I had thought about looking into whether there was a longer title that has ever graced the West End than The Stephen Sondheim Society & Mercury Musical Developments Student Performer of the Year Competition 2016 & Stiles + Drewe Prize. The Society’s chairman, Craig Glendey, had already done his research into this – apparently the closest rival as far as West End titles go is Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical. I have managed to discover a longer title, albeit from the off-West End Bush Theatre. They had a production in 2014 called We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known As Southwest Africa, From The German Sudwestafrika, Between The Years 1884-1915. At 138 characters, even that is Twitter-friendly.
Anyway, to get the prizes (three in total) into a more manageable mouthful, host Julian Ovenden helpfully suggested ‘SSSSPOTY’ and ‘SAD’, the former best pronounced with a hissing sound followed by ‘spotty’ as one word, the latter self-explanatory. There were two Stiles + Drewe Prizes, one called the MTI Mentorship Award, and the other called Best New Song. MTI stands for Music Theatre International, for anyone curious.
With all relevant acronyms out of the way, I turn to the competition proper. I counted 31 songs in the programme, calling for a longer presentation than even the 28 songs featured in the Eurovision Song Contest the night before (26 countries, plus interval song, plus winner’s encore), a point not lost on Julian Ovenden. But if that was a daunting prospect, there were 80 contestants for the entry level round of Student Performer of the Year seen by head judge Edward Seckerson and music director Mark Warman – in a single day. At least we were spared the over-elaborate voting presentation that Eurovision is famed for.
It would be quite ludicrous, I hope you agree, to even attempt an analysis of all 31 songs, of which seven in any case did not form part of the competition itself. Equally, it would be quite wrong to say there wasn’t much in it between the performers – there was, truth be told, considerable variation in quality, though none were, I hasten to add, unworthy of being a finalist. And, as Craig Glendey and Edward Seckerson separately noted, Cynthia Erivo lost to Michael Peavoy in the 2009 competition. Erivo now has a Tony Award nomination for her role in The Color Purple, so to not win Student Performer of the Year, both audience and performers were informed, is not necessarily indicative of future career trajectories.
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The performances highlighted the importance of training, and proved that it is far from useless to attend a decent drama school, even if it is more financially punitive for them and their families now than ever before. The results of the classes and input these young performers received from their respective training colleges were very much in evidence.
That the performers were asked to sing a Sondheim number and one of the contenders for Best New Song was a good way of simultaneously highlighting new works. It also meant the performers had the potential to sing two very different sorts of songs, which in a couple of cases only served to highlight that they were better, or at least more comfortable, with comedy than pathos, for instance. Overall, though, there was an impressively good mixture of show tunes to enjoy. I have been to competitions of this nature before and some of them have either been relentlessly upbeat, or otherwise a series of quarter life crises in song. Both types are just as exhausting – this, however, was a pleasant assortment of serious and light-hearted songs.
Eleanor Jackson plumped for the title tune from Sunday in the Park with George, a particularly tricky tune to listen to, even by Sondheim’s standards (and presumably equally tricky to perform); her New Song number demonstrated an ability to do subtlety as well as knock a Really Big Note into the, um, park. Her performances were the clincher for me, until Courtney Bowman took to the stage, and in two highly confident and assured performances, the producers had, whether they intended to or not, saved the best for last. I can only agree, therefore, with the judging panel who gave Courtney Bowman the coveted Student Performer of the Year 2016 award, and Eleanor Jackson the runner-up prize. With no introductions to the backgrounds or contexts of the new songs (the programme contained only biographies of composers and librettists), I could only enjoy the songs as they were performed. Based on what I saw and heard, I would have plumped for ‘The Driving Lesson’ as Best New Song; the award was given to ‘Back To School’, which is composed by the same person, Tim Connor. It is about a school teacher who reflects on the stresses and strains of being in the classroom and wonders how much longer they can continue tolerating the job, all the while knowing that despite the pressure, they know they’ll be back to school the next (working) day because, deep down, they love what they do.
We only heard a song from three of the twelve finalists of the Mentorship Award, so I can only accept the judges’ decision to declare ‘The Wicker Husband’ by Darren Clark and Rhys Jennings the worthy winner without further comment.
The level of talent, in both songwriting and song performance, is almost frighteningly good. I congratulate the composers and performers on a job well done. If someone would have told me beforehand I would have been riveted (a nod to performer Dafydd Gape and composers David Perkins and Dominic and Joe Male, with their hilarious song ‘Rivets’) by all 31 songs by 22 composers sung mostly by people who hadn’t graduated yet (Julian Ovenden had a couple of numbers, as did Sophie-Louise Dann and some former ‘SSSSPOTY’ winners) – I would have been very dubious. But I was. I loved every minute of it.
The future of musical theatre is looking extremely promising. I am confident enough in the performances seen here that some of these performers will be seen on stage once more in the not too distant future.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2016: Courtney Bowman
Runner-up: Eleanor Jackson
Stiles + Drewe Best New Song 2016: ‘Back To School’ by Tim Connor
Stiles + Drewe MTI Mentorship Award 2016: ‘The Wicker Husband’ by Darren Clark and Rhys Jennings
Host: Julian Ovenden
Guest performers: Sophie-Louise Dann, former SSSSPOTY winners, Natasha Cottriall
Director: Chris Hocking
Musical Director: Mark Warman
Judges for Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Award: Edward Seckerson (Chair), Jason Carr, Sophie-Louise Dann, Anne Reid, Thea Sharrock
Judges for Stiles + Drewe Best New Song Award: Don Black, Paul Hart, Lotte Wakeham, George Stiles, Anthony Drewe
Judges for Stiles + Drewe MTI Mentorship Award: Vicky Graham, Paul Hart, Luke Sheppard, George Stiles, Anthony Drewe
Prize-giving: Julia McKenzie, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Finalists (listed in order of appearance; words and music by Stephen Sondheim unless otherwise stated):
‘There Won’t Be Trumpets’ from Anyone Can Whistle
‘How Did I Get Here?’ by Rowland Braché and Richard Voyce
‘Moments in the Woods’ from Into The Woods
‘Wallpaper Girl’ by Rebecca Apllin and Susannah Pearse
‘Marry Me A Little’ from Company
‘Rivets’ by David Perkins and Dominic and Joe Male
‘Colour and Light’ from Sunday in the Park with George
‘Little Wooden Horse’ by Chris Bush and Matt Winkworth
‘Talent’ from Road Show
‘What I’m After’ by Roxanne Lamendola
‘Losing My Mind’ from Follies
‘Back to School’ by Tim Connor
‘Everybody Says Don’t’ from Anyone Can Whistle
‘Fly’ by Spencer and Shenelle Williams
‘Not A Day Goes By’ from Merrily We Roll Along
‘My Wicker Man’ by Darren Clark
‘Sunday in the Park with George’ from Sunday in the Park with George
‘More To Life’ by James Burn
‘The Miller’s Son’ from A Little Night Music
‘Watchin’ The Door’ by Caroline Wigmore
‘My Friends’ from Sweeney Todd
‘Echoes’ by Craig Adams and Andrew Doyle
‘Me and My Town’ from Anyone Can Whistle
‘The Driving Lesson’ by Tim Connor