Venue: Noël Coward Theatre
Date: 11 June
MD: Stephen Ridley
Host: Clive Rowe
Opening number: "Putting it Together" (Putting it Together)
Guest performers: Janie Dee, Courtney Bowman, Martin Milnes & Dominic Ferris
Winner: Izuka Hoyle (Arts Ed)
Runner-up: Shaq Taylor (Arts Ed)
Third place: Oscar Conlon-Morrey (Mountview)
Best New Song: "Gerry and Me" by Tom Lees and Claire Rivers (sung by Georgia Frost)
Mentorship Prize: Reanimator by Ben Glasstone
Julian Eaves reports back from the Noël Coward Theatre on the 11th annual SSSSPOTY competition and the Stiles + Drewe Prize, where judges faced their most difficult decisions yet…
This 11th anniversary celebration of the jewel in the crown of the Stephen Sondheim Society’s activities was, in every respect, the coming-of-age for this pioneering event – a combination of showcasing new musical theatre performing and writing talent that produced, by common assent, the most splendid crop yet of young stars and new writing, edified by the collaboration of some of the finest seasoned creatives in the business.
This is all the more impressive when you appreciate that what you get to see at the “Final” of the competitions is but the tip of a mountain of effort and struggle. Chris Hocking (Director) and Stephen Ridley (Musical Director) are the ones who put the show together on the day, having had the briefest time to work with singers and songwriters to create a well-shaped concert of new works paired with numbers from the Sondheim back-catalogue. Thus it was that we got a lively ensemble “Putting It Together” introducing the dozen singers who were to compete for the top positions. Clive Rowe, our masterful compère this year, affably talked us through each stage of the process. Two groups of singers were presented in each half of the show, each singing both a Sondheim number and a “new” song by other writers.
First off, Georgia Frost launched dramatically into “The Worst Pies in London” [Sweeney Todd], before giving us Tom Lees and Claire Rivers’ “Gerry and Me”, a “Come From Away”/Jason Robert Brown-type song with beautifully melancholy harmonies – it made a sure impact and walked off with the main new song prize at the end. Not before, however, the field narrowed considerably with Tom Blackmore’s smart “Love, I Hear” [Forum] and “What’ll it Be?” by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan, and also Emma Rendell’s funny “Don’t Laugh” [Hot Shots] and “Doesn’t Mean He’ll Love Me” by Youn Young Park and Susannah Pearse.
The next trio revealed Rob Peacock’s more mature “In Praise of Women”, which showed off his clear, vibrant baritone register to good effect, and then the even more thrilling “Brass” by Ben Till, which Rob lifted into a magnificent ringing dramatic tenor that was simply electrifying: his capacity to vocally dominate a large theatre may well lead to considerable interest among agents (he was – at the time of his performance – as yet unrepresented); inspired in part by the likes of Ramin Karimloo, with a little more practice and seasoning, this voice could well prove the cornerstone of a memorable career. He also has the stature, and the looks, to be eminently castable.
In fact, all contestants fitted a fairly standard model of physical type, except perhaps in one respect: ethnic diversity was here more noticeably represented than we sometimes see on West End stages (not least, in fact, in the current production of the revival occupying the theatre for the rest of the week!)
As part of that, next up, we got Shaq Taylor, who scored a personal success, and second place in the performer stakes, with his “Epiphany” [Sweeney] followed by Tom Slade’s “Apology to a Child”. He has a very attractive – and unusual – bass-baritone, a voice type every bit as rare as the heroic tenor; again, with carefully schooling and development, this could be an instrument to last him an impressive lifetime.
Between these two fine male singers, we got Georgia Richardson singing “What More Do I Need?” [Dick Tracy] and Matt Finch and Mel Lawman’s finely turned “Filament”.
Clive rounded off the first half with a lusciously detailed and exquisitely well controlled rendition of “Now I’ve Seen You” from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s ever-popular Honk!. Really, when they are on their best form – as here – they are in the very top rank of British songwriters and justly placed in a position where they can share their astonishing gifts with newcomers to the profession. Just listening to their work is an education in itself: imagine what benefits can accrue through closer collaboration and development of the work of new entrants to the world of musical theatre.
