976), Dr Finlay’s Casebook (1967), Otley (1968), Up the Chastity Belt (1971), Up Pompeii (1970), the original London production of 1776 (1970), Carry On Abroad (1972), Upstairs, Downstairs (1972), The Day of the Jackal (1973), BBC’s TV’s The Good Old Days (1970/80s), The Education of Sonny Carson (1974), She Loves Me (TV adaptation, 1978), Treasure Island (1982), Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood (1986), Noel/Cole Let’s Do It (1994) and The Chief (1995).


Mandy Dixon, former Chair of The Stephen Sondheim Society, writes: “David was a lovely, witty, man whose singing and championship of Sondheim's work was second to none. In the many Sondheim workshops that the Society ran at the Theatre Museum in the late 1990s, he generously gave his expertise in performing Sondheim to young actors who are now household names.


“He also raised huge sums of money for AIDS charities by putting on one-night musical theatre revues, at a time when this was not a popular cause.


“I think, though, that my best memory of him was of him and his leather-clad companion getting steadily drunker and merrier at a Sondheim celebration aftershow party!”


“My life was better because of you,” said actor Julie Judge. “Thanks for sharing your love of musical theatre, and performances. So many wonderful hours enjoying BBC Radio 2’s Songs From The Shows and so many Sondheim galas.”


Paul Monaghan, Head of Acting at the London College of Performing Arts: “Deeply saddened to learn of the passing of David Kernan. He was a beautiful man. I shared the stage with him in Aspects of Love. His George, definitive. I stood, nightly, in the wings as he performed "Other Pleasures". It was a masterclass, he was my friend. RIP Daddy 💔”


John Barr: “RIP David Kernan. Fly safe and thank you for being such a huge inspiration to me as a young boy. I saw you on TV on those Side by Side specials and thought I want to be just like you. Your version of ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ is perfection. Thank you.”


Tess Robinson, director of the recent production of Sondheim on Sondheim at The Bridewell Theatre: “Very sad to hear this news. David Kernan was so important in British Theatre especially when it came to Sondheim’s work. I was honoured that he wished us his best when we revived Sondheim on Sondheim at its original home where he had developed Moving On, The Bridewell Theatre.”


Broadway producer Jamie DuMont: “RIP David Kernan. Side By Side was my gateway into Sondheim and his rendition of ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ is by far my favorite version of this song (sorry, Lee).”


Eden Phillips, actor/producer: “Farewell David Kernan, who passed away on Boxing Day morning. We were friends for 50 years and created the revue Dorothy Fields Forever (200102) together. Not only a dear friend with a huge circle of dear friends, but a consummate performer from TW3 to Side By Side By Sondheim.”

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