Venue: Sondheim Theatre
Date: 11 June
MD: Nigel Lilley; Assistant MD: John Haslam
Director: Louise Shephard
Movement Directors: Lindsay Atherton, Lucy Young
Stage Manager: Ali Wade; Assistant Stage Manager: Benedict Rattray
Host: Alex Young
Opening number: "Hills of Tomorrow"/"Merrily We Roll Along" from Merrily We Roll Along
Guest performers: Desmonda Cathabel (winner, SSSSPOTY 2022), George Kemp, Ellie Nunn, and Toby Owers, Madeleine Morgan, Thomas Oxley and the ensemble from NYMT
Winner: Milly Willows (Italia Conti)
Runner-up: Emily Botnen (Royal Academy of Music)
Commendations: Pétur Svavarsson, Harry Warburton
Judges: Edward Seckerson (Chair), guest judges Michael Jibson, Nicola Hughes, Jenna Russell
New songs courtesy of NEW UK MUSICALS
Swansea-born Milly Willows, a third-year BA Hons Musical Theatre student at Italia Conti, was crowned the winner of SSSSPOTY 2023.
Milly, who played Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street for her third-year production at Italia Conti, impressed and amused the judging panel with her hilarious rendition of "Worst Pies in London". But what also helped her secure first place in a very competitive field was her tender interpretation of "A Story of My Own" from the musical The Clockmaker's Daughter by Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn.
The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year (aka SSSSPOTY) sees 12 finalists – whittled down this year from 250 applicants – compete for a £1,000 first prize by singing a classic Sondheim number, and also a song from a new or recent musical theatre show. But more important than the prize money is the opportunity to sing on a West End stage.
The runnner's-up prize of £500 was awarded to Emily Botnen, a student on the one-year Musical Theatre MA course at the Royal Academy of Music. She gave what the Chair of the Judges Edward Seckerson called 'the best version of "Everybody Loves Louis" [from Sunday in the Park with George] ever sung in the competition's 15-year history.' Emily, who grew up on an island off Alaska, also delivered "Watchin' the Door" from Van Winkle: A Folk Musical by Caroline Wigmore and Jen Green.
"It's often the second song that nails it for the judges," said Sondheim Society Chair Craig Glenday. "Today, Milly's performance had the audience in fits of laughter with her characterful performance of 'Worst Pies' but she wisely chose to balance this with a song with a completely different vibe, really showcasing her range and versatility as a performer. To be fair, all of the finalists this year did exactly this, but the contrast between Milly's two songs, and simply the polish of her performance, sealed the deal. A worthy winner!"
The judging panel – chaired by critic and broadcaster Edward Seckerson – comprised Nicola Hughes (Into the Woods), Michael Jibson (Road Show) and Sondeim Society Patrons Jenna Russell (Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods) and Julia McKenzie (Follies, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd).
Just before the winner and runner-up were announced, Edward Seckeron offered commendations to two other stand-out performers, namely Pétur Svavarsson from the Royal Academy of Music, for his beautiful and emotionally charged "I Wish I Could Forget You" from Passion, and Harry Warburton from the Guildford School of Acting, whose both songs brought him to the attention of the panel: "Class" from Sondheim's early work, Saturday Night, and "Infinity" from The Blackfriars Boys by Sarah Middleton and Josh Sneesby.
The competition was hosted by former SSSSPOTY winner Alex Young, who took home the first prize back in 2010 – marking the first time that a former winner has returned to host the event. Alex treated us to a reprise of her winning number, "Sunday in the Park with George" from the 1985 Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical of the same name, this time ably assisted by a Seuret in the shape of actor friend George Kemp.
During the deliberations period, Alex performed with Ellie Nunn, tackling "There's Always a Woman", a cut song from Sondheim's famous flop Anyone Can Whistle.
Also joining in with proceedings was the National Youth Music Theatre, who provided a trio of featured performers and an ensemble from their upcoming version of Merrily We Roll Along at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant. And last year's SSSSPOTY 2022 winner Desmonda Cathabel took a break from her rehearsals for Miss Saigon in Newcastle to reprise her winning song, "The Miller's Son" from A Little Night Music, showing how SSSSPOTY can act as a stepping stone in one's career.
The event was directed by Louise Shephard, who kindly stepped in at the last moment after the original director Hannah Chissick became indisposed, and for the first time, the students were led through their opening number by choreographer, Lindsay Atherton, assisted by Lucy Young. Musical direction was by Nigel Lilley, assisted by John Haslam.
