The fifth SSSSPOTY was again at The Queen’s Theatre
The judges were Edward Seckerson, Kerry Ellis, Anna Francolini, Timothy Sheader, Sarah Travis
Host: Haydn Gwynne
Performers: Anna Francolini, Michael Peavoy
Musical Director: Nigel Lilley
Director: Chris Hocking
Producers: Neil Marcus, Sam Joseph and Richard Douglas Productions
Sooner Or Later from the film Dick Tracy
Remember (Christopher Hamilton)
Can That Boy Foxtrot
In Sickness & In Health (Lee Freeman)
CRAIG RHYS BARLOW
Franklin Shephard Inc
I Want To Reach For The Stars (Alexander S. Bermange)
Megan’s Hero (Dougal Irvine)
TARON EGERTON (WINNER)
Giants In The Sky
May As Well And Why Not (Craig Adams & Nona Sheppard)
Could I Leave You
Anything For Love (Tony Rees)
Another Hundred People
The Richer The Better (Nadav Wiesel)
If You Can Find Me I’m Here
Three Little Words (Susannah Pearse & Rebecca Applin)
Children Will Listen
Bright Lights (Michael Dresser)
Kaboom Kapow (Eric Angus & Paul James)
Ballad Of Booth
Goodnight Kiss (Laurence Mark Wythe)
I Am (Tim Sutton)
ARTICLES AND REVIEWS
A review by Craig Glenday
For students of musical theatre, there can be few experiences more satisfying, edifying or intimidating than studying and performing the songs of a living legend. Add to this the pressure of competition, a professional West End stage, a knowing audience and a first prize of £1 ,000, and you have the ingredients for one of the highlights of the UK theatrical calendar — The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year (SSSSPOTY). (And yes, for those like me who always wondered, it’s pronounced “spotty”.
Having had the pleasure of hearing students from the Royal Academy of Music perform when Mr Sondheim received his honorary doctorate last October, I was fully prepared for a decent afternoon of music. While many of Sondheim’s songs require the performer to display an emotional maturity — or sometimes just maturity! — to fully succeed, with the right choice of song, a youthful performance can be an equally satisfying and edifying experience for the listener.
The competition, now in its fifth year, was held once again at the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, currently home to “The Glums”, Les Miserables— the West End’s longest running musical (and at about three-and-a-half hours long, one of the lengthiest and bum-numbing of all the West End shows!) I turned up at the theatre to find a massive throng queuing for tickets, surely a relief to the organizers faced with the daunting task of filling a full-size auditorium on a Sunday afternoon. A relief, too, to the student performers, no doubt, as this at least meant a decent audience of supporters.
As an aside, it was fantastic to see so many young faces among a crowd that might otherwise have been on the more, erm, silver side of life. (As a former pit musician, I remember all too often looking up to see a rippling sea of silver hair and spectacles shining back at me!) Just as much as we need new talent on stage, musical theatre desperately needs this new generation of ticket-buying fans off-stage to secure its future.. but judging from the SSSSPOTY event, all should be well.
Our host for the afternoon was Haydn Gwynne, whose last dalliance with Sondheim saw her take on the role of Joanne for the one-off Donmar production of Company last year, replacing the otherwise irreplaceable Sheila Gish, who sadly passed away in 2005. Having missed the chance to see this show, it was a real treat to hear Haydn singing us into the interval with her gutsy rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch”, which certainly would have done Ms Gish proud. She later did a mean — in a good way! — impression of the “original” Joanne, Elaine Stritch, and indulged us with an anecdote about lunching in Manhattan with the incomparable (and behatted) songstress.
Judging the proceedings this year was a panel comprising Edward Seckerson (Chair), West End and Broadway star Kerry Ellis (Wicked, Les Miserables, Oliver!), Timothy Sheader (Artistic Director at Regent’s Park Theatre), award-winning orchestrator and music supervisor Sarah Travis (Chess, Sunset Boulevard, Sweeney Todd), and stage actress Anna Francolini (Company, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods), who also opened the second half of the competition with the song “Nobody”, a resolutely perky (or should that be “porky”?) routine from the new Stiles and Drewe musical Betty Blue Eyes that sounds like it was written for Ethel Merman.
