Venue: Queen's Theatre
Date: 6 June
MD: Nigel Lilley
Host: Hannah Waddingham
Opening number: "Our Time" (Merrily We Roll Along)
Winner: Alex Young (Royal Academy of Music)
Runner-up: Lewis Oately (Arts Ed, London)
Best New Song: "Lovely London Town" by Gwyneth Herbert (sung by Danielle Steers); and "What Kind of a Life is this, Masha?" by Conor Mitchell (sung by Lewis Oately)
The Student Performer of the Year Finalists (in order of performance)
Ariane Barnes (Rose Bruford School)
Sondheim: "Marry Me a Little" (Marry Me a Little; cut from Company but included in the Sondheim compilation show)
BNS: "The Sound of Silence" by Michael Bruce
Douglas Carter (Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts)
Sondheim: "Sooner or Later" (Dick Tracy)
BNS: "Picture Lullaby" by Michelle Magorian & Gary Carpenter
Jane Sullivan (Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts)
Sondheim: "On the Steps of the Palace" (Into the Woods)
BNS: "Nightfall" by Mark Carroll
Danielle Steers (SLP College)
Sondheim: "Could I Leave You?" (Follies)
BNS: "Lovely London Town" by Gwyneth Herbert
Lewis Oatley (runner-up) (Arts Ed, London)
Sondheim: "Not While I’m Around" (Sweeney Todd)
BNS: "What Kind of Life Is This, Masha?" by Conor Mitchell
Daisy Maywood (Arts Ed, London)
Sondheim: "See What It Gets You/ Anyone Can Whistle" (Anyone Can Whistle)
BNS: "You’re As Good As It Gets" by Charles Bloom
Jane Horn (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School)
Sondheim: "More" (Dick Tracy)
BNS: "Cut Above the Rest" by Paul Boyd & Bernie McGill
Joseph Claus (Royal Academy of Music)
Sondheim: "Being Alive" (Company)
BNS: "More Than a Memory" by Alexander S. Bermange
Jamie Szynal (Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama)
Sondheim: "Moments in the Wood" (Into the Woods)
BNS: "Big White Wedding" by Pippa Cleary & Jake Brunger
Jennifer Harraghy (London School of Musical Theatre)
Sondheim: "The Miller’s Son" (A Little Night Music)
BNS: "The Only One You Want" by Frank Lazarus
Joe Jameson (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School)
Sondheim: "Giants in the Sky" (Into the Woods)
BNS: "Please Can We Leave This Behind?" by Christopher Hamilton
Alex Young (winner) (Royal Academy of Music)
Sondheim: "Sunday in the Park with George" (Sunday in the Park with George)
BNS: "I Clean Up Around Here" by Christopher Hamilton & Susannah Pearse
The Finals – A Winner’s view by last year’s winner Michael Peavoy
My experience of The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year competition started a year prior to my own entry at the Trafalgar Studios, cheering on a good friend of mine in the final of 2008, and experiencing the joy of back-to-back Sondheim songs intertwined with an exciting array of new musical theatre writing.
It was inspiring to see the mass of talent coming through the ranks of drama school combined with the incredible talents of Mr Sondheim resulting in a match made in heaven and an afternoon of great entertainment. From then on I knew that I had to be involved in this fantastic event, somehow.
Knowing the teachers of RADA wouldn’t take kindly to bribes, I set out to improve my singing technique and continued to find ways of connecting my "actors training" to the world of Musical Theatre. I made sure that on every occasion that came along, a Sondheim song was on my singing teacher’s music stand.
Having received a call from Jane Streeton, RADA’s Head of Singing, confirming she would like me to sing for RADA in the competition, I eagerly began to sift through the masses of incredible Sondheim material looking for my song, finally sticking with the quintessential Sondheim song, "Finishing the Hat".
The first round brought me to the "maze" that is the Royal Academy of Music. I, at that point, assumed that part of the challenge of the competition was finding the audition room in the first place; walking through incredible winding corridors (mostly in the wrong direction) and admittedly rather enjoying the eclectic chaos being provided by the breathtaking pianists, cellists and singers of the Academy. Upon finding the room I was greeted by officials of the society with an enthusiastic, nerve-settling smile and began to prepare myself for the test that awaited in the adjacent room. I was nervous to say the least. Finally in the audition room, I was greeted by possibly the friendliest panel, albeit the largest panel, I’d ever been confronted with and got straight to singing along with the wonderfully talented pianist. First round over, I navigated myself successfully out of the Royal Academy and headed home full of a Sondheim "Bounce" (excuse the pun!)