The Live Heats
Chair of the Judges Edward Seckerson and MD Nigel Lilley saw 80 students face to face in the live heats, held at Above the Arts in London's West End. Edward and Nigel had the task of selecting the 12 finalists plus two reserves. Pictured here are some of the students on the day of the live heats. A massive thank-you to everyone who applied.
Meet the Finalists
Sara Bartos (she/her) – Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – BA Musical Theatre (third year)
"Stay With Me" from Into The Woods / "Stand" from Cases by Dominic Powell
About me: I'm from Hoboken New Jersey, which is a small town just outside of New York City. It’s where baseball was invented and we have our own Frank Sinatra Museum. Think old pizzerias and book stores and that’s the general idea.
My mom likes to joke that I was born singing so I’ve been doing this since before I can really remember. My mother’s family is from Colombia and music is such a constant presence for my family there. Someone is always pulling out a guitar when everyone gets together. It’s how we celebrate and comfort and express ourselves. So I like to think it’s in my blood. I was kind of doing musical theatre before I actually knew what it was, singing all the time and trying to tell everyone stories. Mostly just trying to grab attention as I’m one of four children! Eventually my Dad introduced me to Les Misérables and I just kind of knew immediately that that’s what I wanted to do forever.
Sondheim experience: I’ve loved Sondheim’s work since I was little! I’ve always really appreciated how much thought and care and love went into every note he put on the page. I also somehow managed to do Into the Woods three separate times, playing three separate characters, with three completely different concepts! When I was 13, I played The Witch in my community theatre show. Then in my second year of high school I played Cinderella in a production that was all put together by found objects. And then when I was 17 I played Little Red in a post-apocalyptic version of it. I guess I aged backwards! It’s definitely a goal of mine to play The Baker’s Wife so I can say I’ve played them all at some point or another. I also recently did a production of Merrily We Roll Along directed by Louise Shephard at the RCS. This production does hold a special place in my heart because of getting to do it with my incredible classmates, who make every show better in my opinion.
Favourite Sondheim song: Definitely “No One is Alone”. It has such a beautiful double meaning. I think Sondheim had such a gift for making music that really sounded like the place you were supposed to be in. I think you really can hear the light coming through the trees when Cinderella says “Hard to see the light now,” and it’s always my favourite part of Into the Woods.
Favourite Sondheim show: It’s going to have to be a tie between Into the Woods, Passion and Sunday in the Park with George. Sorry, I couldn’t choose!
Dream role: All of them! I know it sounds cheesy but my dream role is to be this! To be an actor and get to do this everyday for as long as I can. Every new part I get to do becomes my dream role. Also Eva Peron in Evita.
Who most inspires you? I’m inspired by my friends and classmates. I’m inspired by people who love what they do as much as I do. They help me to remember that we’re all just big kids getting to do the thing we wanted to do when we were little. It helps keep my feet on the ground and head up. I’m really inspired by my grandmother. She truly lives her life to the fullest in every sense. She’s spent her life learning to be the best person she can so she can give that right back to the world and I’m doing my best to do the same through what I do! Professionally, I really admire Eva Noblezada. I think she gives 1000% to all of her roles and is such a fearless storyteller.
“Sondheim’s work has always been such an inspiration to me and such a beautiful example of what musical theatre can be in my opinion. The thought that people that feel the same way about his work that I do, appreciate my interpretation of his work really does mean the world. It’s such an honour to get the chance to share that work again and to be counted among such talented people. ”
Emily Botnen (she/her) – Royal Academy of Music – MA Musical Theatre (one-year)
"Everybody Loves Louis" from Sunday in the Park with George / "Watchin' the Door" from Van Winkle: A Folk Musical by Caroline Wigmore & Jen Green
About me: Since I was raised as a military kid, I have lived in Texas, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, and Pennsylvania. Musical theatre was first introduced to me as a way of staying warm: literally. When I was a kid growing up on an island in Alaska, my parents did everything they could to keep me happy, but more importantly, out of the snowdrifts. I went into a community theatre production of Annie and I was instantly hooked. Having appeared in over 50 shows since the age of eight, some of my favourite roles have been Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Elle in Legally Blonde, and Ilse in Spring Awakening.
Sondheim experience: Despite Sondheim being my favourite composer, I’ve actually never been in any of his shows. When I was about nine, I was in a summer camp where a professional production would teach kids songs from their show during the day, and then we’d get to see their opening night. That year, as my luck would have it, was Into the Woods. The nine year olds were assigned “Giants in the Sky” (which, as you can imagine, was a feat in its own right), and for the finale we all sang “Children Will Listen.” Even then I was blown away by the material we were working on and was in awe of the show when I saw it. Hopefully I’ll get to add a Sondheim show to my CV soon, though!
