Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year competition/Stiles & Drewe Best New Song prize at the Garrick Theatre, London.
Hats off, here they come, those Beautiful Girls! Yes, girl power ruled the roost at the Sondheim Society’s student ‘Oscars’ for the second year running and, to rub it in, they grabbed runner-up honours as well.
Following 2014 champion Corrine Priest into the winner’s enclosure at the Garrick was Erin Doherty, who showed a brilliant comic touch with her Follies show-stopper ‘Broadway Baby’ and a cute treatment of Darren Clark’s delightful new-song entry ‘The Angel At the Top of the Tree’.
Each of the 12 finalists from nationwide schools of musical theatre training had to perform one Sondheim song and one new composition in the Stiles & Drewe competition, and Doherty’s victory was greeted with huge enthusiasm by a full house, most of them fellow students cheering like a football crowd for their favourites.
The 22-year-old from Crawley, Sussex, who is in her final term at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School after training for a year at the Guildford School of Acting, took the £1,000 top prize in holding off ArtsEd’s Leah West who performed two more serious songs, ‘I Read’ from Passion and the touching ‘Love Me’, from a new folk musical by Laura Kaye Thomson.
West’s consolation was a cheque for £500, while just missing out but highly commended was the GSA’s Grant McConvey, who did a fabulous job with the Best New Song winner ‘Don’t Look Down’, an hilarious take on a divorced vertigo sufferer who foolishly agrees to climb Big Ben for a Fathers 4 Justice demonstration.
This collaboration between Richy Hughes and Joseph Finlay had the audience roaring with laughter and once again it was a humorous song that took the judges’ fancy and the £1,000 cheque.
Last year two of comedienne Tamar Broadbent’s rich creations and Eamonn O’Dwyer’s unforgettable ‘Something For the Pain’ dominated this award; this year it was a close call between ‘Don’t Look Down’ and the charmingly cute ‘The Angel At the Top of the Tree’, so well received that Stiles and Drewe came up with an extra prize of £250 for its delighted creator.
Competition was fiercer than ever: 147 songs submitted from Mercury Musical Developments composers were whittled down to 12 and it took eight hours of auditions at the Royal Academy of Music in March to find 12 finalists from a nationwide field of 72 all gunning for the Sondheim Society’s award.
The Sondheim contest now goes into its tenth year with the guys leading the gals 6-3 after winning the prestigious competition six times in its first seven years.
Nobody got a standing ovation to match the one accorded to special guest Elaine Paige, who belted out ‘I’m Still Here’, from Follies (she played Carlotta on Broadway two years ago) but with lyrics Sondheim would never have recognised but would have approved. The cheeky new verses were written by Anthony Drewe to celebrate Paige’s 50-year showbiz career.
The show was compered by Michael Xavier, another West End star with plenty of Sondheim on his CV, having recently appeared in Assassins at the Menier. But when he put down his script and sang, it was to Into the Woods that he turned, reprising the ‘Agony’ duet with Simon Thomas they did superbly in the 2010 Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre revival.
He chose Into the Woods again for one of two solos, ‘No One is Alone’, the other being ‘They Don’t Make Glass Slippers’ from Stiles and Drewe’s Soho Cinders, a show he also starred in.
Xavier also put himself on Grant McConvey’s Christmas card list by, out of his own pocket, doubling the £50 award to the Best New Song performer, a new prize this year.
Her reign as Sondheim Society student queen almost over, Corrine Priest returned to reprise her winning ‘Don’t Laugh’ entry (from Hot Spot) and, 12 months on, nailed it even more completely. We shall surely hear much more from her and her delightful successor Doherty, to whom Society patron Julia McKenzie presented the 2015 award.
Music critic Edward Seckerson chaired the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year judging panel which included McKenzie, Paige, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Assassins director Jamie Lloyd and orchestra leader John Wilson, while the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song prize was sorted by the sponsors, ably assisted by the composing team of Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary.
Director Chris Hocking gets top marks for a simple but very effective set with excellent use made of light streams and spots, while MD/pianist Stephen Ridley was the hardest worker of the lot with 30 songs to play. A piece of cake, however, compared with the 72 Sondheims he provided the backing to in an eight-hour stint at the heats!