Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year

SSSSPOTY 2012

Venue: Queen's Theatre

Date: 27 May

Host: Claire Moore

Opening number: "Everybody’s Got the Right" (Assassins)

Guest performers: Taron Egerton, Suzie Chard, Beverly Rudd

Winner: Kris Olsen (Guildhall School of Acting)

Runner-up: Emma Salvo (Royal Academy of Music)

Best New Song: "Powercut" by Douglas Hodge and "Do You Want A Baby, Baby?" by Dougal Irvine

We are delighted to announce that Kris Olsen, of the Guildford School of Acting, has been awarded the title of The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2012. In a final that many have described as presenting the highest standards yet in the six-year history of the competition, Kris impressed the judges with his performance of "Buddy’s Blues" from Follies.

Kris was presented with his prize, a silver salver plus £1,000 (generously donated by Overtures, the Bunnett-Muir Musical Theatre Archive Trust) by Society Patron, Julia McKenzie.

Royal Academy of Music student Emma Salvo won the runner’s up prize of £500 with her performance of "Sunday In The Park With George".
 

In the Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Competition, the £1,000 prize was split equally between "Powercut" by  Douglas Hodge and "Do You Want A Baby, Baby?" by Dougal Irvine. The prize was judged by George Stiles, Anthony Drewe and Sean Gray.

A review by David Lardi

Another year, another SSSSPOTY. As in the two previous ones, through the generosity of Sir Cameron Macintosh we were able to enjoy the full facilities of Shaftesbury Avenue’s Queen’s Theatre, the peasants of Les Mis retreating behind their barricades for the afternoon at least.

Every year the competition gets bigger and better. As Society Chairman David Ovenden informed us, this year saw a record 69 entrants from some 30 theatre schools and music colleges. The overall standard seems to grow year-on-year causing difficult decisions having to be made, especially at the pruning process that is the heats round. In the end twelve finalists were chosen, along with two hapless reserves who at least were able to take the stage with the others for the opening “Everybody’s Got the Right” (Assassins), effectively staged by Director Chris Hocking.

 

Our genial host was West End star Claire Moore who, in her relaxed Northern manner, poked gentle fun at the previous night’s Eurovision Song Contest, as well as regaling us with stories of her (unsuccessfully) writing to Sondheim for coaching but eventually working with him at the creation of Putting It Together after whose first night she discovered her own father playing jazz piano to an audience of one — a certain Mr. S! She also contributed “Losing My Mind” (Follies) — seeming totally unfazed at having Julia McKenzie only a couple of feet away from her — as well as “Just Beyond the Stars” from Stiles & Drewe’s Peter Pan in which she had previously starred.

 

As most will know, the only condition that Mr Sondheim placed on allowing a competition to be held in his name was his insistence that each competitor should sing, alongside one of his own songs, a new one by emerging new talent. George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, along with Britishtheatre.com – the latter also sponsoring the overall event – donated the prizes for the latter, the plural here referring to the fact that, for the first time, there were two winners, along with three “commended”.

 

Those songs commended were “Blue Sky Thinking” (Bridges) by Chris Passey and Chris Smith, a life-journey song, well sung by Hatty Preston (LAMDA) who also performed a particularly energetic and somewhat unusual “Sooner or Later” (Dick Tracy), “Shine on Down” (Living the Dream) by Danny Davis & Pete Gallaher, a large-scale song for one of four wannabes, each trying to make their way in New York. This was powerfully delivered by Jason Broderick (Central), who also contributed a characterful and physical "The Day Off" (Sunday), and “Easier” by Conor Mitchell. This was an amusing song for a lonely, somewhat manic, diminutive Canadian who is living in London and is inevitably less than truthful when filling out his “lonely hearts” letters. This was effectively sung by Matthew Cavendish (LAMDA) who also gave us “Good Thing Going” (Merrily).

There were joint winners. “Powercut” (Meantime) is by that complete man of the theatre

actor/director/composer Douglas Hodge and is from his musical set entirely in an airport where a Staffer finally reveals that she lost her partner some time ago. This was movingly sung by Charlotte Smith (Oxford School of Drama) who also contributed one of only two Sondheim rarities heard, “Don’t Laugh” which he wrote in 1963 in collaboration with Mary Rodgers as the opening number for her Broadway musical Hot Spot.