Favourite Sondheim song: That’s a tough one! If I had to choose I’d probably say “Another Hundred People” or “Move On,” but honestly it changes depending on the day.
Favourite Sondheim show: Into the Woods.
Dream role: While I’ve played Olive in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee a few times before, it’s one of those roles I’d love to play as many times as possible throughout my life.
Who most inspires you? My course-mates at RAM are my biggest inspiration. I’ve been a member of a lot of different companies, but never have I been surrounded by such a supportive, genuine, talented, and creative bunch. They inspire me everyday with their brilliance and I can’t wait to see all that they accomplish post-graduation; the people that get to work with them in the future are lucky to say the least.
“Since first hearing about this organization and this event, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. Sondheim and what he and his work stand for are a big part of why I love this art form and truly believe in its power. No matter how many times I listen to a song of his, I always discover something new, and it’s been an immense honuor diving even deeper into his material through SSSSPOTY. To be a finalist is truly an honour, and I’m so grateful to The Stephen Sondheim Society for trusting me with this opportunity. “
Lucy Carter (she/her) – Royal Academy of Music – MA Musical Theatre (one-year)
"I Remember" from Evening Primrose / "Has Anybody Seen Man Ray" from Six Pictures of Lee Miller by Jason Carr
About me: I was born and bred in West Yorkshire, in a village called Addingham. I started performing as a child and was fortunate to have had a local drama club run by a wonderful woman, Gill Jackson. She laid strong foundations for me as an actor and gave me huge amounts of discipline which I have carried through my career thus far.
I’ve performed in a number of shows with the National Youth Music Theatre – most recently playing Mother in Ragtime and Lucille in Parade. These shows have provided some of my most valuable training as an actor, and I’m endlessly inspired by people I have met along the way who are succeeding in the industry.
Sondheim experience: I was in Sunday in the Park with George with the National Youth Music Theatre in 2017, where I played the Nurse. It was a pivotal moment for me as my first real experience of delving into the wonderful world of Stephen Sondheim. Our brilliant MD on the show, Alex Aitken, opened my eyes to just how genius Sondheim’s music is. Then in 2022, I had the privilege of performing “Everybody Loves Louis” for Janie Dee in a Sondheim masterclass at the V&A, organised by The Stephen Sondheim Society. My work as an actor has been truly inspired by the work of Stephen Sondheim and I feel grateful for any opportunity to perform his work.
Favourite Sondheim song: “I’m Still Here” [from Follies]. It’s got to be. Tracie Bennett’s performance brings me to tears every time I watch it.
Favourite Sondheim show: In an effort not to name six shows, I will say Sweeney Todd. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” would be my secret second answer to the question above!
Dream role: Heck. Dot, The Baker’s Wife and Sally Bowles are at the top of my current list. Mrs Lovett and Mrs Wilkinson from Billy Elliot in a few years time though…
Who most inspires you? I was taken by a friend to see my first West End show when I was 18 and before the show started, they said to me, “This will be the best thing you’ve ever seen”. The show finished and they were right. I could barely speak. It was Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre. What a first show, hey? During “Rose’s Turn”, you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre. Just a stunned silence at the power of a single person. Fast forward to last week and I was lucky enough to sing for Imelda Staunton in a masterclass. People often say not to meet your heroes, but I’m glad I met mine. I have never been so moved by someone’s dedication to their work or heard someone speak with such humanity and passion. She has inspired me to be a better artist and to never forget what a privilege it is to tell other people’s stories.
“I am thrilled to be in the final of SSSSPOTY. To play a small part in continuing Stephen Sondheim’s legacy is an honour.”
Harry Lake (he/him) – Guildford School of Acting – BA (Hons) Musical Theatre (third year)
"If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" from Evening Primrose / "My Day" from Fiver by Alex James Ellison
About me: I was raised in Weymouth in Dorset and lived there by the seaside all of my life until moving to Guildford to study Musical Theatre at GSA. My love for theatre started with dance! As a child I attended June Hornby’s Weymouth Dance Studios from the age of three until the age of 18. I’m so grateful for the fantastic teachers there as well all of the experiences I was lucky enough to have, including becoming a National and World Music Theatre champion at the All-England Dance National finals and the Dance World Cup. I also attended WOW Youth Musical theatre in Weymouth as a teenager where I performed in many amateur musicals ranging from Me and My Girl to Footloose
Sondheim experience: Shockingly, I have never performed in any Sondheim musicals! I did very recently, however, visit New York City, where I saw my first ever Broadway musical, Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It was such a memorable experience!
