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The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Competition

There was, invariably, some extra emotion to this year’s Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year live final. Beyond what is rapidly becoming obligatory acknowledgements that ‘theatre is back’, it is also the first time ‘SSSSPOTY’ (hissing optional when pronouncing it) has happened since the composer and lyricist’s death in November 2021. Host Jenna Russell provided some reflective anecdotes whilst the judging panel made their minds up, before treating the audience to a rendition of ‘Broadway Baby’ from Follies, having already sung ‘Losing My Mind’ from the same show just prior to the interval.

Desmonda Cathabel (centre) with Runner Up Ella Shepherd (Left) and 3rd placed Jade Oswald photo by David Ovenden
Desmonda Cathabel (centre) with Runner Up Ella Shepherd (Left) and 3rd placed Jade Oswald
photo by David Ovenden.

The audience was also treated to a performance of ‘Don’t Laugh’, from the 1963 Broadway musical Hot Spot, for which Sondheim contributed this opening number and the closing number (called ‘That’s Good, That’s Bad’), sung by Alex Young, the 2010 SSSSPOTY winner (and not, as the programme stated, the 2011 winner: Taron Egerton, then at RADA, won it that year). Young led the cast in a production of Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle at Southwark Playhouse earlier in 2022 and will headline the Theatre Royal Bath production of Into The Woods in August and September.

Also worth mentioning is a performance of ‘Sunday’ from Sunday in the Park with George, which had the ensemble of the National Youth Musical Theatre take to the stage. Later, ‘No One Is Alone’ from Into The Woods was beautifully sung by Lucy Carter and Laurie Jones, both of whom had participated in a masterclass with Janie Dee organised by NYMT earlier in the year. Julia McKenzie told the twelve finalists that they had the worst possible start to their careers, a statement greeted with some initial bemusement before it very quickly became clear that this was a reference to the closure of theatres at various points in 2020 and 2021 due to public health restrictions, rather than their treatment by the Sondheim Society in 2022 during the competition.

There were, apparently, 350 or so submissions this year, and to whittle that down to twelve meant the standard was, generally, very high. Hearing the songs in a concert setting of this nature has the potential to be jarring, especially when one is used to the song being performed within the context of the show it comes from, and someone has put their own interpretation on it, somewhat at odds with the character in the musical. Eager expressions of various feelings occasionally came across as a quarter-life crisis in progress.

As ever, the twelve finalists each performed a song from the Sondheim canon before taking to the stage again to sing something, as the programme puts it, “written in recent years”. ‘Recent’ was not strictly defined, and neither was the decision-making process that determined how the panel reached a decision on a winner. Emerging talent was something Sondheim keenly supported, and the format has remained unchanged, even if makes for a long evening, with thirty-one songs in total performed. At least the audience gets its money’s worth, and as the encouragement of emerging singers, actors and songwriters was something Sondheim cherished, this event was an even more suitable tribute to him than the charity gala held in the same theatre just weeks before.

I don’t disagree with the judges’ decision: Desmonda Cathabel was a worthy first prize winner, going for ‘The Miller’s Son’ (scoring brownie points with me for singing something other than ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music), and later, ‘I’m Ready’ from Eamonn O’Dwyer’s The Snow Queen, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. There was plenty of nuance in both pieces, and she styled her Sondheim number as the dramatic soliloquy that it is whilst also making it seem relatively effortless. The runner-up, Ella Shepherd, sang ‘I Read’ from Passion, a show fresh in the minds of the Sondheim Society, as well as yours truly, on account of the production of that show at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, and brought some hilarity to proceedings in ‘Press Hash to Re-Record’, from Alex James Ellison’s musical Fiver, in which a woman goes through several iterations of recording a voicemail message for her ex-partner. Jade Oswald, placed in third place, went for ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ from Into the Woods, and then ‘Coming to Terms’ from Then, Now & Next by Christopher J Orton and Jon Robyns, which I must admit I know very little about, not having seen it, though I got the impression Oswald’s character was trying to – well, come to terms – with the loss of someone who died well before their time, through a mixture of grief and anger.

Michael D Xavier tweeted later that he wanted to give every finalist an award of some sort: I can see where he is coming from. Izzy Mackie and Callum Martin, for instance, put in substantially different renderings of ‘Finishing the Hat’ from Sunday in the Park with George – I suppose one way of judging would be to have everyone sing the same showtune, though that might be too taxing on the audience at large. The future of musical theatre is looking bright with students such as these finalists, who can all say, as Carlotta sings in Sondheim’s Follies, “I got through all of last year and I’m here.

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Desmonda grew up in Indonesia, where she says there is no musical theatre training, before travelling to London to study for her current Masters at the Royal Academy of Music.

She said: “As someone coming from a faraway country to pursue an impossible dream of musical theatre and having English as a second language, I used to be extremely doubtful that I had what it takes to do it. But being selected to this final, doing Sondheim’s work – which is famously hard to do – I am now more confident that I’m good enough to do what I love to do and be able to convey the stories that I want to convey through my performance.”

The 12 finalists were: Caitlyn Allen – Arts Educational Schools (ArtsEd), Rithvik Andugula – London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), Annabelle Aquino – Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Tommy Bell – Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Joe Boyle – Mountview, Desmonda Cathabel – Royal Academy of Music, Ed Cooke – East 15 Acting School, Cassius Hackforth – Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Izzy Mackie – Royal Academy of Music, Callum Martin – Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre, Jade Oswald – Royal Academy of Music, Ella Shepherd – Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre. Owing to the still-precarious situation with COVID-19, The Sondheim Society Trustees and judges also agreed to identify three reserves: Mackenzie Larsen – London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), Izi Maxwell – Mountview, Tom Watson – Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre.

The students performed before a panel of highly respected judges including Daniel Evans, Theo
Jamieson, Caroline Sheen, Liz Robertson and Michael D. Xavier.

The Prize Giving was led by Julia McKenzie, a founding patron of The Stephen Sondheim Society and one of the most celebrated interpreters of Sondheim’s work.

Jenna Russell returned as host, having previously anchored the Final in 2013. The Final was directed by Hannah Chissick. Musical Director Nigel Lilley.

Caitlyn Allen – Arts Educational Schools (ArtsEd)
Rithvik Andugula – London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA)
Annabelle Aquino – Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Tommy Bell – Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
Joe Boyle – Mountview
Desmonda Cathabel – Royal Academy of Music
Ed Cooke – East 15 Acting School
Cassius Hackforth – Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
Izzy Mackie – Royal Academy of Music
Callum Martin – Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre
Jade Oswald – Royal Academy of Music
Ella Shepherd – Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre

Owing to the still-precarious situation with COVID-19, The Sondheim Society Trustees and judges also agreed to identify three reserves:

Mackenzie Larsen – London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA)
Izi Maxwell – Mountview
Tom Watson – Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre

Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year
Sondheim Theatre
Shaftesbury Avenue
London, W1D 6BA
Monday 30 May, 2022 at 7.00pm

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