Julian Eaves reviews the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Awards, the Stiles and Drewe Prize and the Stiles and Drewe Mentorship Award 2018
This year, the exquisite Savoy Theatre played host to this lively industry event, where 12 of the leading musical theatre graduates from up and down the land put their wares on display in a good-natured competition showcasing their talents in core and new rep. Each contestant has to perform a Sondheim song, and also a (technically) new work from songwriters who are members of Mercury Musical Developments. MD Mark Etherington was at the piano throughout, taking us through the packed programme of 31 musical numbers. We were in the loving hands of Mistress of All Ceremonies, Tracie Bennett, for this show, and also got to hear from Stiles and Drewe themselves.
Things got off to a rip-roaring start in the ensemble, ‘Make The Most Of Your Music’ (written for the original London production of ‘Follies’), where the students pulled together showing what they can do with choral or ensemble pieces. Sondheim has himself remarked on more than one occasion and in print, that he is not for beginners; but you have to start somewhere, and this window into the starting blocks of their careers offers a tantalising glimpse of what glories may lie in store a few years down the line. And if you don’t build a future, it won’t happen.
Will Carey had the tough job of going first – with ‘Giants In The Sky’, which he managed very nicely. But nothing could have prepared us for the stunningly accomplished turn offered by Alex Cardall in ‘Buddy’s Blues’: from his entrance, he seized the stage as if he owned it, and launched into a dazzlingly physical act that brought genuine dramatic life to the role. Immediately, this left many in no doubt as to the likely outcome of the competition: even if he didn’t win – which seemed unlikely – he was going to be a very tough act to equal or surpass. Having started in music and theatre at an early age, and with a voracious appetite for doing new things – like going off and joining a contemporary dance group, and – today – expanding into some pretty nifty mime, he is able – crucially – to be his own entrepreneur, manager, producer and MD, bringing a strong sense of his own creativity to every project. When he capped this by the brilliantly well contrasted ‘You and Me’ (one of two songs by the talented American MD, Adam Wachter in this year’s competition), it became clear that his thoughtfulness and grasp of theatrical effect placed him in a virtually unassailable position. It was no surprise when he won. I am sure we will be hearing and seeing a lot more of him in the very near future.
How it must have felt for the others to have to go on after that turn is anyone’s guess, but I think it should be instructive to all who prepare for such competitions that you can – and quite possibly should – do a lot more than just ‘the expected’ to bring the character and song properly into existence. Nevertheless, the history of competitions is a lesson in not taking things for granted: think of all those who didn’t win, or who didn’t get short-listed, and who still went on to build great careers.
Next, we got Emily Beresford, whose ‘Don’t Laugh’ was smart and clear. Sabi Perez gave us a lovely ‘Could I Leave You?’. James Stirling threw himself bodily into ‘Hello, Little Girl’, including a very strong howl at the end, and Donal Finn took us lucidly through ‘The Flag Song’ from ‘Assassins’. All this was very encouraging. But then we got a window into what many, many years of experience and honing of the craft can achieve: Di Botcher, of the recent London revival of ‘Follies’, came on to give a perfect rendition of ‘Broadway Baby’ – exhilarating and touching in wonderfully equal measure. This was, as they say, how to do it. Gestures were kept to a minimum, the song was thought-through, and – hardest of all to nail down – felt from the heart: that really is the toughest element to get right with Sondheim, and the biggest ask for younger performers whose hearts, one hopes, have not been dragged through quite the mill of life that more grown up grown-ups have had to endure… not yet, anyway. (But, who knows?…)
In the second half came Bonnie Badoo with a brassy and bold ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ and matched it with a well balanced ‘Down The Stairs’, another of Wachter’s numbers. Shelby Flannery stunned all with her beautiful poise in ‘I Wish I Could Forget You’, and she certainly has many more surprises in store for us in the future. Elliott Wooster’s lighter ‘Love I Hear’ was a good performance – but how does a boy barely out of his teens really convey the song’s knowing ironical winks and pokes? I’m not quite sure. Look at the background: Brian Davies, who introduced the song in 1962 had three years earlier created the role of Rolf in ‘The Sound of Music’: somebody with that much Broadway experience cannot be classed, in all seriousness, as an ingenu: well, can he? On the other hand, Pedro Leandro’s heroic attempt at ‘Being Alive’ pointed out some of the scary technical dangers that Sondheim can present: this is a singer’s song and you need a bundle-full of technique to master it; nevertheless, he recovered blazingly in a perfectly controlled ‘Set The Alarm For Six’, a gorgeously well-written song from the team of A C Smith and Bella Barlow, from whom – please, please, please – let us hear a whole lot more soon.
Meanwhile, Amara Okereke’s two songs – ‘Not A Day Goes By’ from ‘Merrily’, and ‘Shone With The Sun’ by Benjamin Till, Nathan Taylor and Sir Arnold Wesker – seemed to cover intriguingly similar territory: perhaps that instinct is what is already giving her career a very promising start in the West End: book for ‘Les Miserable’ now. And Thomas Grant gave us a terrific stab at the TV interview scene (also from ‘Merrily’), whose first two sections were staged very compellingly, even if the energy level dipped a bit for the third; his ‘new’ song choice, Rob Eyles and Robert Gould’s ‘As Long As I Have Music’, like so many of these MMD interpolations, has been doing the rounds for some years by now. Is there really such a dearth of new material being written, or submitted? This seems difficult to believe.
Finally, we got the three finalists in the Mentorship Programme. Isabella Pappas and Bradley Riches gave us the one-joke gospel-parody, ‘Let Out The Thunder In You’ (most recently heard a couple of Mondays ago, at The Other Palace), and Thomas Sutcliffe and Kayleigh McKnight swept us away with an Andrew Lloyd-Webber inspired ‘What Beauty Is’ from a musicalisation of ‘The Mill on the Floss’. But there seemed nothing they could do to stop the irresistible force that is Tori Allen-Martin with her sensationally direct, clear, honest and involving ‘He Doesn’t Exist’, a beautifully written and emotionally truthful song from a new work by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan, writers whose originality stands head and shoulders above their competitors. No-one was surprised, surely, when they took the first prize.
Instructively, we also got re-visits. Both Izuka Hoyle and Oscar Conlon-Morrey – winners from last year – came back to give us, respectively, ‘Last Midnight’ from ‘Into The Woods’ and ‘The Contest’ from ‘Sweeney Todd’. What a beautifully contrasting pair of numbers these were, and how magically both were realised and staged with deft insight into what makes for exciting musical theatre. Hoyle gave us sleek seduction, creeping up on us in an intensely dramatic crescendo of menace; and Conlon-Morrey (with some swiftly improvised support from no less a second than Peter Polycarpou) showed us once again his bravura style of creating a total ‘scene’. Both these artists are fortunate enough to be doing interesting work – and plenty of it, making great strides in the growth of their careers. It is marvellous to see them come back to the competition, showing what can be done with the leg-up that this remarkable forum offers.
So, once again, many thanks to the Society, to MMD, and to Stiles and Drewe, and all other loyal – and generous (thank you, Julia McKenzie and Tracie Bennett) – supporters. Musical theatre life in the country just would not be the same without you all.