Favourite Sondheim song: “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George! This music makes me so emotional. No other musical theatre song has the same impact on me as this one does.
Favourite Sondheim show: Sunday in the Park with George… (I promise I do know other Sondheim shows, this just happens to be my favourite!!)
Dream role: I don’t necessarily have a dream role but I really love to tap dance. One of my dreams is to be a part of a big, glitzy tap ensemble or even lead a tap show.
Who most inspires you? I’m lucky to have so many inspirations and cheerleaders in my life but ultimately I wouldn’t be pursuing a life in the arts and theatre if it wasn’t for my amazing family. My parents in particular have inspired me to work hard and to pursue my passions and I am so grateful for their constant love and support.
“To have been chosen as a finalist for SSSSPOTY 2023 is such an honour! I am so lucky to have been given this opportunity by the Sondheim Society and GSA, and I’d like to give a big thank you to the fabulous tutors there, particularly Kevin Michael Cripps for his guidance coming into this competition. This is something I had hoped to be a part of during my time at drama school and I am so grateful to be in this year’s competition!”
Josh Lewindon (he/him) – Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama – BA Acting (third year)
"Multitudes of Amys" cut from Company / "They Don't Make Glass Slippers" from Soho Cinders by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
About me: I was born and raised in Hook, Hampshire. One of my earliest memories of being into singing and performing was when my mum brought me a karaoke machine. I used to record myself singing, and do live performances for my family in my front room. At the age of ten, my mum put me into acting classes at Italia Conti Associates to boost my confidence.
Sondheim experience: I’ve never had the privilege of performing in a Sondheim musical. However, I do remember the first time I ever performed a Sondheim song, “Take Me to the World”, when I was a teenager. It was so magical to sing this song because of the connection I found with Sondheim’s lyrics, and the first time I really considered what it was like to love someone. The feeling of loving a person, and being loved, and with that love you can face the world together fearlessly, is a sentiment I’ve never forgotten.
Favourite Sondheim song: It has to be the classic “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. It’s one of my favourite duets of all time. When I hear it, I find it so enchanting, and I feel like it epitomises my own feelings of young love.
Favourite Sondheim show: This question is impossible! However, if you’re twisting my arm, I have to say Sweeney Todd. I saw a West End production of it back in 2012 with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, and it was honestly mindblowing. What excites me about Sweeney is the levels of darkness and grit it has, and the relationship Sweeney and Mrs Lovett have together, which I find so fascinating. I would kill to be in it!!
Dream role: Sweeney in Sweeney Todd/Emcee in Cabaret. Two iconic and completely contrasting roles.
Who most inspires you? My mum inspires me. Her strength as a single parent has facilitated my dreams. At one stage working three jobs to support all of my extra classes. An actor and musical theatre performer who’s career inspires me is Tracie Bennett. I’ve had the privilege of meeting her in a Q&A and she spoke of her mindset of not being too proud in taking most jobs that come along, and the importance of being consistently working to her. It has meant her career has been so varied, and an attitude that has stayed with me. It’s something I would love to achieve. From West End/Broadway musicals, and plays, to soaps. Her acting through song I always feel has such sincerity and vulnerability, especially in clips I’ve seen of her performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow.
“It means the world to me to be a finalist in the Sondheim competition because I have never had the chance to be involved in one of his productions before. To be able to sing his music on a West End stage is something that I’ve dreamt about but doesn’t quite feel real. It will be such an honour to be able to get the opportunity to be among all the other finalists and play out that fantasy!”
Ritesh Manugula (he/him) – Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama – BA (Hons) Musical Theatre (second year)
"Flag Song" cut from Assassins / "I'll Write a Song for You" from Fiver by Alex James Ellison
About me: I was born in Kolkata, India but was mostly raised in Atlanta, Georgia. When I was five, my parents put me in Carnatic singing classes which is a style of Indian classical music. I really didn’t enjoy it and struggled to connect with it at that age. I insisted my parents put me in western style singing classes and I joined the school choir. Since joining the choir, the school plays always needed boys so I got roped in! I did the school musicals throughout middle school and high school, making some lifelong friends, and I just fell in love with it!
Sondheim experience: I was lucky to be a part of Royal Welsh’s production of Sunday in the Park with George and loved every second.
Favourite Sondheim song: “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George.
Favourite Sondheim show: You guessed it… Sunday in the Park with George!
Dream role: I always feel a bit dumb saying this but I’d love to play Aladdin one day. Aladdin is a musical that really showed me that there is a place for me in this industry. I know it isn’t a character with the most depth and the book may not stack up to Sondheim’s work but to see a story being told by so many South Asian actors has continuously inspired me.