 

The other winner was “Do you Want a Baby, Baby?” from The Busker’s Opera, a modern re-working of the The Beggar’s Opera in which Lucy Locket gives Macheath the news that their one-night-stand has been surprisingly fertile! A very funny song, this greatly benefited from Emma Salvo’s (RAM) hilarious performance. Comic timing to perfection!

 

Also making an impression were Charles Bloom’s “Why Can’t a Man Sing the Blues” – the title says it all – which was sung by Ewan Black (DSS) who also contributed the other (comparative) Sondheim rarity, “A Multitude of Amys”, a precursor of Company’s “Marry Me a Little” before that itself gave way to “Being Alive". Equally effective was (again) Chris Passey’s “If They Only Knew” (Bridges), a moving lament in which, at the graveside, a man mourns his recently deceased gay lover, but has to contain his grief as theirs was a less¬than-public relationship because his partner was also happily married. This was movingly sung by Kris Olsen (Guildford SA).

 

As in previous years, overall it was probably the comic songs that made the greater impression. All the songs were well selected by Mercury Musical Development, “an organisation dedicated to developing the craft of writing book, music and lyrics for musical theatre’. As such they are vital in bringing on emerging talent although, in the case of some of their writers, such as Charles Bloom, which might wonder if they’ve not already fully emerged.

 

The Sondheim side of the competition was particularly strong this year. All numbers were sensibly and suitably chosen. Other than those already mentioned Jennifer Greenwood (Bristol Old Vic) was particularly effective in “Everybody Loves Louis” (Sunday) as was Tia Renee Konsur (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) – the look reminding one of Caroline O’Connor, the voice somewhat of Bernadette Peters – in a well characterised “Witch’s Lament” (Woods).

 

But there has to be winners. Despite, for the first time this year, being able to award an official second prize the judges still felt the need for a third (unofficial) category of Highly Commended. (If we’re not careful we might end up with an “Alice in Wonderland”-type situation of “everybody has won, and all must have prizes”!) In this case it was Mark Donald who sang “Marry Me a Little (Company) very beautifully.

 

Both winner and runner-up have been mentioned previously. It must have been a particularly difficult decision but the latter was Emma Salvo with “Sunday in the Park with George”. This number is so effective when done well which it certainly was here. My scribbled notes on the day consisted of a single word – ”excellent” – then I sat back and enjoyed. No more needed to be said. For her it was a case of “second-time lucky” as she was previously in the heats in 2010 but didn’t get through. (I’m still here?) She is a natural comic and I’m sure she has a promising career ahead of her. She’d be particularly suited to Sondheim roles such as Little Red Riding Hood, a number of characters in Company and, eventually, Mrs Lovett.

 

Worthy winner was Kris Olsen. “Buddy’s Blues” (Follies is so well known and, over the years, many of us have enjoyed performances of the highest standard from the likes of Mandy Patinkin, David Healy, etc., but Kris had absolutely no need to fear comparison. He managed to give a performance that was as fresh as paint and, at the same time, absolutely “right”. No need for any excessive point-making here or going OTT, despite also having to be “Sally” and “Margie”. It was a masterclass on how to do it. I look forward to his future career with great anticipation.

 

The excellent jury was headed as usual by Edward Seckerson. Prizes were graciously presented, as always, by Julia McKenzie who seemed somewhat overwhelmed at the level of talent on display – “Quite wonderful!” The £1,000 first prize was through the generosity Overtures, the Bunnett-Muir Musical Theatre Archive Trust and it is Rex Bunnett who is kindly hosting this year’s Garden party on 17 June. The second prize of £500 was jointly funded by the Newsome family and an anonymous society member in memory of Rodney West (Bristol Old Vic).

 

The greatest applause of the day deservedly went to Musical Director Mark Etherington who turned his piano into a full orchestra. He had to cope with twenty-eight numbers in total. If “Art Isn’t Easy”, neither is playing piano reductions of fourteen Sondheim items, not to mention twelve totally unfamiliar numbers. Claire Moore publicly acknowledged his contribution which is more than the competitors did individually. They’d be a bit lonely up there without him!