In groups of three, each student took in turns to sing a Sondheim number of their choice, with many avoiding the show-stoppers and choosing less wel¬l known songs — such as “Sooner or Later” from the movie Dick Tracy by Claire Chambers (Central School of Speech and Drama), for example, or If You Can Find Me I’m Here” from Evening Primrose — a stand-out performance by Dom Hodson (Royal Academy of Music). There were a few bold choices, however: Craig Rhys Barlow (Guildford School of Acting) just about managed to keep on top of the frenetic “Franklin Shepard Inc.”, while Bronte Tadman (Oxford School of Drama) took on `Broadway Baby”, a number for which she was not nearly long-enough in the tooth.
The overall standard was very high, as you’d expect. These young stars of the future all seemed to relish the opportunity presented to them and each put great passion and enthusiasm into their performances. It’s all too easy to be cynical about singing competitions, thanks to the constant stream of sensationalist talent shows on television, but it really was refreshing to see these promising artists give honest, heartfelt performances.
For me, there were a few memorable interpretations the Sondheim round: “Can That Boy Foxtrot” (cut from Follies but later reinstated in Side by Side by Sondheim) was a sassy, saucy, class act from Caire Chambers of the Central School of Speech and Drama; Howard Jenkins (Arden School of Music, Manchester) gave a spirited and well-acted rendition of “Free” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; and Jennifer Logan (RADA) was very convincing in her acid-tongued performance of “Could I Leave You?” from Follies.
In addition, each student had to sing a number from an original new show. This two-part format, instigated at the insistence of Sondheim to promote the creation of new material, tests not just the performing prowess of the students but the quality of new song writing. Judging (and, along with Maggie Black, funding) this part of the competition were the aforementioned Anthony Drewe and George Stiles, the partnership behind Mary Poppins and the successful new Betty Blue Eyes currently hogging the stage at the Novello Theatre in Aldwych.
This, for me, was a fascinating experience. Hearing other contemporary writers’ material side by side by Sondheim’s really puts his songwriting into perspective; I hope I don’t sound sycophantic when I say that one really appreciates Sondheim’s inimitable qualities when you hear him alongside less celebrated composers and lyricists. I have to admit to finding many of the new songs particularly bland or lifeless — especially the slower, balladic numbers. I really felt for those students who opted for such unspectacular songs, or perhaps had those songs allocated to them.
But to be fair, there were some engaging numbers that did rouse the audience. “The Richer — The Better” from Femme Fatale by Nadav Wiesel and sung and acted with a delicious impertinence by Hannah Blake (Royal Academy of Music) will stick in my mind a long time; “Bright Lights” from Moving On by Michael Dresser, performed by Kim Anderson (Stella Man College of Performing Arts), was a complex, emotional look back over the wasted potential of a lonely woman’s life; and “May As Well And Why Not” from Craig Adams’ and Nona Sheppard’s Therese Raquin was given a well-crafted and suitably arrogant delivery by Taron Egerton (RADA) as the devious Laurent planning his seduction of Therese.
The jury finally came to their conclusion after a second (and lengthy) interval. Just before the winners were announced, we had another musical treat — a reprise of 2009 winner and RADA graduate Michael Peavoy’s “Being Alive” from Company.
What an agonizing decision it must have been to choose between such a talented field. First to be announced was the winner of the Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Prize, which was split between the partnership of Eric Angus and Paul James for “Kaboom Kapow” from their show The Boy Who Fell to Earth, realised by Howard Jenkins, and Tim Sutton for “I Am” from a new musical theatre revue, sung by Bronte Tadman (Oxford School of Drama).
For the first time in the singing contest, official recognition was given to the runner-up — in this case, Katie Bernstein (Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts) – for her moving interpretation of “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George and the starkly contrasting “Megan’s Hero” from Dougal Irvine’s In Touch. There can, of course, be only one winner, and the outright prize and title of The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2011 was awarded to Taron Egerton, the Welsh-speaking second-year RADA student who shone in his delivery of “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods, drawing out the character of an excited, fearful, proud Jack following his exploits up the beanstalk.
It was a delight to see, from my vantage point at the front of the stage, the genuine look of shock on Taron’s face as he heard the news. After an emotional moment, he collected himself long enough to accept his prize — generously donated by Rex Bunnett of Overtures: The Bunnett Muir Musical Theatre Archive Trust — from Society patron Julia McKenzie, accompanied by a roar from his supporters high in the gods. It was also good to see an appreciative nod given to Musical Director Nigel Lilley, whose faultless contribution to proceedings kept everyone ticking along seamlessly.