Who most inspires you? My parents in an absolute heartbeat. They took an enormous risk moving to the United States to provide myself and my sister Riya the blessing of opportunity. They are living proof that good, honest work can provide you with everything you need in life. They have supported me unconditionally and I would be in a completely different world without them.
“It is an absolute honour and privilege to be selected for the Final of SSSSPOTY. I still can’t believe it if I’m being quite honest with you! There aren’t many South Asian performers in Musical Theatre and when Rithvik Andugula was named a finalist last year I was very inspired. It means the world knowing that there is a space for everyone regardless of background. Thank you very much!”
Tom O'Kelly (he/him) – Royal Academy of Music – MA Musical Theatre (one-year)
"Take me to the World" from Evening Primrose / "Just Imagine" from Errol’s Garden by Caroline Wigmore & Jen Green
About me: I was born and raised in Belfast, County Antrim, and I am the youngest of four siblings. Having starred in my first show aged five, I caught the acting bug almost instantly, and it’s been a love affair ever since!
My first “leading” role was as Babyface in the Fortwilliam Musical Society Youth Group production of Bugsy Malone, and I still remember the thrill of getting to wear an actual microphone and be on an actual stage with actual lines in front of an actual audience. Going to rehearsals on a Friday night quickly became my favourite activity of the week. At aged eight, I received Hello, Dolly! on video for my birthday. At nine, I was lucky enough to star as a Munchkin in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, featuring West End royalty Rachel Tucker as Dorothy.
After these experiences, I was quite certain that this was the only thing I wanted to do with my life, and performing quickly became a part of my everyday. My incredible parents signed me up for ballet, jazz, tap, singing lessons and every local production going. Growing up in the North of Ireland, I was truly spoiled by the wealth of Amateur Dramatics societies there are. Only in Belfast can you play Javert, Nicely Nicely Johnson, Danny Zuko and “Featured Dancer” in White Christmas in one season (true story!!) The most special shows were definitely every Easter and summer, getting to do residential projects with the now defunct Musical Theatre 4 Youth. Kids from all over Ireland got such fabulous opportunities to work with great creative teams working in the industry.
Sondheim experience: My first conscious experience of Sondheim’s work has to be his lyrics in West Side Story. The film version was a staple in our house growing up. My sister then regularly used to sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” for auditions (which was hilarious as you’d think a 15-year-old girl singing that song would be). With that, I found myself age eight shouting, “Off to the gym, then to a fitting” while wearing one of my mum’s coats – a regular Patsy Stone! I was then fortunate enough to receive his biography Stephen Sondheim: A Life by Meryle Secrest for Christmas, age 15. I made it my business to know everything about him. I played the Wolf in Into the Woods that summer, and when I was 18 at my final school concert I sang “Not A Day Goes By”. I then sang “Marry Me A Little” at every audition for drama school (including RAM) and still keep it in my rep folder today! Most recently, I was lucky enough to play Sweeney Todd at RAM. Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to mention the iconic six divas in red dresses at the concert Sondheim at 80. Throughout my teens I had all six performances on a loop every week.
Favourite Sondheim song: This is an impossible question. Though since you’ve forced my hand, my *current* favourite is “Could I Leave You?” from Follies. It’s just fab. It’s hilarious and poignant all at once – no one can articulate that feeling of being one laugh away from a tear quite like Sondheim. Also “Take Me To The World” (shock!)
Favourite Sondheim show: I truly don’t know. That said, my favourite score ever is Into The Woods. I discover something new every single time!
Dream role: Gordon in A New Brain [by William Finn and James Lapine]. Also The Witch in Into The Woods!
Who most inspires you? Musical theatre wise, it has to be Jessie Mueller. She is so incredibly versatile and makes every performance so unique to her and simultaneously true to whatever style she is doing. She is a total chameleon. Another inspiration is Audra McDonald. She has training very similar to mine and yet she has used that to her advantage. I’ve been lucky enough to see her perform twice and think about both of them regularly. Finally, Jessie Buckley is just exquisite. She takes to whatever medium she is in brilliantly and her performance in Cabaret last year is still something that motivates me to follow my career.
“I am simply bowled over to be in this competition. I first heard of the SSSSPOTY years ago when fellow Irish actor Turlough Convery won it. I am not acquainted with Turlough but he is my sister’s friend, and I remember being amazed that there was a Sondheim competition you could enter! It has been a goal of mine ever since and just making it to the final is as good as a trophy.”
