When The Stephen Sondheim Society, with encouragement from legendary Sondheim interpreter Julia McKenzie, launched the first Student Performer of the Year competition at what is now the Leicester Square Theatre, only ten musical theatre students applied to take part. Not surprisingly, all ten qualified for the final!
Now, in the tenth anniversary edition, a record 80 showbiz wannabes from college seats of learning up and down the land eagerly took their chance, to be whittled down to the 12 thoroughbreds who strutted their stuff at a packed Novello Theatre on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
In racing terminology, what started as a selling plate has grown in a decade into the students’ Derby – the “jewel in the crown” (as Stephen Sondheim Society chairman Craig Glenday put it in his witty opening speech) of the organisation’s year.
And it was bouncy Courtney Bowman who triumphed, the 21-year-old from Boston – not the one famed for its Tea Party, but the Lincolnshire variety – making it three in a row for the girls (two-thirds of the finalists were female) following the victories of Corrine Priest and Erin Doherty.
Not only that (though the guys still lead 6-4!), it’s three in the last five years for the soaraway Guildford School of Acting in Surrey under the driving force that is Michael Moor, their head musical theatre honcho.
The GSA won back-to-back in 2012-13 through Kris Olsen and Turlough Convery, but this was one for the girls (although the winner’s mum told me some panellists though they were getting a fella until Miss Bowman appeared in front of them, as Courtney was originally a boy’s name!).
Coming on last of the 12 finalists (never a bad draw), Bowman wowed the judges with a powerhouse ‘Me and My Town’, from Anyone Can Whistle, a Sondheim song with which she was particularly familiar, having played the mayoress in the GSA second-years’ production in 2015.
The competition involves singing one Sondheim song of choice and a composition by one of the 12 new-song finalists (from an entry of 107 by Mercury Musical Developments writers) chasing the Stiles + Drewe Prize, also worth £1,000.
Sondheim insisted on new writing being encouraged when giving his blessing to SSSSPOTY and the three-hour marathon show has become a date of considerable importance in the musical theatre calendar.
The winner’s humorous new-song choice ‘The Driving Lesson’, by Tim Connor, gave her the opportunity to show off a wicked Geordie accent and was the perfect foil to her Sondheim entry, although both demonstrated her lively acting skills.
She realised that ‘Performer’ was the key word in the title, whereas a few seemed to think it was merely a singing competition. Choosing two serious songs was not the wisest combination when previous results clearly showed audiences and judges react more favourably to material that makes them laugh.
So too did the runner-up Eleanor Jackson, a terrific actress-singer from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, who delivered a masterpiece of comic timing with the title song from Sunday in the Park With George and backed it up with the clever ‘More to Life’ by James Burn.
She picked up £500 and there would have been few complaints if she’d been named the winner. A personal disappointment was that the excellent Abigail Fitzgerald went home with nothing, as both her contributions, ‘Moments in the Woods’ and ‘Wallpaper Girl’, were particularly pleasing.
The uber-talented Tim Connor –- he wrote two of the 12 in the Best Song final – carried off the Stiles + Drewe Prize, not with ‘The Driving Lesson’, but with his equally amusing first entry ‘Back to School’, about the trials and tribulations of being a teacher.
In awarding Connor their ‘grand’ cheque, Stiles and Drewe also particularly commended ‘Rivets’ (David Perkins and Dominic and Joe Male, ‘More to Life’ (James Burn) and ‘Little Wooden Horse’ (Chris Bush and Matt Winkworth). Any would have been a worthy winner.
‘The Driving Lesson’ was beautifully performed by Ashley Reyes, a New Yorker in her final year at LAMDA, who collected £100 as the singer of the winning entry and has a voice and presence to go far.
The new Mentorship Award devised by Stiles and Drewe went to Darren Clark and Rhys Jennings for their imaginative The Wicker Husband, a great start for actor and puppeteer Jennings making his theatrical debut as a writer.
The rewards, thanks to sponsorship by MTI (Musical Theatre International), are considerable – the prize gives the writers of one new musical the chance to see it developed, through monthly writing labs and a one-month retreat in France, into a professionally mounted industry showcase.
The show was superbly compered by the laid-back Julian Ovenden, who reminded those who think of him chiefly from Downton Abbey that he has outstanding vocal chops.
He and special guest Sophie-Louise Dann brought the first half to a thrilling ‘Move On’ climax by reprising their 2013 lead parts in Sunday in the Park With George from the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.
Dann was in dazzling form there and again when she opened the second half with ‘About Six Inches From Your Heart’ (with co-composer George Stiles on piano). This was a stunner of a song from Becoming Nancy, a new show Stiles and Drewe are closely involved in (an adaptation of a novel called Becoming Nancy by Terry Ronald). If this was an example, all one can say is: bring it on!
And while the learned judges, under the chairmanship of Edward Seckerson, deliberated on who to make this year’s SSSSPOTY champion, Ovenden weighed in with two more Sondheim beauties, ‘Love, I Hear’ (from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and ‘Being Alive’ (from Company).
In between, the delightful Natasha Cottriall performed ‘Do You Want a Baby, Baby?’, a New Song entry for Dougal Irvine at a past SSSSPOTY, but now enjoying a deserved life in The Buskers Opera which is playing at the Park Theatre until 4 June.
And five past SSSSPOTY winners, Michael Peavoy (2009), Alex Young (2010) despite carrying an injury from a stage fall in Show Boat, Olsen (2012), Priest (2014) and Doherty (2015), teamed up for a nostalgic ‘Old Friends’ (from Merrily We Roll Along).
It would be totally wrong not to namecheck musical director Mark ‘Fingers of Steel’ Warman, who not only accompanied the finalists but earlier had the more onerous task of playing piano for all 80 original entries in one day at the auditions. As jury chairman Seckerson said, if entries are going to continue escalating, it is going to be quite a squeeze!
Let’s leave the last word to Society chairman Glenday who made a case for the 81 digits of ‘Student of the Year Competition 2016 and Stiles and Drewe Prize’ qualifying the show for Longest Title in West End History. No doubt he’ll find a place for it in the Guinness Book of Records which he edits!
He also pointed out the big irony of the competition: that the competitor who has gone on to the greatest stage success, Cynthia Erivo, now the toast of Broadway with her name above the title of The Color Purple, entered SSSSPOTY in 2009 and DIDN’T win!
Now there’s something for the 11 who didn’t quite make it this year to think about and take encouragement from.
* Interview – George Stiles and Anthony Drewe on a Chichester double and nurturing new writers
Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year and Stiles + Drewe Prize – winners – News
The Wicker Husband wins first ever Stiles and Drewe Mentorship Award – News