There are worse things than sitting in a theatre on a Sunday (sorry!), and for more than three hours of quality entertainment, you’d be hard pushed to find better value than SSSSPOTY. But more than that, it’s about encouraging and supporting new talent, so do what you can to get yourself to next year’s event. As donor Rex Bunnett commented in the programme notes: The future of musical theatre depends on new composers, lyricists and librettist and the many hugely talented students who will be interpreting their work in the future. But we need your support too – let’s get those (numb) bums on seats.
The Finals – A Winner’s view by last year’s winner Alex Young
The Sunday in April on which I was to audition for this competition started out as one of those days when nothing seemed to go right! I couldn’t find my pile of CVs and headshots (that I’d filed away in a safe location I’d subsequently forgotten), and my repertoire folder containing the music for the competition had apparently trotted happily away in the course of my preparation and had hidden itself somewhere in my bedroom. After much digging around and much fruity language, I made it out of my house only for my train to fail to turn up on time…
Suffice to say, after much panicking, I made it to the Royal Academy of Music with only a few minutes to spare before my audition – sweaty, parched and horribly anxious. Thankfully, lovely Lynne from the Sondheim Society was on hand to calm me down and to assure me that the auditions were also running a tad late! I had just enough time to shut myself in a toilet cubicle for five minutes to catch my breath and to focus… However, upon heading into the audition room, I was alarmed anew as rather than the usual two or three, there was an audition panel consisting of perhaps ten people! But of course I was warmly welcomed, and enjoyed a quick chat – about chocolate biscuits, if I remember correctly – before I began.
I had desperately wanted to take part in this competition, and so was delighted to be put forward to compete. Whilst I had had relatively little experience of actually performing Sondheim’s work before starting my course at the Royal Academy – I had played Little Red Riding Hood in a university production of Into The Woods, but that was all to speak of – I was eager to do more, being an avid Sondheim fan. I had seen a few productions of his shows and had written my BMus dissertation on Sweeney Todd, but my past year of study has led to a far greater enjoyment and understanding of his overwhelmingly skilful word-setting, musicianship, intelligence and wit.
I always feel spoiled as an actor when performing Sondheim’s material; indeed, I take every available opportunity to do so as it’s just so terribly exhilarating! My boyfriend has grown used to my joyful paroxysms as I regale him with impromptu recitals of “I Remember” -marvelling at its onomatopoeic sparseness, evident in such glorious couplets as “I remember trees/ Bare as coat racks/ Spread like broken umbrellas”.
I was particularly glad to be singing the title song from Sunday In The Park With George in the heats, as I had recently taken part in a production of that same work at the Academy and of course it’s a magnificent song -complex and challenging, but thrilling to perform, so I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to perform it again in the final of this exciting competition.
The day of the finals was one that I shan’t forget. Aside from getting to take part in such a great competition, there were so many other bonuses – walking into the stage door at the Queen’s Theatre being just one of them! I had met the other contestants the previous day at our rehearsal, where we had learnt and set the opening and closing numbers with the wonderful Chris Hocking and Nigel Lilley. Once in the theatre I found I was sharing a dressing room with the other girls and we quickly bonded through excitement and terror, but, above all, over a mutual hope that this year – for the first time – it would be a female winner! Upon being summoned to the stage for a mic fitting I shamefully turned into a squealing child, finding myself standing on the famous Les Mis “revolve” and secretly hoping that someone might turn it on! Needless to say, it remained firmly unrevolving, but I was soon sobered by looking out into the large auditorium and realising the huge challenge that awaited me!
We soon thereafter had a rehearsal on stage where we met the glorious Hannah Waddingham and were delighted to be able to sneak a peek at her two brilliant performances.
Before we knew it the audience were in and the show had begun, with us all rather appropriately singing “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along. Following this each contestant in turn was to sing their chosen Sondheim and MMD song; I was on last so it was a long and agonising wait in the dressing room, watching each girl nervously go up to the stage before coming back happy and relieved until there was only my paled face and nervous leg jiggling to be seen. Of course, I eventually got on the stage to sing my two songs… As well as my chosen Sondheim, I was delighted to be singing Christopher Hamilton and Susannah Pearse’s fantastic “I Clean Up Around Here”, which charts the increasingly manic preachings of a boarding school matron – the outrageous narrative and sophisticated score made for a great crowd pleaser and it was huge fun to perform.