Emily Ridge (she/her) – Leeds Conservatoire – BA (Hons) Musical Theatre (third year)
"Broadway Baby" from Follies / "That Rainy Day" from Lift by Craig Adams
About me: I was born and raised in Nottingham. I’ve taken an interest in performing since I was a little girl attending weekly lessons at Midlands Academy of Dance and Drama from the age of 3 to 18. My passion for musical theatre took a step forward at the age of 12 when I watched Les Misérables. My parents’ initial response was, “It’s not your cup of tea, Emily.” I can sort of understand why they thought that – at 12, it’s not the easiest musical to follow – but I insisted on going and thank god I did! I loved it. This opened up a whole new world to me. I started taking singing a lot more seriously!
I began singing lessons at this age with a wonderful teacher trained in opera and classical singing. I became heavily involved in my schools arts department, taking pride in creating and showcasing drama pieces as well as participating in every production, playing the roles of Sandy in Grease and Meat Loaf in We Will Rock You where I had the absolute pleasure of singing to Kerry Ellis.
Sondheim experience: I recently played the role of Sarah in my third year production of Company directed by Sarah Tipple. The whole experience was just incredible! Prior to this, I attended a Sondheim workshop held by my university and was lucky enough to perform “Broadway Baby” to Mary Hammond. Last year I had the pleasure of watching the most recent graduates of Leeds Conservatoire perform Merrily We Roll Along, which was beautiful. Stephen Sondheim always knew how to create a heart-pulling narrative that’s for sure!
Favourite Sondheim song: That’s hard!! Probably “Being Alive” from Company or “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods.
Favourite Sondheim show: Company :)
Dream role: Christine Daaé in The Phantom of The Opera or Maria in The Sound of Music!
Who most inspires you? Celinde Schoenmaker inspires me a lot! I recently saw her in Guys and Dolls. Her ability to capture moments in such detail through her acting alongside her effortless vocals is what draws me to her work. I believe every moment of it. She’s played many roles I would love to play in my lifetime therefore I look up to her a lot and hope to follow in her footsteps.
“I am so incredibly grateful to be a finalist of SSSSPOTY and so thrilled to share this experience with the rest of the finalists by celebrating the phenomenal work of Stephen Sondheim. Performing on the same stage where Les Misérables is performed will be a full-circle moment I’ll never forget. I’m so thankful for my friends and family who helped me get to where I am today!”
Pétur Svavarsson (he/him) – Royal Academy of Music – MA Musical Theatre (one-year)
"I Wish I Could Forget You" from Passion / “Burst Through Life” from Cases by Dominic Powell
About me: I was born and raised in a tiny town called Ísafjörður, in the middle of nowhere in Iceland, surrounded by mountains and the sea. I started singing with the children’s choir back at home when I was about eight years old, and loved every minute of it. Following that, my first glimpse into the world of musical theatre is when I got a lead role in a children’s musical when I was 10. From then on, there was no turning back. I took part in every school and amateur production I could find and got cast in. The summer of 2021 I co-founded a youth theatre company in my hometown which produced a show completely run and artistically directed by young aspiring artists in Ísafjörður.
Sondheim experience: I have regrettably not been a part of any full productions of Sondheim’s shows! But I cannot wait for the day it will happen.
Favourite Sondheim song: One of my favourite Sondheim songs is “Being Alive”... yes, basic, I know. But it’s the first Sondheim song that I remember really obsessing over, so it holds a very dear place in my heart.
Favourite Sondheim show: Company or Sweeney.
Dream role: Something like Hunchback in Hunchback of Notre-Dame or Emcee in Cabaret.
Who most inspires you? I think these days, my fellow company members and students at the Royal Academy of Music are my biggest inspiration. Being surrounded by such talented and hard-working performers teaches me something new every day, and makes me want to do my absolute best.
“I am so honoured to have been selected for the finals. It’s an incredible feeling to be following in the footsteps of the amazing people that have taken part in the competition before me.”
Isobel Twist (she/her) – Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – BA Acting (second year)
"Losing My Mind" from Follies / “Nobody” from Betty Blue Eyes by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
About me: I was born and raised in Southport, a small town in the north west of England. I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actor, but I think I caught the bug officially when High School Musical first graced our screens. It flipped my entire world upside down and I became utterly obsessed with the fact that just about anything could become a song and dance number at any given moment. My godmother thankfully introduced me to the golden age of musicals, and by age 10, my parents claimed they felt like they were living with Doris Day.
I began performing in youth plays and musicals when I reached secondary school, and from then on I couldn’t stop. Sometimes it really feels like every day is a musical. I have played some fantastic roles growing up and have had some wonderful opportunities, but playing Roxie Hart at Southport’s very own little theatre was one of my favourites. It was that role that proved to me that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Sondheim experience: I have unfortunately never performed in a Sondheim musical but it’s something I look forward to experiencing in the future.
