Venue: Playhouse Theatre
Date: 31 May
MD: Nigel Lilley
Director: Bill Deamer
Host: Rosemary Ashe
Opening number: "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" (Sweeney Todd)
Guest performers: Rosemary Ashe
Winner: Michael Peavoy (RADA)
Honourable mention: James Smoker (Royal Academy of Music)
Best New Song: "Wake Up TV" by Olly Ashmore (sung by Amy Payne)
The Student Performer of the Year Finalists (in order of performance)
Aaron Lee Lambert (Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama)
Sondheim: "Talent" (Bounce)
BNS: "The Day I First Saw You" by John Farndon & Howard Gosling
Hara Yannas (LAMDA)
Sondheim: "Moments in the Wood" (Into the Woods)
BNS: "The Perfect Stranger" by Eric Angus & Paul James
Cynthia Erivo (RADA)
Sondheim: "The Miller's Song" (A Little Night Music)
BNS: "Yesterday's Child" by Dick Walter
Brett Lee Roberts (Birmingham School of Acting)
Sondheim: "Multitudes of Amys" (Company)
BNS: "Thirty-Two Bucks" by Paul Graham Brown
Lisa Lynch (Mountview Academy)
Sondheim: "Steps of the Palace" (Into the Woods)
"Strip Away the Frosting" by Youn Young Park & Susannah Pearse
James Smoker (Honourable mention) (Royal Academy of Music)
Sondheim: "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" (Evening Primrose)
BNS: "To be Perfectly Frank" by Stuart Wood
Oliver McCarthy (University of Sheffield)
Sondheim: "Happily Ever After" (Company)
BNS: "Losing the Plot" by Denise Wright & Chris Burgess
Francesca Leyland (Arts Educational)
Sondheim: "See What It Gets You" (Anyone Can Whistle)
BNS: "Let's Pretend" by Joe & Jim Graham
Alyn Hawke (Arts Educational)
Sondheim: "Everybody Says Don't" (Anyone Can Whistle)
BNS: "Whatever It Takes" by Andrew Brinded, William Christopherson & Tamara Samuels
Amy Payne (Guildhall School)
Sondheim: "I Wish I Could Forget You" (Passion)
BNS: "Wake Up TV" by Olly Ashmore
Michael Peavoy (winner) (RADA)
Sondheim: "Finishing the Hat" (Sunday in the Park with George)
BNS: "To be a Man" by Matt Gimblett & Julian Chenery
Laura Harrison (Central School)
Sondheim: "The Worst Pies in London" (Sweeney Todd)
BNS: "My Prince" by Alexander S. Bermange
Student Performer of the Year: Edward Seckerson (Chair), David Babani, Richard Balcombe, Kim Criswell, Stuart Piper
Stiles+Drewe Prize for Best New Song: George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
Finishing The Heats – A Judge’s View by Edward Seckerson
For those less sad than I, the title is a pun on the Sondheim song "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George – a song, a show, about the art of making art.
Tell me about it. For the second year running, I’ve spent a whole day listening to 44 students sing forty four Sondheim songs in the hope of reaching the final of The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year competition, which takes place here today.
As Chairman of the jury, it’s down to me to ensure that we get the best possible mix and the best possible show on the day. As ever, the varying but sometimes very high standard of the heats reflected the level of care – or not – that some schools and some tutors bestow upon their students. Only one of those tutors took the trouble to be there for his two students on the day. Is it a coincidence that they both got through? I don’t think so.
Expect a high standard from the twelve that have been chosen. Some will rise to the occasion, some will not – but all with have learned something. I offered a smattering of feedback to entrants this time around: “Did that feel comfortable? What about a little more mix in the belt? Don’t afraid to be dirtier! Don’t overwork the lyric. Why so angry?”
One lad gave us "Being Alive", hitting every line of lyric like his life, and ours, depended upon it. It was relentless but it had passion. He’d already left the building when we decided to get him back. I gave him some notes, he took them, he sang the song again. He’s in the final.
The Heats – An Observer’s View by Doug Pinchin (Richard Douglas Productions)
These days we have all become accustomed to talent shows. The television schedules are awash with prime-time programmes seeking the latest West End star, pop idol or act for the Royal Variety Show. Often, but not always, the quality of the talent on view is, to say the least, questionable.