The second half took off – in every sense of the word – with Janie Dee’s superlative execution of “Getting Married Today” [Company], complete with veil, split-second timing, crystal-clear diction and a flawless sense of rhythm that kept her going at a vertiginous rate through the hairpin bends of this notoriously taxing showpiece.
Then we got Katie Buchholz making us listen to the story being told in “Liaisons” [Night Music]. Not every performer who attempts this number – or indeed many other numbers of his – is able to find and maintain Sondheim’s sense of narrative, but Buchholz can and did. (A decade ago, she was around the corner at the Garrick, playing Fredrika in Trevor Nunn’s A Little Night Music.) This she paired with Graham Mercer’s sublime “My Favourite Guy”, one of the best – and certainly most memorable – new ballads of recent years from a show, Americana, crying out for a decent production somewhere.
There was a widespread adoption of “General American” accents here, sometimes for songs that were absolutely not set in the USA, still less in the ill-defined and amorphous parking lot where this bland inflection is presumably most at home. Why? It’s not as if the audience has not heard real American accents: we know what the true ones sound like, and we recognise fakes when we have to listen to them. Fakery doesn’t do the singer – or song – or show – any good. So, why not just be yourself and sing with your own voice? A question...
Verity Blyth joined in this set, and carried off one of the evening’s most dazzling acts of professionalism in calmly continuing through a rare technical fault, when the theatre’s PA suddenly started piping through some extraneous backstage chat, right when she was beginning “Losing My Mind” [Follies]. Luckily, the voices were silenced quickly enough for us to focus on her story, which she sang with considerable assurance, and matched it with the impeccably crafted “I’m A Dunce” by Marc Folan and Carl Miller.
Next, Jack Whittle put on a nice display of “I’m Calm” [Forum] and then achieved a theatrical high-point of the event: “My Island” by Christopher Dickins and Tom Wright. Whittle, a last-minute signup for the list, replacing someone who had to drop out because of subsequent employment, will be remembered vividly.
Finally, we got a smashing trio of Oscar Conlon-Morrey, Izuka Hoyle and Joseph Wiltshire-Smith. Conlon-Morrey has a stunning voice and smashed Pirelli’s “The Contest” [Sweeney Todd] into the middle of the stalls of the theatre three blocks down the road, pairing this with a fine “Work To Do” by the new Stiles and Drewe Mentorship winner, Ben Glasstone, a writer of abundant originality and daring: and a very good choice to follow on from last year’s inception of the award. His show is diametrically opposed to the folksy charm of last year’s The Wicker Husband (which has just enjoyed a fine workshop presentation at The Other Palace). Glasstone’s Reanimator, based on the H P Lovecraft cult story, is going to be very, very different!
For these remarkable efforts, Conlon-Morrey picked up a newly minted prize, third place, thanks to the generosity of the Sondheim Society Patron and judge, Julia McKenzie, spontaneously reaching out to help him on his way.
Wiltshire-Smith, on the other hand, hit home runs with both “Buddy’s Song” [Follies], brilliantly articulating the two contrary female voices within it, and the triple-time “Underneath” by Chris Ash and Carl Miller (veteran collaborator), that culminated in a tidy prat fall that did not fail to delight. He must have given the judges a lot to agonise about.
But finally, it was the experienced and also natural grace of Izuka Hoyle (who recently brought the Large stage to life at the Southwark Playhouse in the “young ensemble” of newcomers in the European première of the modernised version of Working) who walked off with the first prize for her combination of “The Last Midnight” [Into the Woods] and Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour’s “The Matchmaker”, two well contrasted numbers. Hoyle is destined for great things. Indeed, she is about to travel to Hollywood and make her first film there, with a featured role.
There remained a comfortable amount of time for a few cabaret turns from a few of the Society’s old friends: Courtney Bowman – last year’s winner with “Me and My Town” [Anyone Can Whistle], and who has not been out of work since – reprised her winning number, then Michael Rouse (who recently created the role of the titular Superhero in Richy Hughes, Joseph Finlay and Michael Conley’s show at the Southwark Playhouse) gave us last year’s best song, “Don’t Look Down”. Both of these artists demonstrated in the most practical way possible the utility of this exercise: to give new stars and new repertoire a well-deserved start in life.
