The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year takes place once a year, celebrating the talent of students from top drama schools across the UK. This year's competition culminates with the top twelve finalists taking the stage at The Garrick Theatre to perform in front of key figures of the musical world and resulting in one being awarded the prestigious title.
For anyone who loves musical theatre, the impact Stephen Sondheim has had on the industry is clear, so I was more than eager to spend an afternoon listening to twelve young actors sing through his far stretching song list. What I hadn't bargained for was the equally enthralling, Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Prize. In this element of the proceedings each finalist returned to sing an original musical composition put forward by some of the most talented composers in the country - so the bottom line is, there was a lot of talent crammed into two and a half hours.
The final took place on the sunny afternoon of Sunday 17th May, and you could feel a buzz in the theatre; filled with excitement, nerves and a lot of support. Hosted by West End leading man, Michael Xavier, the competition is now in its ninth year and boasts a glittering panel of judges including Elaine Paige, Laura Pitt-Pulford, director Jamie Lloyd, conductor John Wilson and writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson. The opening saw all twelve finalists take to the stage for the very humorous number, "Prologos: Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" from The Frogs. This set the high standard of what was to follow and showed great ensemble work, with each demonstrating their own intricacies.
First up to compete was Emily Onsloe, who gave a great interpretation of Merrily We Roll Along number, "Not A Day Goes By". In every performance you could see the close attention the performers had paid to setting up the characters and demonstrated great story-telling throughout. You had a real spectrum of performances from the comedic Luke Farrugia in "Free" to the intensity of Leah West in "I Read". Charlotte Vaughan had great support in the auditorium and demonstrated her range from the Sondheim dreamers song, "The Miller's Son", to the more playful original composition, "You're Better Off Loving Yourself" by Danny Davies. A performer who certainly seemed to win the audience over was Erin Doherty, who showed stand out character and delivered one of my favourite renditions of "Broadway Baby" I've seen on stage. She also shone in her original song by Darren Clarke, "The Angel At The Top of the Tree", which was wonderfully written and the delivery appeared effortlessly comedic. Another stand out for the evening was, Amy Bridges, who was captivating in both her performances. Showing great confidence in "More" from Dick Tracy, and giving a haunting rendition of the darker "Look At Me" written by Eamonn O'Dwyer.
Throughout the night we were also treated to a range of performances from host, Michael Xavier, who delivered his best Sondheim, including the stunning "No One Is Alone" from Into The Woods. Elaine Paige took to the stage for a special rendition of "I'm Still Here" from Follies, adapted for her by Stiles & Drewe, with the permission of Stephen Sondheim. The new lyrics celebrated her life treading the boards and demonstrated all the style and wit you would expect from such an icon of theatre. This was a rare chance to see her perform and must have offered inspiration to the twelve finalists waiting to find out the results.
The big announcement arrived and Erin Doherty was crowned the overall winner, with Julia McKenzie stating that it was really hard to be that funny on the stage. Runner-up was awarded to Leah West who had shown a completely different set of characters, so both being award winners, demonstrated the great spectrum of talent in the competition. The Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Prize went to another audience favourite, "Don't Look Down" by Richy Hughs & Joseph Finlay. The song incorporated very funny and intelligent writing, paired with great melodies and a wonderful performance by Grant McConvey.
It was an absolutely splendid evening and it was great to see such talent displayed on the stage from the performers to the new writers, and of course the work of Sondheim. If this competition is a sign of what we have to look forward to in the future of the West End, we are in very safe hands indeed.