Review by Daz Gale
If there is one thing the late, great Stephen Sondheim was known for (aside from his astonishing talent) it was encouraging and nurturing future talent. The suitably wordy Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer Of The Year (SSSSPOTY) aims to continue that legacy by shining a spotlight on the stars of tomorrow. Now in its 15th year, previous contestants include Taron Egerton, Oscar Conlon-Morrey and Cynthia Erivo – big shoes to follow but there really was no shortage of talent on this scorching hot Sunday afternoon.
250 applicants were narrowed down to twelve finalists (and two reserves) taking to the stage at the Sondheim Theatre (where else?) breaking through the barricades of the set usually claimed by Les Miserables for one day a year. Each of the twelve has to perform a solo, accompanied only by the phenomenal Nigel Lilley on the piano. The solo has to be a number from Sondheims vast and, frankly, intimidating catalogue of songs. However, in a twist completely in keeping with Sondheims beliefs, he insisted each of the finalists get a second performance – that being a song from a new UK musical. What transpired was a blissful afternoon if stunning performances highlighting the very best in musical theatre, old and new.
Hosted by the always wonderful Alex Young who was the very first winner of the competition back in 200*cough*. She had the audience in the palm of her hands, regularly howling with laughter thanks to her charm and humility. Whether it was her quips introducing the judges, particularly that of Jenna Russell who she brilliantly announced had done every role before and on a bigger scale. Along with Jenna, the competition was judged by Edward Seckerson, Nicola Hughes and Michael Jibson with Julia McKenzie on hand to give out the prize at the close of the afternoon. Between them, they had a tough decision to make – and these performers were not about to make it any easier for them.
The twelve finalists are students from all over the UK. Between them, they tackled a mixture of well known numbers from Sondheims classic catalogue as well as numbers that were cut from some of those iconic musicals. Company, Follies, Into The Woods, Assassins, Sunday In The Park Wirth George, Evening Primrose, Passion, Saturday Night and Sweeney Todd were all on offer during the afternoon. It feels wrong not to name-check each of these twelve wonderful performers individually even if I can’t quite talk about each of their performances specifically at length. They are Sara Bartos, Emily Botnen, Lucy Carter, Harry Lakr, Josh Lewingdon, Ritesh Manugula, Tom O’Kelly, Emily Rudge, Petur Svavarsson, Isobel Twist, Harry Warburton and Milly Willows – all performing in alphabetical order.
As well as each performing a Sondheim song, they each tackled a song from new UK musicals with Alex James Ellison’s Fiver, two musicals from Stiles & Drewe’s in the form of Betty Blue Eyes and Soho Cinders, Dominic Powell’s Cases and Craig Adams’ LIFT among the brilliant musicals showcased. Highlights from these 24 performances included Harry Lake’s stunning ‘If You Can Find Me, I’m Here’ from Evening Primrose, Emily Botnen’s ‘Everybody Loves Louis’ from Sunday In The Park With George and Sara Bartos exuding star power with a perfectly delivered ‘Stay With Me’ from Into The Woods.
The audience were also treated to a number of guest performances with National Youth Musical Theatre delivering a fabulous ‘Our Time’, Toby Owers, Madeleine Morgan and Thomas Oxley evoking memories of last years sensational Sondheim celebration concert with ‘Old Friends’ as well as host Alex Young revisiting her winning performance from an undisclosed year with a stunning ‘Sunday In The Park With George’ accompanied with George Kemp as her real George… on a Sunday. No parks were to be found though. Alex also paid homage to her fabulous turn in last years Anyone Can Whistle with a performance of ‘There’s Always A Woman’ with Ellie Nunn.
Last years winner Desmonda Cathabel has already proved what a knack this competition has for picking future talents, having recently made her professional debut in From Here To Eternity at Charing Cross Theatre and soon to be seen in the revival of Miss Saigon at Sheffield Crucible. She once again proved why she is a force to be reckoned with with an encore performance of ‘The Miller’s Son’ from A Little Night Music – the song that won her the title in 2022. Truly fabulous and along with these twelve finalists, someone to be excited about for the future.
There could only be one winner on the night though. After Emily Botnen scooped the runner up prize, the winner was declared as Milly Willows from Swansea, studying at Italia Conti. The very last performer of the competition, she proved they really had saved the best to last, wowing every person sat in the Sondheim Theatre with a genius interpretation of ‘The Worst Pies In London’ from Sweeney Todd. Her characterisation and comedic timing were a joy to behold, bringing something extra and showcasing what an undoubted star she is destined to become. Her new musical number ‘A Story Of My Own’ from The Clockmaker’s Daughter showed another side to her and was equally impressive. While it is never easy to pit performers against each other, especially when they are just starting out in the world of musical theatre, this did feel like the right winner in what was a year with no shortage of incredible talent.
Giving these students such a huge West End Theatre to perform at is a fantastic opportunity and an even better initiative. While this was still a competition, the sense of camaraderie and support on stage made the whole thing seem more heart-warming, with fellow contestants overcome with joy for the eventual winner and runner up. It was an afternoon that continued Sondheims legacy by shining a light on these future stars. With that in mind, the future of musical theatre is looking very bright indeed. I have no doubt that all twelve of these remarkable talents will be lighting up stages in the West End, around the UK and indeed, the world, in the years to come – and I can’t wait to sit in the audience cheering them all on. Bring on the 2024 competition!
The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer Of The Year will return in 2023. Keep an eye for @SondheimSociety on socials to find out more.