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Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2018 and Stiles + Drewe Prize - Savoy Theatre

By her own admission, Tracie Bennett may not have been the best choice to host the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Award and Stiles + Drewe Prize 2018, though in these days of (apparent) equal opportunities, why not have a dyslexic read out pages and pages of script? And as the chairman of the Stephen Sondheim Society, Craig Glenday, pointed out, anything is possible – so why couldn’t Dreamgirls, the incumbent production at the Savoy Theatre, host venue for this year’s ‘SSSSPOTY’ be called Dreampersons?

I rather warmed to Bennett as proceedings went on, even if a regurgitation of her punchlines here would leave the reader nonplussed as to what was so amusing about what was said. There’s something in the delivery, I think, for example, of a running gag about how ridiculously young the contestants were. A story about watching what you eat went down like a hoot, with panellist Sharon D. Clarke on the verge of keeling over with laughter, and Bennett reiterated the importance of turning up for work whenever possible. One or two of her own examples began to sound rather like Julie Andrews pushing her vocals beyond their limitations, with career-changing consequences.

Bennett does have a point though, even if it seems obvious to those of us who work in industries where presenting oneself for work is the done thing. A casting agent recently told me he had examples of younger performers making excuses for not turning up to rehearsals, which is about as ridiculous as a sportsperson not turning up for training. People should not be in the entertainment industry if they do not wish to work evenings and weekends, and there are plenty of other people who would happily take their place if they don’t want to do the job. Of course, there are instances of genuine injury, sickness and emergency, and it’s not like a leading performer in a musical can wing it with a voice that isn’t in perfect order in the same way that I can still turn up to my day job, as I once did, harbouring a chest infection.

Anyway, all twelve finalists in contention for Student Performer of the Year were all present and correct. The Stephen Sondheim Society wanted participants to sing a song composed by Sondheim; Sondheim himself agreed, but stipulated participants must also sing a number from a new musical, so to support fresh writing. The mechanics of how this works involves the input of Mercury Musical Developments and award-winning composer and lyricist (respectively) George Styles and Anthony Drewe.

As ever, an attempt to analyse all 24 performances is not something I have the inclination to do, though (also as ever), it’s the songs that aren’t the usual standards in musical theatre cabarets and concerts that allow a participant to stamp their authority on a Sondheim number without being subconsciously compared in the audience’s minds to any number of versions and renderings they may have heard. So ‘Hello, Little Girl’ from Into The Woods came across as that little bit more interesting than yet another performance of ‘Being Alive’ from Company. My fellow theatregoer regales stories of various productions of Follies he had seen over the decades, including the 1987 West End run, produced by Cameron Mackintosh, and an amateur production a few years later, in which the actor playing Buddy stole the show, which, for anybody with a working knowledge of Follies will tell you, isn’t how that musical should be.

Just as well, then, that this wasn’t a production of Follies – judges Edward Seckerson and Julia McKenzie settled on Alex Cardall as Stephen Sondheim Student Performer of the Year 2018, with James Stirling and Shelby Flannery in second and third places. Cardall’s Buddy stole the show (hence my fellow theatregoer’s recollection of the amateur Follies production) in a high octane ‘Buddy’s Blues’ that remained memorable despite being the second song out of 24 performed. I liked ‘If I Had Wings’, the ‘new’ song by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan, performed by Stirling, though the judges plumped for ‘You and Me’ by Adam Wachter, performed by Cardall, as winner of the Stiles + Drewe Prize for Best New Song 2018. Barne and Buchan did come up trumps, though, as their musical The Season won the MTI Stiles + Drewe Mentorship Award 2018, winning them the opportunity to have their musical further developed before having a ‘play through’ at one of the monthly meetups at the Bishopsgate Institute hosted by Freddie Tapner’s London Musical Theatre Orchestra. A long show (it started at 3pm, but it was 6:30pm before I managed to extract myself from the Savoy Theatre) but an enjoyable experience nonetheless.

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