As the lyricist Anthony Drewe took to the stage for this year’s ‘Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year and Stiles+Drewe Prize’ without his composer friend and collaborator George Stiles, I thought it would be rather inappropriate to draw a comparison between that and the television presenter Declan Donnelly appearing on national television without Anthony McPartlin, particularly given the circumstances of Stiles’ absence. Until that is, Drewe himself drew the same comparison. While in the United States, Stiles suffered two strokes in mid-May 2019, and remains (at the time of writing) in a rehabilitation centre in Chicago, Illinois. He is no longer in intensive care and is responding to treatment.
The inclusion of contemporary musicals in the competition is a stipulation of Sondheim himself, who wouldn’t put his name to the award otherwise. As ever, the twelve finalists singing both one song by Stephen Sondheim and one song drawn from the ‘Best New Song’ finalists. The format of proceedings has changed slightly this year. Previously the first half would comprise Sondheim showtunes and the second half had the newer material. Instead, the finalists would perform both rounds in whichever half of the show they were allocated. Three Sondheim songs were introduced at a time, then three new songs, repeating this cycle four times.
This year’s event was hosted by Joanna Riding – while the judges were deliberating, the audience was treated to a reprise of ‘Losing My Mind’ from the National Theatre production of the Sondheim musical Follies. Just before the interval, Andy Coxon and Gabriela Garcia, ‘Tony’ and ‘Maria’ from the Royal Exchange Theatre production in Manchester of West Side Story, brought the house down with the balcony scene from that show.
Amongst the ‘while we wait’ musical offerings (after we had heard from all the finalists but before the winner and runners-up were announced) was a tune from The Season, a musical by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan, sung by Tori Allen-Martin and Alex Cardall. Cardall, the 2018 ‘SSSSPOTY’ winner, also reprised his winning entry, ‘Buddy’s Blues’, also from Follies. But it was Into The Woods that proved the most popular Sondheim musical amongst the 2019 finalists, with three entries for the audience to enjoy.
The new material is always rather harder to digest, if only because there’s a relative lack of familiarity with the new songs. But the finalists did very well to put across the narrative contained within songs that largely drove the plotline forward. ‘Self Checkout’ from The Memory Robot by Amir Shoenfeld, sung by Jamie Bogyo, involves a self-checkout machine introducing, through song, how a supermarket works to what I initially thought must be an alien from outer space (the other character not knowing anything at all about customer behaviour) but was actually ‘Benny the robot’. The salient point is that it was a hoot, as was ‘The Scullion’s Candle’ from The Passion of Albert Nobbs by Carl Miller and Christopher Ash.
The judges for the Stiles+Drewe Prize (Charles Hart, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Jenna Russell and Anthony Drewe), however, settled on ‘Words/Amazing’ from Kali’s Toenail by Theo Jamieson and Sonali Bhattacharyya, and giving the runner-up prize to ‘My Thing’ from Backstroke by Ben Glasstone and Poppy Burton-Morgan. An additional prize for the singer of Best New Song was received by finalist Niamh James. What I could deduce from hearing ‘My Thing’ is that’s about a man who is holding down a job, and has a lovely wife and children, but still doesn’t think he’s actually done anything substantial in his life, which led me to think he was having, without wishing to diminish or belittle the term in any way, a mid-life crisis.
What the programme says is altogether more revealing, and humorous: “Grey (short for Graham) ends up mistakenly auditioning for an all-male synchronised swimming team […] We meet Grey in his underpants, contemplating his somewhat meaningless life, deciding whether he should take the plunge and join the team”. ‘Words/Amazing’ was even harder to get one’s head around properly without the programme’s assistance. It came across to me as a very sorry and self-pitying tale of someone who has an extremely low opinion of themselves, believing themselves to be completely devoid of any skill or ability to contribute to society in any capacity. It is, as it turns out, more specific and level-headed than that, as the character is “an impassioned fangirl in love with the nationalist poetry of her idols and who has painful self-knowledge of her own lack of artistic talent”.
As for Student Performer of the Year, third place was awarded to Jamie Bogyo, who sang ‘The Ballad of Booth’ from Assassins, which I found a tad aggressive but absolutely in keeping with the character of John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865), who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Paige Fenlon took the runner-up prize, having performed ‘I Know Things Now’ from Into The Woods. I thought the judging panel had made the right choice in declaring Stuart Thompson as Student Performer of the Year. His rendering of ‘Franklin Shepard, Inc’ from Merrily We Roll Along captured that signature Sondheim wordiness within a complex melody quite brilliantly, and there was a good stage presence and rapport with the (albeit highly receptive) audience to go with it.
Overall, then, this was an interesting and eclectic event, showcasing the stars of the future on the West End stage.
By Chris Omaweng
The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year and The Stiles + Drewe Prize at Theatre Royal Haymarket
on Sunday 9th June, 3pm.