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Milly Willows wins Student Performer of the Year 2023 competition

It’s getting slicker, even if the show’s title remains as cumbersome as ever, taking up three lines on my old school paper ticket from the theatre’s box office. The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year, or ‘SSSSPOTY’, pronounced with a hiss followed by ‘potty’, managed to finish within three hours this year (there is an interval), despite twelve finalists singing full versions of Sondheim songs as well as songs included in the New UK Musicals database. But even some of the ‘new’ songs have a ring of familiarity, at least to regular patrons of musical productions, such as ‘Nobody’ from Betty Blue Eyes, which had a 2011 West End run, and a ‘A Story of My Own’ from Webborn and Finn’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter, which received positive reviews from its 2015 Landon Theatre run.

Julia McKenzie with runner up Emily Botnen and winner Milly Willows - photo by David Ovenden.
Julia McKenzie with runner up Emily Botnen and winner Milly Willows – photo by David Ovenden.

That song was performed by Milly Willows (Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts), this year’s SSSSPOTY winner, who had brought the house down with her rendering of ‘The Worst Pies in London’ from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. She was, I thought, a worthy winner, capturing the frustrations of the character with a palpable passion that lifted the performance to a higher level, quite an achievement in a competition with so many finalists that were evidently doing their best and putting their training into practice.

The runner-up, Emily Botnen (Royal Academy of Music) put in two performances just as intense as one another: ‘Everybody Loves Louis’ from Sunday in the Park with George as well as ‘Watchin’ the Door’ from Van Winkle: A Folk Musical by Caroline Wigmore and Jen Green featured characters that were at a crossroads in life. Of interest were a couple of Sondheim tunes cut from his shows – there are enough of them, so many that a Sondheim revue, Marry Me A Little, is comprised entirely of songs cut from elsewhere. The idea of there being ‘Multitudes of Amys’ is an intriguing one, at least to me, in the context of Company, whilst ‘Flag Song’, cut from Assassins, frankly should have been cut, though as a fellow audience member pointed out at the interval, it is the student performances being judged rather than the songwriting or any other aspect. Those songs were ably sung by Josh Lewindon and Ritesh Manugula, both of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, respectively.

Two ensemble numbers, one to begin each half, and four additional songs to keep the audience entertained whilst the judging panel came to a decision, taking the total number of songs to thirty, but spare a thought for lead judge Edward Seckerson and musical director Nigel Lilley, who sat through seventy Sondheim songs in a single day and selected twelve finalists accordingly.

Alex Young, who won SSSSPOTY in 2010, was a splendid host, with a pleasant and warm stage presence. Perhaps borrowing a tradition from the Eurovision Song Contest, last year’s winner, Desmonda Cathabel, reprised her winning number from the 2022 competition, ‘The Miller’s Son’ from A Little Night Music. To borrow a line from this year’s winning entry, “Ah sir, times is hard. Times is hard,” and there wasn’t to be a third prize this time around. Students from the National Youth Musical Theatre (NYMT) performed a couple of numbers, both from Merrily We Roll Along. Overall, in terms of organisation, technical aspects and the quality of finalists, it may be a little clichéd to say it, but this was the best SSSSPOTY to date.

By Chris Omaweng

Milly was presented with the £1,000 first prize by Sondheim legend, Julia Mckenzie, and will now headline her own Sondheim-infused cabaret in London.

Runner up was The Royal Academy of Music’s Emily Botnen, who scooped £500 with ‘Everybody Loves Louis’ (from ‘Sunday in the Park With George’) coupled with ‘Watchin’ the Door’ by Caroline Wigmore and Jen Green.

Judges’ chair Edward Seckerson singled out RAM’s Icelandic entrant Pétur Svavarsson and Guildford School of Acting’s Harry Warburton for honourable mentions.

The 12 finalists were tasked with singing a Sondheim song of their choice and a song submitted by New UK Musicals.

Craig Glenday, Chair of The Stephen Sondheim Society, said: “I’m so proud of what all of these young performers achieved on the Sondheim stage in the Final. The talent on offer was exceptional. I know the judges struggled to find fault with any of the Sondheim performances. But it’s often the second song that nails it for the judges. Milly’s performance had the audience in fits of laughter with her characterful performance of ‘Worst Pies’ but she wisely chose to balance this with a song with a completely different vibe, really showcasing her range and versatility as a performer. To be fair, all of the finalists this year did exactly this, but the contrast between Milly’s two songs, and simply the polish of her performance, sealed the deal. A worthy winner!

The final was hosted by Alex Young, whose Sondheim credentials include Young Sally in the recent National Theatre cast of ‘Follies’, The Baker’s Wife in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Into The Woods’ at the Theatre Royal Bath and Cora Hoover Hooper in ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ at Southwark Playhouse.

Alex is a former winner of the event, taking home the SSSSPOTY prize in 2010 after her hilarious rendition of ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ from the musical of the same name.

This year, The Stephen Sondheim Society (a charitable trust founded in 1993) asked for the first round of auditions to be made via video. More than 250 submissions were received, 80 of which qualified for a live, in-person audition with critic and broadcaster Edward Seckerson (Chair of the Judges) and Musical Director Nigel Lilley (‘Follies’, National Theatre; ‘Fun Home’, Young Vic). 12 finalists were selected, with 2 students held in reserve.

The 12 finalists:
Sara Bartos (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)
Emily Botnen (Royal Academy of Music)
Lucy Carter (Royal Academy of Music)
Harry Lake (Guildford School of Acting)
Josh Lewindon (Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama)
Ritesh Manugula (Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama)
Tom O’Kelly (Royal Academy of Music)
Emily Ridge (Leeds Conservatoire)
Pétur Svavarsson (Royal Academy of Music)
Isobel Twist (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School)
Harry Warburton (Guildford School of Acting)
Milly Willows (Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts)

The Stephen Sondheim Society Trustees and judges also agreed to select two reserves:
El Haq Latief (Royal Academy of Music)
Thom Foster (The Hammond School)

Related News & Reviews Past & Present

  1. The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Competition
  2. Courtney Bowman wins 10th annual Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year
  3. The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year
  4. Erin Doherty wins The Stephen Sondheim Student of the Year Award 2015
  5. The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year

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