Sometimes I wonder if the judges are really hearing what I am hearing as a contestant fails miserably to stay in tune and is given huge praise for, what to me is, a lamentable performance. In some shows the audience leaps to its collective feet if a singer actually manages to hit “the money note”. I find this rather strange as isn’t this what they are supposed to do if the song calls for it? A successful change of key is often greeted by cheers and screams. All very exciting I’m sure and wonderful television, but it does make this jaded viewer wonder why the audience is so surprised that a singer can actually do what is required of them. After watching too many toe curling, bad performances I began to wonder if there really is any undiscovered talent out there. After being involved for the last two years with The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year competition I can honestly say there most definitely is – plenty of it!
Last year, Richard Morris and I sat in on the heats for the competition and were amazed by the quality of the performances we saw. We are great admirers of Mr Sondheim’s work but fifty or so of his songs being sung at you virtually non-stop could have been a little daunting. However such was the overall quality of the students’ performances that it wasn’t. The 12 finalists were all excellent and we were very impressed by Adrian Grove, last year’s overall winner, when he sang Noel Coward’s "London Pride" beautifully in Fly With The Stars, our charity gala at the London Palladium.
So this year when the Society asked if we would produce the finals show we looked forward to seeing what the Class of 2009 would bring forward. If anything the standard this year was even higher and once again we were very glad that we did not have to make the final choice. We are sure that this year’s judges will have a tough time choosing a winner. We would be delighted to have any of them in our next gala Broadway To West End – By Special Arrangement.
We hope you will enjoy this afternoon’s show and – despite my previous comments about cheers, screams and standing ovations – please feel free to indulge in as many of them as you like – these performers really deserve them!
The Finals – A Winner’s view by last year’s winner Adrian Grove
“And the winner is…”, I remember looking at all the other finalists and wondering which of them had won. It had been such a phenomenal day for everyone involved that it seemed a shame to have to have one chosen. We’d all been on this journey together and now here we were sat a few feet away from the judges, behind the set, silent and in our own thoughts.
“Adrian Grove"… panic set in… ”I’ve got to sing again, can I remember the words, "Marry Me a Little" is not easy, it’s very wordy. Can’t I just take the trophy and the cheque, smile and walk off… cheque… I get a cheque?… I can pay for this suit and my rent. Another song? Of course, I’d love to”.
A year on and I’m having a ball. I graduated from Bristol Old Vic and got my first job within two weeks as Fred Gibson, a 2nd World war soldier, in The Play For Today on BBC Radio 4. We rolled out all the wartime songs for the production including "Pack Up Your Troubles" and "It’s a Long Way to Tipperary". This led on to another radio play in which my vocal talents were employed to play a drag queen called Lulu L’Amore singing Barbra Streisand songs (luckily I didn’t have to wear the heels!!). I obviously have a face for radio as they keep asking me back and to date I have done eight plays, working with Anton Lesser (RSC), Trevor Peacock (Vicar of Dibley), Russell Tovey (History Boys) and Tim McInnerny (Blackadder).
I have sung on HMS Illustrious, the Royal Navy aircraft carrier; at the Grosvenor Hotel for the 2009 St George’s Day celebrations; at the turning on of the Christmas lights in Dubai; at events in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and as I write this article I am preparing to fly to Oman. However, the highlight has to be the London Palladium.
Part of my prize for winning the competition was to sing a solo at the Palladium in Fly with the Stars, a 1940s show produced by Richard Douglas Productions. The feeling of singing on that stage with a live orchestra, the stars of today and the memories of legends past is something I will remember for the rest of my life.
The Stephen Sondheim Society Student of the Year prize has not only opened doors for me, it has given me an added confidence as well, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those involved for an incredible experience, a wonderful start to my career and, not forgetting, the new suit!!!! Good luck to this year’s finalists, sing out, and if you do see me around on the big day and are wondering, the answer is “Yes! It is the suit.”
Review by David Lardi
Another year, another competition, another theatre. This third Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year competition found itself in the Playhouse Theatre, currently playing host to the Menier Chocolate Factory’s highly successful production of La Cage aux Folles. If it’s one of the West End’s lesser known venues this may be partially because it is situated on its fringes – adjacent to Embankment Tube – but also because from 1950, for twenty-five years. it was commandeered by the BBC as a radio theatre before lying dark for ten years, only re-opening in 1987 for public performances.
The competition itself goes from strength to strength, this year seeing forty-four students from twenty-five colleges entering the heats. Chair of the Jury Edward Seckerson and Gordon Griffin had the exhausting, if hopefully not too onerous, task of whittling these down to the twelve finalists. As Ed wryly commented, only one tutor (of two of the candidates) was able or could be bothered to turn up to support them at the heats. As both these got through to the finals this might say something!