Favourite Sondheim song: This is such a tough question, but I think my all time favourite would have to be “Being Alive” from Company. No matter how many times I’ve heard it, it still manages to reduce me to tears.
Favourite Sondheim show: Into The Woods. It manages to be utterly magical and heartbreaking while also being comedy gold throughout. I love that it doesn’t take itself too seriously but still manages to capture all the things we love about a fairytale. It just becomes something you can’t help but enjoy over and over again..
Dream role: It would be a dream to do a Ruthie Henshall and play these iconic roles: Fantine in Les Misérables and then, of course, Roxie Hart in Chicago. But if I were talking Sondheim I would say Sally Durant in Follies but at 21 years old, I think that role is a good few years away for me.
Who most inspires you? My parents. My mum and dad have always supported this dream and it sounds cliché, but I really wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them. It’s very hard not to follow your dreams when you have a family who believe in you as much as mine and I couldn’t be more grateful to have them as parents, but also as my best friends. I can’t imagine its easy raising a child that somehow manages to make everything into a performance, so I thank them for encouraging me and coming along on this whirlwind of a journey.
“It is an honour to be selected for the final of SSSSPOTY, I remember when I first heard about the competition on my foundation course two years ago and since then I couldn’t wait for the day I could finally apply myself. I watched Les Misérables not long ago on this very stage and to think that it will be me up there along side so many other talented performers celebrating the extraordinary work of Stephen Sondheim is nothing short of a dream come true.”
Harry Warburton (he/him) – Guildford School of Acting – BA (Hons) Musical Theatre (third year)
"Class" from Saturday Night / “Infinity” from The Blackfriars Boys by Sarah Middleton & Josh Sneesby
About me: I grew up in a little village called Romiley, in Manchester, with my amazing family. I moved to Guildford when I was 18. It’s funny – when I was 11, I saw my school’s show, Oliver!, my Dad turned to me and asked, “Do you see yourself doing anything like this?” I quickly replied, “Nooo way”!
Before performing, my main hobby was break dancing (which I still keep up now!) When I was 15, I was pretty much forced to take part in the Shakespeare Schools Festival – I asked to play a small part… my teachers cast me as Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream! I had a wonderful time. This was my first experience of acting on stage! I kept building momentum: I took part in the school musical, decided to do MT at college and joined company Manchester Musical Youth (MMY). It all developed very quickly! I owe a lot to my school teachers for all their support and I’m pretty grateful they had me play Lysander!
With MMY, I was involved in multiple shows, most notably playing Arthur Kipps in Half a Sixpence. This was alongside my college course, of which I loved every moment – for the first time, I was acting, singing and dancing everyday. From there, the only option really was to audition for drama school! I spent a year on the GSA Foundation Course in 2019 before starting on the BA.
Sondheim experience: In my second year at GSA, I played Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd. I was quite proud of myself bashing out those bass notes!
Favourite Sondheim song: Well, I chose “Class”, from Saturday Night for a reason! I knew I’d found a gem when I heard it for the first time and I love that it’s from one of Sondheim’s first pieces of work. Aside from that, I love “Pretty Women” from Sweeney for its beautiful melody.
Favourite Sondheim show: It would have to be Sweeney Todd. I also love West Side Story!
Dream role: Arthur Kipps in Half a Sixpence (or now known as Kipps). I would absolutely love to play this role again.
Who most inspires you? Having fallen in love with Half a Sixpence, Charlie Stemp was a real inspiration for me! I managed to meet him a couple of times and he was so encouraging. Aside from performing, my Mum and Dad lead their lives with such love for others that I can’t help but help but aspire to the same. I wholly admire their wisdom and generosity.
“What an honour to be part of the SSSSPOTY Final! I couldn’t believe it and I’m so excited. It’s amazing to be recognised – I can’t wait to work with everyone and witness all the fantastic talent! I really hope my performance is a tribute to all the support I’ve received from family, friends and teachers along the way.”
Milly Willows (she/her) – Italia Conti – BA (Hons) Musical Theatre (third year)
"Worst Pies in London" from Sweeney Todd / “A Story of My Own” from The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Michael Webborn & Daniel Finn
About me: I was born and raised in Swansea, Wales. From a very young age I was absolutely mesmerised by Disney, watching the films and singing the songs on repeat constantly; I blame my mum. I joined a youth theatre company at the age of eight, Class Act Theatre School (CATS), and left when I was 18. So, I grew up doing pantomimes, musicals and varieties and have continued to do so for most of my life. I had a very fun childhood!
