Last Updated on 12th June 2023
Mark Ludmon reviews the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2023 held at the Sondheim Theatre, London.
Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2023
Sondheim Theatre, London
Sondheim Society Website
“Behold the hills of tomorrow,” sing the finalists at the start of the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2023 competition. The song from Merrily We Roll Along, about the tempestuous and flawed careers of three friends, is tinged with irony but in this annual show at London’s Sondheim Theatre it radiates nothing but hope and promise.
The contest, known affectionately by the acronym Sssspoty, is now in its 15th year and has previously featured some of today’s musical theatre stars including Cynthia Erivo, Courtney Bowman, Amara Okereke, Jamie Bogyo, Danielle Steers, Carl Au, Shaq Taylor and Oscar Conlon-Morrey as well as 2011 winner Taron Egerton, 2013 winner Turlough Convery and 2015 winner Erin Doherty. It is a wonderful opportunity to catch the stars of tomorrow before they hit the big time, and the levels of talent and skill on display this year suggest that many will be seen on stage sooner rather than later.
One of the competition’s previous winners, Alex Young, returned this year to host the event, holding the show together with confidence and playful charm. She was reunited with musical director Nigel Lilley who accompanied all 12 of the finalists on the piano on stage throughout. Alex Young even performed her own winning solo of yesteryear (2010), the title song in “Sunday in the Park with George”, this time accompanied by an actual George, the actor George Kemp. She partnered another guest, Ellie Nunn, in a glorious, hilarious duet, “There’s Always a Woman” – a song cut from Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle.
Lesser-known Sondheim songs proved a popular choice for the student performers too. Josh Lewingdon from Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama opted for “Multitudes of Amys”, cut from Company, while Ritesh Manugula, also from Royal Welsh, found “Flag Song”, cut from Assassins. A quarter of the Sondheim songs came from Evening Primrose – the rarely staged short musical originally written for TV in the 1960s. Lucy Carter from the Royal Academy of Music sung its best-known showstopper, “I Remember”, with beauty and clarity while Tom O’Kelly from the Royal Academy of Music presented “Take Me to the World” and Harry Lake from Guildford School of Acting impressed with an engaging and charismatic performance of “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here”. Harry Warburton, also from Guildford School of Acting, gave a witty and charming rendition of “Class” from Sondheim’s early musical, Saturday Night, while Pétur Svavarsson from the Royal Academy of Music was spell-blinding with “I Wish I Could Forget You” from Passion.
But there were plenty of more familiar choices such as Sara Bartos from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with “Stay With Me” from Into the Woods, Emily Ridge from Leeds Conservatoire with “Broadway Baby” from Follies and Isobel Twist from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School with “Losing My Mind” from Follies. One of the stand-out performances was the last, from Milly Willows from Italia Conti, with a hilarious and stunning take on Mrs Lovett’s “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd – contributing to her winning the overall title of Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2023 and the £1,000 prize. Emily Botnen from the Royal Academy of Music took second prize, and £500, after impressing with her vocal and acting skills in “Everybody Loves Louis” from Sunday in the Park with George. Harry Warburton and Pétur Svavarsson were highly commended.
The competition is not just about Sondheim. In line with his support of young composers, it requires the finalists to perform a second song from a recent or new musical. Milly Willows proved she was not just adept at comedy with “A Story of My Own” from Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter. Emily Botnen brought poignancy and beauty to “Watchin’ the Door” from Caroline Wigmore and Jen Green’s Van Winkle: A Folk Musical. Other musicals mined for the competition were Alex James Ellison’s Fiver, Dominic Powell’s Cases, Jason Carr’s Six Pictures of Lee Miller, Craig Adams’ Lift, Sarah Middleton and Josh Sneesby’s The Blackfriars Boys, and two from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, Betty Blue Eyes and Soho Cinders.
The 12 finalists were picked from 260 applications from music and drama schools across the UK, starting with video submissions and whittled down to 80 for in-person auditions. The final judging took place during the gala final, led by Edward Seckerson with Nicola Hughes, Michael Jibson, Jenna Russell and Julia McKenzie who announced the winners and presented the prizes. While they conferred, we enjoyed more Sondheim from the National Youth Musical Theatre ensemble and last year’s Sssspoty winner Desmonda Cathabel who stood out in From Here To Eternity at London’s Charing Cross Theatre.
As Julia McKenzie pointed out, it was a “tough decision” for the judges as the level of talent was so high this year. But, taking place on the same West End stage as Les Misérables, the competition showcases some of the best of this year’s graduates – and if they can successfully perform Sondheim songs with all their musical complexities, dexterities and nuances, they are well equipped to tackle anything in musical theatre.