A few weeks later, and very much to my surprise, I received a text from the Head of Singing congratulating both myself and Cynthia Erivo for reaching the final. Needless to say, the "Bounce" was back and I headed straight to meet my father who was visiting me, to spread the news and vent some excitement on to him. After a proud celebratory cup of tea in the RADA bar, the preparations began.
Having received the song lists from Mercury Musical Developments, I set about choosing my new writer’s song and decided to go with the glorious "To Be a Man" by Julian Chenery and Matt Gimblett from the Shakespeare4Kidz version of Hamlet.
The day of the final was upon us. Having spent days sorting out tickets and trains for the Mancunian brigade of Peavoys that was set to take over the Playhouse, a few weeks preparing my material and having no more than a few nervous hours sleep, Cynthia and I had reached the Playhouse! No more questions, no more quests… this was it!!
The day of the final was a real joy. Meeting and working with Nigel Lilley, the MD, was the first prize of the day, this was followed by being in the Playhouse and closely trailed by spending the day with a group of incredibly talented performers. We sang through the company number, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd", the next treat of the day, a song I’ve always wanted to sing within its full vocal arrangement. Being part of such a great collaboration of voices was just breathtaking. Then it went on with rehearsals and preparations for the evening performance.
The hour was upon us. We stood waiting for our big entrance, last minute tongue stretches underway and the infallible Rosemary Ashe warming up the audience, the few latecomers being ushered into their seats; then – it was "our time". We paced down the aisles and into positions, and the music began. From that moment on it was pure joy.
The atmosphere within the theatre was unreal. Each performer took the audience to a new place, a new time, a new show – then all of a sudden we had arrived on the Island of la Grand Jatte. The feeling of taking centre stage in the playhouse knowing I had Nigel Lilley ready to play for me, the incredible judges ready to listen and my family and friends on the edge of their seats was one of pure bliss. Having been locked away in a drama school for almost two years, with only the internal showing to feed my performance hunger, to be out on a public stage again reminded me why I had committed to training in the first place. Looking out and seeing an audience ready to be affected and moved and eagerly waiting to be taken on a journey, was the reason I was there. I remembered a Sondheim quote I had read a few weeks before:
“If you’re dealing with a musical in which you’re trying to tell a story, it’s got to sound like speech. At the same time it’s got to be a song.”
I figured as long as I could move somebody to a smile, or a tear or just make somebody reflect for a moment by telling the incredible story, I had done my job. I finished the hat, and returned to my seat.
Competition over, we had returned from the dressing room to the stage for the judges’ final decisions. I had no idea what was going to happen. Though to win would be nice, I figured just experiencing the previous couple of hours was prize enough. Then came the infamous ‘and the winner is…’ moment. I’m not sure what I was thinking when the next half of the sentence ended up being ‘…Michael Peavoy!’ It felt like I sat still for a few moments before the penny dropped. I made my way onto the stage and was then completely overwhelmed by the judges’ words of encouragement. It was an incredible end to an incredible day.
Since the competition, I’ve sung in the Tim Williams FIRST TIME AWARD’ run by Dr Bruce Wall and the London Shakespeare Workout Company. I’m currently in preparations to sing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for Richard Douglas Productions (part of the Sondheim Society Competition prize!). I will also be singing for the launch of New Musicals Network at the Pigalle Club. In the meantime I will be eagerly heading into my final year of RADA hoping this will not be the end of my relationship with the Society or Mr Sondheim’s work. Thanks to the society for this incredible opportunity.
A review by David Lardi
This year saw one of the society’s most important annual events, its Student Performer of the Year Competition, decamp to the Queen’s Theatre allowing the house to take a temporary breather from the French Revolution and The Glums (Les Mis).
Each year there is a gentle tweaking of format. This time the twelve finalists appeared in groups of three, each in turn presenting their Sondheim offering before returning, in the same order, to perform a new piece by young British composers and lyricists. This latter is an essential ingredient and indeed Sondheim’s sole condition in order for the competition to bear his name. Its continuing importance to him is reflected in the message he sent to the entrants – “do the young composers proud!”