When they announced the winner, I was so utterly amazed I barely reacted, I just waddled forward to accept the silver salver from Julia McKenzie, who as I remember was trying to say something nice to me about my performance but I just stood, staring at her, smiling like a simpleton and thinking “YOU’RE JULIA MCKENZIE!”. Such was my shock, I had completely forgotten what Chris Hocking had told us to do if we won, so instead I did an impromptu little giddy dance; thankfully Keith Stanley was on hand to come on to stage to address the audience and to curtail my silliness.
I was so honoured to have been on stage with such talented people, the judging panel and contestants alike, and it was wonderful to finish off the day with all of us singing “Sunday” – a song I believe is unmatched in beauty.
Whilst I have the opportunity, I would like to thank the staff and students at RAM and my family and friends for their support, Jeremy Sams and Matt Ryan for their direction, and all at the Sondheim Society for this excellent experience (and Sondheim, of course, for being kind enough to exist!).
The Finals – A Winner’s view by Taron Egerton
I had heard of the event because I’m good friends with the winner of the 2009 competition, Michael Peavoy. When I got a call from Jane, the head of singing at RADA, one Saturday asking me if I would like to audition I was chuffed to bits but I could feel the nerves bubbling as soon as I put the phone down.
I started having extra tutorials with my brilliant teacher Philip Raymond, working on “Giants in the Sky” and went along with Jennifer Logan to audition. I remember we sat outside terrified because we were convinced that we wouldn’t able to hold our own against what were bound to be a load of incredible musical theatre performers. I knew she’d nail it but we couldn’t believe it when we both got through to the final; I promptly began having regular panic-attacks but, again, I was overjoyed.
From then until the weekend of the competition it was just lots and lots of work on “Giants” and my song from a new musical “May As Well and Why Not”, which I very quickly fell in love with. Working on the character of big bullish Laurent from Craig and Nona’s musical adaptation of Thérèse Raquin was a lovely contrast to the young, excitable Jack from Into the Woods.
The big weekend got closer and closer in the same way a speeding train might and before I knew it I was on my way to meet the other finalists at Arts Ed on May 21st. I was so relieved to get there and find it didn’t feel at all like a competition and that every last one of them was not only amazingly talented but really, really lovely. As we rehearsed the opening number, I relaxed and even began to get a bit excited at the prospect of performing on that enormous stage at the Queen’s Theatre.
That evening I had a lovely meal and one (very small) glass of beer with my mum and auntie and we saw a play in Covent Garden. They had come down on the train earlier that day; my mum was more nervous than me! The next morning I got up and packed my smart clothes and headed for Piccadilly Circus. It was such a buzz using the stage-door and having our microphones fitted. I watched everyone do a quick run through of their songs on the stage, mesmerised by how great they all were and then sat and waited in our dressing room while all those hundreds of people filed in. Katie Bernstein was up before me and I remember thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing on stage competing with someone with a voice that gorgeous’. However, the moment came to sing and I loved it. The nerves went and I just had such a great time. The audience were really warm and friendly and I relished every moment. It’s a lovely theatre to play to and I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to sing for so many people on that fantastic stage.
After everyone had performed and Michael Peavoy had given his awesome rendition of “Being Alive” the judges came on stage to announce the winner. Meanwhile, I was stood leaning ‘oh-so-coolly’ against a wall side-stage wondering which one of the others would win. After Katie was announced as the runner-up I was looking from person to person, unable to decide who my favourite was, when they called my name. The rest is a bit of blur; I heard afterwards that a very small portion of the audience comprised of friends from home, family and RADAfolk went a bit berserk and there was lots of jumping about, crying and screaming. From what I can remember it involved me walking out onto the stage towards a grinning Julie McKenzie with the most absurd look of shock on my face, an extremely uneloquent speech and a slightly tearier version of “Giants in the Sky” than Stephen Sondheim probably intended. The whole experience is something I will never forget and I’m massively grateful to everyone involved; thank you. It was so special to meet some wonderful new people and also to have so many of the people closest to me there to be a part of one of the loveliest moments of my life.