The Prize for Best Performer was £1,000, a silver salver and a spot in producers Richard Morris and Doug Pinchin’s next Gala, Broadway to West End by Special Arrangement to be held at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in October. Given Mr Sondheim’s enthusiasm for promoting the work of new young composers and lyricists it’s hardly surprising that he requested that the competition should equally focus on new songs by up-and-coming artists. Accordingly each competitor performed two numbers, one song by Sondheim coupled with one chosen from an extensive list by Mercury Musical Development songwriters. MMD was formed in 1992 by twelve writers and composers inspired by working with Sondheim at Oxford University. Their aim is to nurture and encourage young talent in a field into which it is notoriously hard to get a toe-hold. This means that there was again an additional prize (of £500), donated by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, for the best new song.
Proceedings, directed and choreographed by Bill Deamer, were compered by show singer Rosemary Ashe who, as well as amusing us with stories from her career, entertained us highly during the judging by singing “I’m Getting Sick of Sondheim”. This is a number from Fred Silvers revue In Gay Company, which manages wittily to incorporate into its lyrics the titles of too many Sondheim songs to mention or endure. Wonderfully groan-worthy, it can be seen on YouTube. Worth noting was that Rosemary took the trouble to acknowledge hard-working pianist Nigel Lilley which most contestants singularly failed to do!
Each year, the standard seems to get higher. Sensibly the majority steered clear of well-known show-stoppers (and the inevitable comparisons that this would engender). Indeed many chose lesser-known songs and out-takes including ‘Talent” (Bounce),”Multitudes of Amys” and "Happily Ever After” (Company) and “If You Can Find Me I’m Here” (Evening Primrose). Notable this year were Aaron Lee Lambert, Lisa Lynch. Francesca Leyland and, in particular, Amy Payne.
The judges came from the whole spectrum of musical theatre and one was grateful that such leading exponents as writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson. Artistic Director of the Menier Chocolate Factory David Babani, MD Richard Balcombe, singer Kim Criswell and agent and producer Stuart Piper so readily gave of their time and experience.
One sensed that it wasn’t easy for them to arrive at a result – with possibly a split decision – as they felt the unexpected need to single out audience-favourite James Smoker as Highly Commended. A student of the Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre course, he is the possessor of a fine voice which was shown to great advantage in “If You Can Find Me I’m Here” – a truly involving performance. In total contrast but equally successful was his second offering, Stuart Wood’s Burlington Bertie pastiche "To Be Perfectly Frank”. The eventual winner was Michael Peavoy with “Finishing the Hat”, with Kim Criswell commenting on his “intensity of performance”. His new piece was "To Be a Man” from Matt Gimblett and Julian Chenery’s musical version of Hamlet for children.
That British musical theatre is alive-and-kicking was amply displayed in the new numbers, particularly those of a humorous or whimsical vein, though a few of the ballads were perhaps just a little too “ordinary”. Given that the lyrics were unknown to virtually all the audience, I’d question the decision not to mike-up the singers, especially as this is not a situation now normally found in the profession. It left some of the audience occasionally struggling to comprehend and those singers without a sound vocal training at a decided disadvantage. But perhaps that was the point.
Particularly successful numbers were Alexander S Bermange’s “My Prince” (Laura Harrison) and especially Eric Angus and Paul James’ "The Perfect Stranger". In this Country & Western number, Hara Yannas (LAMDA) amusingly played that type of anonymous pretty girl who you (and she) just know will be the next victim of a TV or film serial killer. And she was! Winner of the Stiles & Drewe prize was Olly Ashmore’s "Wake Up TV", delightfully performed by Amy Payne (GSMD) who, having previously displayed her superb voice and technique to advantage in “I Wish I Could Forget You” (Passion), changed gear completely for Ashmore’s song. Here, following the discovery that her husband is having an affair, a heavy-drinking morning TV presenter decides to have her nervous breakdown live on-air. Its strength was best demonstrated by the fact that it was equally, if not more, funny when encored.
There was a good but not full audience. If you’ve never attended previously because you suspect the event to be merely “worthy”, do rest assured that these are singers trained to the highest level and on the verge of entering the profession. So do yourself a favour and, if possible, come next year. Who knows? You might well see the debut of one of the stars of tomorrow.