And, finally, on came Ferris and Milnes with their turn of “33 Sondheim Songs in 5 Minutes” before Clive rounded off the party with a delicious “Broadway Baby”. And then there squeezed on to the stage of the Noël Coward a smattering of the many, many, many dedicated and hard-working faces from the industry, and I wish I had time and space to mention them all here, it seems so unfair to miss anyone out – from Edward Seckerson, to Alex Young, to Paul Taylor-Mills, to our very own Craig Glenday and Stiles and Drewe themselves – who helped make the whole competition function this year. The prizes were given and graciously accepted. The photographs were taken. And then we all adjourned to the penthouse reception at the Edwardian Radisson Hotel Hampshire, Leicester Square, to relax, and drink, and keep the networking going… laying plans for the next one. All in all, a pretty good way to spend an afternoon. See you there next year!
The Student Performer of the Year Finalists (in order of performance)
Georgia Frost is thrilled to be representing her school for the 11th SSSSPOTY! During her training, Georgia has played Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julia in The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, C in Crave by Sarah Kane and recently had the great pleasure of performing at The Sam Wanamaker Festival at Shakespeare’s Globe. Next, Georgia will be playing Shannon in her final graduating show 13 by Mike Bartlett. She would like to thank her wonderful family for their constant support.
Sondheim: “The Worst Pies in London” (Sweeney Todd)
BNS: “Gerry And Me” by Tom Lees and Claire Rivers (winner)
Tom Blackmore is in his final year of the BA Musical Theatre course at London College of Music. Credits while training include Fredrik in A Little Night Music and Gee-Tar in West Side Story. Tom is thrilled to be the first student to represent LCM in the SSSSPOTY final, and would like to thank The Stephen Sondheim Society for this wonderful opportunity.
Sondheim: “Love, I Hear” (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)
BNS: “What’ll It Be” by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan
Emma Rendell is from Vancouver, Canada, and is currently in her final year at LAMDA. She is thrilled and very grateful for this wonderful opportunity. Thank you to The Stephen Sondheim Society, and to the incredible music department at LAMDA for
all of their support!
Sondheim: "Don't Laugh (Hot Spots, music by Mary Rodgers
and Stephen Sondheim; lyrics by Sondheim and Martin Charnin)
BNS: “Doesn’t Mean He’ll Love Me” by Youn Young Park and Susannah Pearse
Rob Peacock is currently training at London School of Musical Theatre, and before that he was a student at Oxford School of Drama on the foundation Musical Theatre course. Rob has performed at the Fringe and starred in a short film that was well received at the London Monthly Film Festival, where it won “Best Narrative Short”.
Some of his credits before starting the course include Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, Billy in Anything Goes, Banquo in Macbeth, Jimmy in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods. While at LSMT, Rob has taken on the roles of Hamlet, Roy in Charles Miller’s Hope, Bobby in Company, Claud in Hair and he has just finished his run of playing Franklin Hart JR in Nine to Five at the Bridewell Theatre. Rob is incredibly proud to be representing LSMT in this prestigious competition and delighted to have been chosen as one of the 12 finalists.
Sondheim: “In Praise of Women” (A Little Night Music)
BNS: “Brass” by Benjamin Till
Georgia Richardson is a third year student on the BA (Hons) Acting Course at Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. Roles while training include Amy in Company and Carol in Road, and she has most recently finished a production of Tom Stoppard’s On The Razzle, where she played Madame Knorr. Last year, Georgia was delighted to be a recipient of the prestigious Laurence Olivier bursary. She is thrilled to be representing Italia Conti and would like to thank The Stephen Sondheim Society for this amazing opportunity.
Sondheim: “What More Do I Need?” (Saturday Night)
BNS: “Filament” by Matt Finch and Mel Lawman
Shaq Taylor (runner-up) trained at The Arts Educational School, graduating in 2017. Theatre while training includes: Captain E J Smith in Titanic, Memphis in The Life, Wish Me Luck, David in Hay Fever and Candide in Candide. Credits include: Olivier Awards 2016 (Royal Opera House) and Friday Night Is Music Night (BBC Radio 2).
