Director: Chris Hocking
Musical Director: Mark Etherington
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
When first approached to see if he would give his permission to a student competition that used his songs, Stephen Sondheim insisted that any such event also include new writing. When asked why he’d given such a proviso, he replied, “Why wouldn’t I?”
And indeed, based on the tremendous success of the annual Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year and Stiles and Drewe Prize(let’s just call it SSSSPOTY for short or there won’t be room for anything else) the answer is, indeed, why not. Giving twelve of UK drama schools’ premier students a Sondheim song plus a piece of new writing has the potential to really explore what each new performer is capable of.
And while the Sondheim songs are often well known to audiences and performers alike – one can be sure that each year’s competition will see numbers from Company, Into the Woods and Follies– with that familiarity also brings challenges: how to demonstrate one’s own abilities while remaining faithful to the source material, and also how to convey the depth of songs often written for people who are burdened with decades of backstory when one has only just reached adulthood.
And then comes the challenge of the new writing – shorn of the familiarity of the Sondheim number, each student must tell a new story, conjuring up a character and a scene in just a couple of minutes, aided only by a short introductory paragraph provided by the composers and read by show compere Tracie Bennett.
And to be honest, the quality of the performances generally outshone the quality of the writing in the new songs – at least, in the twelve picked out of the vast number of submissions. Nearly all are big, heart-wrenching emotional ballads, resulting in a uniformity of tone that illustrates how rarely new writing is actually able to punch through and become something greater.
A few exceptions emerged: Jim Barne and Kit Buchan’s If I Had Wings, written for a Polish emigré who, after fleeing Hitler’s invading armies, compares his new life to that of a caged bird. Sweet and subtle, its use of occasional lines in Polish language to avoid clichéd rhymes were all evocative portrayed by James Stirling, whose Wolf from Into the Woods was deliciously, smartly evil.
Conversely, Rosabella Gregory’s Love (Theme From Carousel), sung by eventual runner-up Shelby Flannery, struggled to find originality in the lyric, but more than made up for it with a haunting melodic theme that suits its origins in a musical about a girl who goes back in time to her mother as a young woman.
But the obvious winner of the writing prize was clear from the outset, with only the second new song of the evening. Adam Wachter’s You and Me, sung by a man who is in love with his best friend but cannot decide whether to admit his feelings, is at once heartfelt, poignant, funny and a little bit saucy in places. Of the twelve nominees in contention for the prize, it manages to be both the most Sondheim-like and the most original of the bunch – a deserved win for Wachter.
It helps that the performance of that song is in the capable hands of Alex Cardall, a student at Arts Ed London who had already set the high standard for the whole show with his performance of Buddy’s Blues from Follies. Capturing the freneticism of the Vaudeville parody while also conveying the emotion of the relationship breakdowns portrayed within it is a tough ask for the most seasoned performer: Cardall managed all of that, along with a physically exerting routine, while never once losing vocal control.
And in the end, that is what assured Cardall the ultimate prize of being afforded the title of Student Performer of the Year, and deservedly so. And while the accolades dished out at the end of the evening may not have been able to recognise all of the great performances witnessed (Bonnie Badoo’s The Ladies Who Lunch and Thomas Grant’s Franklin, Shepard, Inc. deserving particular praise) the high quality of all the performers means that the future of the industry is surely in safe hands.
As for the seasoned performers, Bennett kept the event proceeding at a merry pace, regaling audiences with her tales of various medical woes that, no matter how gruesome, never prevented her from going on stage; while Bennett’s Follies costar Di Botcher brought the house down with a tremendous reprise of Broadway Baby, of which her rendition was a highlight of the National’s recent production.
There is something very special about the construction of this competition, apart from its rather cumbersome name. By combining songs from the genre’s foremost composer with material and performances from a new generation of talent, there is no better representation of the eternal life cycle of the art form of musical theatre. Sondheim’s answer of “why wouldn’t I?”, always hard to refute, is just reinforced when witnessed in person.
Reviewed on 10 June 2018 | Image: David Ovenden