 

Competition aside, last year’s winner Taron Egerton contributed “Finishing the Hat (Sunday) but for many in the theatre the undoubted highlight of the afternoon was “I’m So Over Men”, a duet for the Ugly Sisters from Stiles & Drew new show Soho Cinders. This was certainly a modern take on the characters, wonderfully portrayed by Beverly Rudd and Suzie Chard. Modestly attired they certainly weren’t! Those in the audience who would admit to ever having read that scurrilous magazine Viz must have been reminded inevitably of one of that comic’s greatest creations, those two, er, somewhat rotund ladies of low moral fibre! (If the foregoing means absolutely nothing to you just count yourself lucky!) Raucous, crude and vulgar it certainly was. It was also incredibly funny and brought the house down. The whole work can be seen for a limited six-week season at the Soho Theatre — where else? — from 2 August. A definite “must see” but probably not as a pre-Christmas treat for the kiddies — well, not unless they’re teenagers!

 

Another cause for celebration was that this year we attracted our highest ever audience. If you weren’t there yourself, why not?! In years to come you would have been able to say that you’d been at the West End debuts of Emma and Kris. Well, maybe next year?

The Finals – A Winner’s View by Kris Olsen

Some time has passed since I walked out of Queen’s Theatre with a silver salver and a massive headache. The excitement, the surprise, the joy, the tension and the attention was so overwhelming that for a minute thought I would explode and evaporate in a cloud of question marks.

When I moved from Norway to England to start my studies at Guildford School of Acting nearly three years ago, I soon opened my eyes to Stephen Sondheim’s works. I had both seen and done some of his shows translated to Norwegian, but working on his material in the original language was a whole new world; material that needed an intelligent approach, layer upon layer and not a single word without meaning – an actor’s dream.

 

Entering my third and final year in training, there was no doubt that I wanted to be considered for the competition, and after two audition rounds at GSA I was lucky enough to be put forward as one of two GSA representatives. A few weeks and a preliminary audition round in London later, I was sitting in a dressing room in Queen’s Theatre biting my nails and correcting my bowtie, humming, restlessly prancing around and emptying my nervous bladder every three minutes. I was there. I never stopped to ask how or why; but I was there.

 

Though it was a competition, the atmosphere backstage was anything but competitive. The respect, the support and the banter between the finalists made it an amazing experience from start to finish, and the Stephen Sondheim Society had arranged everything to make it as comfortable and nice for us as possible. We all agreed while the jury was making their decision: no matter the outcome of their decision, it had been a day to remember for the rest of our lives.

 

I want to thank the Stephen Sondheim Society for arranging such a tremendous event, and for giving me the opportunity to take part in it. I could write a list longer than the Thames with names of people I want to thank for every little event in my life leading up to this moment, but I’ll keep it short, after all it’s not a biography: my eminent singing teacher Kevin Fountain, the piano magician Niall Bailey, the very talented composer Chris Passey, the jury who appreciated my performance, everyone who came to support me at Queen’s Theatre and of course the members of the Stephen Sondheim Society: I hope you all enjoyed the afternoon, and I hope to see many of the members again in the future.

 

From a happy Norwegian with a head back in its place: Tusen takk! Thank you!

As a sidenote: the day of the final I set myself a goal. To win? No. To have a cuddle with Julia McKenzie. And she announced the winner. I might have received a salver and a cheque, but the true pleasure was to achieve the goal I had set for myself, in front of several hundred witnesses. Always strive to reach your personal goals!

The Student Performer of the Year Finalists (in order of performance)

Matt Corner (ArtsEd, London)

Jennifer Greenwood (Bristol of Old Vic Theatre School)

Mark Donald (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School)

Jason Broderick (Central School of Speech and Drama)

Ewan Black (Dance School of Scotland at Knightswood Sec School)

Kris Olsen (winner) (Guildford School of Acting)

Bryan Parry (Italia Conti Academy)

Hatty Preston (LAMDA)

Matthew Cavendish (LAMDA)

Tia Renée Konsur (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts)

Charlotte Smith (Oxford School of Drama)

Emma Salvo (runner-up) (Royal Academy of Music)

Judges

Student Performer of the Year: Edward Seckerson (Chair), Julia McKenzie, Laurie Sansom, David Shrubsole, Michael McCabe and Danielle Hope.

Stiles+Drewe Prize for Best New Song: Sean Gray, George Stiles & Anthony Drewe

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