Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Competition at the Savoy Theatre
Gathered in the Savoy Theatre on a recent Sunday were a mixture of family, friends and members of the Sondheim society to listen to twelve extremely talented young performers compete to be awarded the title of ‘Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year’. Other than being a mouth-full, this is a wonderful prize that recognises the fresh and exciting new talent just entering into London’s theatre scene, with first place being a cash prize of £1,000. But the SSSSPOTY also recognises new writing (a personal requisite from Sondheim himself for the award to be in his name), with each performer also performing songs from new musicals, which were up for the Stiles + Drewe Prize for Best New Song. Hosted by West End star Tracie Bennett, this afternoon of songs offered a glorious trip to listen to familiar songs from theatre’s greatest songwriter.
There was a charming variety of Sondheim songs on offer at the SSSSPOTY, from the familiar ‘Buddy’s Blues’ and ‘Could I Leave You’ from Follies (which just saw an Olivier-award winning production at the National Theatre) through to ‘Don’t Laugh’ and ‘The Flag Song’ from Hot Shots and Assassins respectively. The opening group number was also a rarity: ‘Make The Most Of Your Music’ was meant to be in Follies but was cut. Certainly some of the best performances were from those that used the rather expansive Savoy stage: James Stirling as the salivating Wolf from Into the Woods performed an energetic and humorous rendition of ‘Hello, Little Girl’. The variety of Sondheim’s songs certainly came through across the afternoon: some performed beautifully emotional songs like Shelby Flannery’s ‘I Wish I Could Forget You’ where others opted for a wry comical approach, such as ‘Emily Beresford’s ‘Don’t Laugh’. When asked what students can learn from Sondheim, Bennett offered some words of wisdom: ‘To be honest it’s like any speech in acting: you have to do your homework. Maybe you have to think about the age appropriateness of it. People say you should never cast yourself. You might want to ask your teacher what is age appropriate. But that said, forgive me, I heard ‘I’m Still Here’ when I was eighteen and I really understood it then, but I was never going to do it because I was too young. There’s something about first knowing from other people what you can be cast as and secondly any song should be an extension of what is being done in the scene. Sondheim writes for voices.’ Wise words from a Broadway Baby that’s still here.
The winner on the day however was Alex Cardall, who first performed ‘Buddy’s Blues’ from Follies, cleverly reducing the traditional three roles in the song into one and then ‘You And Me’ by Adam Wachter, which also won the Stiles + Drewe Prize. I briefly caught Adam and asked him how it felt to win: ‘It’s incredible really – it was such a quick weekend but everything just seemed to fit in. We’ve had a few weeks to prepare the songs and get them to a decent standard but being able to share the stage with so many young performers is really special. So I’m really happy.’
When asked of the potential for students and what SSSSPOTY might offer, Craig Glenday, Chairman of the Stephen Sondheim Society, said, ‘They get to perform at least one Sondheim song, remember they aren’t all necessarily musical theatre students. They have the intensity of learning and performing Sondheim. Since the event has the respect of the theatre community, agents now come to scout talent. It gets you immersed in the world.’
Guest performers included Di Botcher from Follies and Oscar Conlon-Morrey and Izuka Hoyle, respectively second and first place of last year’s SSSSPOTY, who sang ‘The Contest’ from Sweeney Todd and ‘Last Midnight’ from Into the Woods. When asked what his favourite song by Sondheim was, Cardall answered, ‘the ‘Prologue’ for Follies; I feel the music and power of the show is captured in the opening notes.’ When I asked Bennett what advice she would give the contestants as they begin their careers, she enthusiastically cried ‘I would say be a human being, live your life, get your friends around you, and be a person. Just live your life, since if you’re playing people you’ve got to be a person.’ Many congratulations from London Student to all twelve performers and the Sondheim Society for another wonderful competition.