The moment I knew I wanted to sing and perform for the rest of my life was when I played Nancy in Oliver! at school. From this moment, I went on to perform in various local productions such as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Elle in Legally Blonde, and Miss Hannigan in Annie. After completing my A Levels, I did the Cert HE course at the Swansea Grand Theatre where I briefly played Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors before COVID sadly cut off our entire run of the show.
Within my training at Italia Conti, I have played The Witch in Into the Woods, Kate in The Wild Party and Mary Jane in Jagged Little Pill.
Sondheim experience: I’m very grateful to have played Mrs Lovett in my third year production of Sweeney Todd. This was my first experience performing a Sondheim show, and it really changed my perspective of musical theatre. Sondheim’s work is so extremely detailed in his lyrics and musical composition, that I feel it allows the performers to truly connect to the characters. I will always have such a strong connection to this show, as it made me fall deeply in love with storytelling.
Favourite Sondheim song: Asking a performer to pick their favourite Sondheim song is like asking a mother to pick their favourite child… it has to be all of them! But if I had to choose I would say “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and “No One is Alone”.
Favourite Sondheim show: Sweeney Todd.
Dream role: I’ll whittle the list down for you: Anna in Frozen, Eponine in Les Misérables and Princess Fiona in Shrek. Sondheim-wise, I would love to play The Witch in Into The Woods. Any character that seems slightly unhinged, it seems!
Who most inspires you? On stage, I would say Sutton Foster, Lucie Jones and Imelda Staunton – three powerhouse women who show that there are no limits within theatre. My biggest inspiration of all is my mum. She is the strongest, most selfless and kindest woman I know, and I would not be where I am today without her.
“I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be selected for the final of SSSSPOTY. I can’t explain how much it means to me to be a part such a special celebration of someone so influential and inspiring. Stephen Sondheim lives on within theatre and he will continue to do so in this annual competition. I am truly honoured to perform his work on the Sondheim stage… it feels like a dream.”
The Stephen Sondheim Society Trustees requested that the judges select two back-up students, in the event of a finalist or finalists being indisposed or unwell. Sadly, Thom had to withdraw the day before owing to illness so was unable to join the opening number.
Thom Foster (he/him) – The Hammond School – BA (Hons) Musical Theatre (third year)
"Buddy's Blues" from Follies / “You Don't Know Me” from The Devil's Advocate by Richard John & Julian Woolford
About me: I was born in Wolverhampton but quickly moved across to Oswestry. I trained at the Hammomd school in Chester and I also now live in Chester. My interest in musical theatre began back in secondary school, where I played my first main role as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast for our end of year show. After that, I fell in love and haven’t looked back since.
Sondheim experience: My experience is very little at the moment, as this is my first year as a professional performer, but I’ve had lots of experience in amateur performing. A year ago, I played Harry in Company.
Favourite Sondheim song: “Being Alive” from Company.
Favourite Sondheim show: Follies.
Dream role: Evan in Dear Evan Hansen.
Who most inspires you? My mum and dad .
“It means so so so much to be selected as one of the finalists. I know how big this show is, and I know how hard it is to get into, so to be a part of it really just feels me with so much pride.”
El Haq Latief (they/them) – Royal Academy of Music – MA Musical Theatre (one-year)
"Losing My Mind" from Follies / “My Mom” from Shift+Alt+Right by HilmI Jaidin
About me: I was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. I also spent a few years growing up in Melbourne, Australia. I was interested in performing when I did a production of Romeo and Juliet back in High School. I played the role of Romeo and it was a thrilling experience to perform on stage. Then, I started going to auditions at the local community theatres. My first ever show outside of school was Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell. From then on, I’ve always been involved in many theatre productions in Jakarta like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat, West Side Story, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, Company, etc. I’ve also been granted a scholarship for an intensive musical training by American Voices in Jakarta and Djarum Foundation in New York City, both on separate occasions.
Sondheim experience: Back in Jakarta, one of my beloved theatre communites – Jakarta Performing Arts Community – did a production of Company, where I joined as the creative team: Choreographer.
Favourite Sondheim song: “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”.
Favourite Sondheim show: Company
Dream role: If anything is possible: Mama Rose
Who most inspires you? Imelda Staunton. Not only do I think’s she one of the best actresses and most humble person, but she’s also a great mentor and teacher.
“SSSSPOTY means that I get to go further with my craft and have the opportunity to work with other artists outside of the Royal Academy of Music. And get a little taste of what it’s like to work in a professional-like setting with amazing artists.”