The whole competition was framed by two ensemble numbers performed by all the competitors, "Our Time" and – almost inevitably – "Sunday". Those in the audience with nothing better to do might have counted fourteen singers on stage even though there were only twelve finalists. This was because they included the two hapless standbys, Sam Morris and James Marlowe, and it was a shame they weren’t given fuller credit, especially as their services were nearly called on with one of the finalists struggling with laryngitis as was last year’s winner Michael Peavoy who, consequently, was unable to sing as promised in the programme although this also wasn’t announced.
The prestige of the competition is well reflected by continuing highest stand of judges, prize presenters and hosts willing to give their services. This year the latter was the excellent Hannah Waddingham, best known to Society members for her Desirée in the Menier A Little Night Music and who is about to appear in the Regent’s Park Into The Woods. As well as witty anecdotes and singing "Send in the Clowns" during the adjudication she gave a virtual masterclass with her hilarious performance of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s song "Diva", accompanied by the composer. The piece bemoaned the lot of the complete music theatre performer who has every attribute except the ability to sing in tune which she amply demonstrated! And if you think it’s easy to sing a song exactly a semi-tone below pitch and its accompaniment then just try it for yourself. Unfortunately flight problems prevented Anthony from attending. Not Icelandic volcanoes or BA strikes but, simply, “Easyjet”!
There were some very good voices in evidence this year, aided by a fully-professional PA system. I do wonder though why some of the performers feel the need to employ an American or mid-Atlantic accent even in the British songs. There was a wide variety of Sondheim numbers, though with fewer lesser-performed ones than in previous years. One lesson that some of the performers need to learn is the necessity to build a song. A few reached their climax far too early on and subsequently had nowhere left to go.
Other than the eventual winners notable performances came from Jane Sullivan ("Steps of the Palace"), Jane Horn in both "More" (Dick Tracy) and Paul Boyd and Bernie McGill’s "Cut Above the Rest", a song about the difficult subject of self-harm. Joe Jameson showed great confidence and stage presence in "Giants in the Sky" while Jamie Szynal contributed a very assured and excellently sung performance of "Moments in the Wood" as well as Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger’s funny take on a soap star imagining her "Big White Wedding".
Unlike Alice in Wonderland’s “prizes for everyone” there had to be winners. In the new song category, a generous matched donation by Hilary Williams to that annually given by Stiles and Drewe allowed for two awards. From a strong field these eventually went to Gwyneth Herbert’s "Lovely London Town", a charming song about map-maker Phyllis Pearsall (sung by Danielle Steers), and Conor Mitchell’s challenging "What Kind of a Life is this, Masha" from The Pornographer’s Wife. In the latter, Slavi, an alcoholic erotic photographer, bemoans his lot and it was given a dramatic and decidedly physical performance by Lewis Oately (Arts Ed.)
Lewis was also runner-up in the main competition – his Sondheim number being "Not While I’m Around" – but the overall and well-deserved winner was Alex Young (RAM). She put her well-trained voice to excellent use in an assured performance of "Sunday in the Park with George" and amply displayed her comic and dramatic talents as an actor in Christopher Hamilton and Susannah Pearse’s "I Clean up Around Here" (Melody Towers) in which a Joyce Grenville-type matron of a girls' school genteelly explains how she likes to keep things tidy before gradually revealing that this hides a darker obsession.
Other than those already mentioned, the remaining singers were Daisy Maywood, Jennifer Harraghy, Douglas Carter, Ariane Barnes and Joseph Claus. Nigel Lilley was the excellent and hard working accompanist. It can be no easy job having to cope with the complexities of fifteen Sondheim songs coupled with a dozen brand-new ones.
So onwards and upwards, hopefully next year with an even larger audience. As the Society puts such a great deal of effort and money into organising the event one hopes that as many members as possible will feel able to support this important stepping-stone in the developing careers of what we hope will be some of the stars of tomorrow. 2007’s winner Carl Au was recently to be seen in The Fantastics at the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End, last year’s winner Michael Peavoy is shortly to appear in the National Theatre’s new production of Hamlet and this year’s winner, Alex Young, can be caught in cabaret at Wilton’s Music Hall on 17th September.
Student Performer of the Year: Edward Seckerson (Chair), Sally Ann Triplett, Martin Koch, David Grindrod, Maureen Lipman
Stiles+Drewe Prize for Best New Song: George Stiles & Anthony Drewe