Sondheim: “Epiphany” (Sweeney Todd)
BNS: “Apology To A Child” by Tom Slade
Katie Buchholz comes from the countryside in Oxfordshire. She is currently in her final year at RADA, having recently played Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. Her admiration for Sondheim began early when she was lucky enough to play Fredrika in A Little Night Music at the age of 13 at the Garrick Theatre. She has continued to love singing Sondheim since then, and is very excited about being a part of this competition. A big thank you to all her teachers, especially Phil and Jane who have helped and supported her through this process.
Sondheim: “Liaisons” (A Little Night Music)
BNS: “My Favourite Guy” by Graham Mercer
Jack Whittle is originally from Manchester, moving to Guildford in 2014 to begin training at The Guildford School of Acting. In the last year, Jack has played Trevor Graydon in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Bill Kelly in Steel Pier at GSA. Jack is absolutely delighted to have been selected for the final of SSSSPOTY and, being a huge Sondheim fan, it is an honour to have the opportunity to perform his work and to explore some new writing from Mercury Musical Developments. Jack would like to thank all the staff and students at GSA for their support throughout the competition and his Mum, Dad and sister, who have travelled from Manchester today, for their ongoing passionate support.
Sondheim: "I'm Calm” (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)
BNS: “My Island” by Christopher Dickins and Tom Wright
Verity Blyth is excited to be performing in the SSSSPOTY finals and is grateful to have been given the opportunity to pursue her professional actor training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Her roles throughout training include Johanna in Sweeney Todd, Eva Peron in Evita, Sharpay in High School Musical, Peaches in Americana (NSDF Sunday Times Best Performance in a Musical), Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Silver in Treasure Island and Kassandra in Iceland. She is looking forward to playing Alice & Sally in her final graduate show of Mike Bartlett’s 13.
Sondheim: “Losing My Mind” (Follies)
BNS: “I’m A Dunce” by Marc Folan and Carl Miller
Oscar Conlon-Morrey (third place) has just finished his final year of training at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. Credits while training include: The Baron in Grand Hotel, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dwight in Lockhart and Hero in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Other credits include: Strauss in Bismarck at The Nottingham Playhouse and Fanny in Fanny and Stella for Theatre Bench. When not performing, Oscar splits his time between London and Limoges, France, where he helps run an antiques shop and performs bilingual cabarets. Oscar is thrilled to be a finalist in SSSSPOTY and would like to thank The Stephen Sondheim Society and Mountview for the opportunity.
Sondheim: “The Contest” (Sweeney Todd)
BNS: “Work To Do” by Ben Glasstone
Izuka Hoyle (winner) is originally from Edinburgh, and moved to London in 2014 to attend Arts Educational Schools on the Andrew Lloyd Webber Scholarship. Due to graduate in September, Izuka is currently appearing in Working at the Southwark Playhouse. She will shortly after begin shooting her first feature film, joining an A-list cast, and marking her professional screen debut. No stranger to competitions, she was successful in winning the Young Scottish Musical Theatre Performer of the Year back in 2015.
Izuka is beyond thrilled to be a SSSSPOTY finalist and would like to thank The Stephen Sondheim Society for granting the opportunity, but also Chris Hocking (ArtsEd Director) and Dane Preece (ArtsEd Head of Music) for the past three years of love and support.
Sondheim: “Last Midnight" (Into The Woods)
BNS: “The Matchmaker” by Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour
Joe Wiltshire Smith is a Welsh actor, and will graduate from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in summer 2017. He represented RWCMD at the Sam Wanamaker Festival in his second year, and received the Jo Francis Memorial Award in 2017 and the Gareth Jones Scholarship in 2016.
Sondheim: "Buddy's Blues" (Follies)
BNS: “Underneath” by Chris Ash and Carl Miller
Student Performer of the Year: Edward Seckerson (Chair), Janie Dee, Simon Lee, Rachel Kavanaugh and Alex Young
Stiles+Drewe Prize for Best New Song: Dan Gillespie Sells, Giles Terera, George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
The MTI Stiles+Drewe Mentorship Award: Mark Aspinall, Paul Taylor-Mills,
Lotte Wakeham, George Stiles & Anthony Drewe