Milly Willows Crowned Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2023
SUNDAY 11th JUNE, 6pm: Swansea-born Milly Willows, a third-year BA Hons Musical Theatre student at Italia Conti, has today 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 winner Desmonda Cathabel took a break from her rehearsals for Miss Saigon in Newcastle to reprise her winning song, "The Miller's Son", 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.