Stephen Sondheim
Society Student Performer of the Year 2022

Reviewer's rating

Inaugurated in 2007, and back after a two-year break, this competition now attracts entries from over 300 singers, 12 of whom get to sing a song of Sondheim together with a new musical number as well (a condition insisted on by Sondheim himself). This makes for a long evening if you add in the various additional numbers performed by others; but the standard of performance was high, and the event engrossing, barring a few too many speeches and laborious ‘thank-yous’ along the way. Given that the event has not run for the last couple of years, and Sondheim died at the end of last year, additional emotional reflection and retrospect were inevitable and necessary.

A lot depends on the host to keep things moving along and fill in unexpected gaps in proceedings. Jenna Russell did an admirable job in both respects, and in addition contributed a couple of fine performances of her own of Sondheim standards from ‘Follies’: ‘Losing my Mind’ and ‘Broadway Baby.’ There were also some fine renditions of ‘Sunday’ and ‘No One is Alone’ from members of the National Youth Musical Theatre, and a couple of rarities from the 1960s musical ‘Hot Spot’ (it is often forgotten how many songs Sondheim wrote for collaborative productions that are really worth revisiting). Credit should also go to Nigel Lilley, pianist for all thirty-one numbers performed, who introduced many deft harmonic and improvisatory touches of his own along the way, even in songs very familiar to all of us.

You had to feel for the task the performers faced. Sondheim’s work is far from easy to perform at the best of times, but it is also context-dependent, with each song delivering its own local story within a larger narrative. Stripped of that larger context it is very difficult to act and sing in a way that gets the full meaning and resonance of the piece across, especially when you are starting from cold. This meant that a lot hung on the nature of the songs selected, some of which were much better suited to stand-alone treatment than others. Those who did best chose items that showcased their vocal and acting talents to good effect and could project a fully-fledged character or incident in short-compass. The opposite applied as well, with two performers choosing ‘Finishing the Hat’, not a selection that really helped their cause. This is not only a difficult song on every level, indeed a truly profound meditation on the nature of creativity and the sacrifices needed to focus on it; but also one that makes little sense away from its dramatic moment in ‘Sunday in the Park with George’.

The winner of the competition, Desmonda Cathabel, chose ‘The Miller’s Son’, which was an excellent selection as a test piece, as it is both self-contained and demonstrates a variety of moods, all of which she captured while mastering the technical challenges with aplomb. She was also persuasive in ‘I’m Ready’ from Eamonn O’Dwyer’s ‘The Snow Queen.’ However, I do wonder whether Mr. Sondheim might have preferred the offerings of the runner-up Ella Shepherd, who gave an incisive account of Fosca’s ‘I Read’ from ‘Passion’ followed by a show-stopping delivery of ‘Press Hash to Re-Record’, from Alex James Ellison’s musical ‘Fiver.’ These two songs, one broodingly intense, the other a ban-up-to-date comic showpiece demonstrated a very wide emotional and technical range and an opportunity for incisive acting that the performer seized. Both of these singers – and several of the others too – will doubtless be on stage in front of us in the years to come.

All in all, this was a rewarding evening that showed us not only the depth of talent coming through in musical theatre despite the traumas and disruption of recent years, but also highlighted that there are still more gems to uncover from Sondheim’s incomparable catalogue.