It’s the middle of May so it can only be time for what has now established itself as an annual fixture on the musical theatre landscape, the afternoon that is The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year (SSSSPOTY, they really do need to come up with a better name…) and The Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Prize at London’s Garrick Theatre.
Although everybody comes to see which of the twelve performing finalists from drama courses nationwide (whittled down from a long-list of 72), and which of the 12 songs (whittled down from an initial 147 submitted by members of Mercury Musical Developments) will win their respective prizes, there were also memorable performances from this years host, Michael Xavier, Simon Thomas, last years’ SSSSPOTY winner Corrine Priest, and a special guest spot to celebrate the anniversary of her 50 years in show business from ‘the first lady of musical theatre’, Elaine Paige.
Mssrs Xavier and Thomas reprised their award-winning roles of fairytale princes from the 2010 Regents Park Open Air Theatre production of Into the Woods, giving us their rendition of ‘Agony’ to close the first half, and the reprise of ‘Agony’ while the judges are deliberating.
Opening the second half was Ms Paige with ‘I’m Still Here’ from Follies, but featuring a new (and authorised) lyric by Anthony Drewe which I suspect we’ll be hearing more of throughout this year, and which builds to one of the funniest jokes of the evening, which I won’t spoil by giving you the punchline…
The format remains the same as in previous years. The performers are grouped in three’s. Each performer sings a song of their choice by Stephen Sondheim, then when those three songs have been heard the same performers perform a song from one of the twelve MMD finalists.
As there are only a finite number of Sondheim solo songs the same numbers tend to pop up each year from Follies, Company, Passion, Into The Woods, A Little Night Music, etc. though this year it was somewhat refreshing NOT to hear ‘Buddies Blues’ from Follies which seems to have become a mainstay for male performers.
As ever the standard of performance was exceptionally high, as you would expect, though of the student performers who didn’t end up winning, I’d like to make special mention of Corey Jones from South Gloucestershire and Stroud College (their first ever shortlisted entrant, I think) whose choice of ‘Could I Leave You?’ from Follies turned out to be a daring, but inspired choice. The song is written for a woman, but I hadn’t realised just how perfectly it works – and what new and wonderfully unexpected subtexts are brought out – when sung by a male vocalist. It would be wonderful to expect we might see more gender-swapping in future years.
As the judges were deliberating, last years’ winner, Corrine Priest, thrilled with her guest-spot rendition of the relatively unknown song by Sondheim and Mary Rodgers, ‘Don’t Laugh’, from the 1963 Broadway flop Hot Spot, and Mr Xavier brought us a song from another show that he’d appeared in – but didn’t actually sing in the show – the touching and poignant ‘They Don’t Make Glass Slippers’ from Stiles and Drewe’s Soho Cinders.
Once the juries had deliberated the prizes were awarded, The Stiles and Drewe Prize first. The judging panel of George Stiles, Anthony Drewe, Pippa Cleary, and Jake Bruger gave special mention to ‘Look At Me’ by Eamonn O’Dwyer, ‘Princess In My Room’ by Marc Folan and Adey Grummet, and ‘Love Me’ by Laura Kaye Thomson, and decided to make a special runner-up prize to Darren Clarke for his song ‘The Angel at the Top of the Tree’ which was performed by Erin Doherty. However, the winner of the Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Prize for 2015 was ‘Don’t Look Down’ from The Superhero: A One Dad Musical, by Richy Hughes and Joseph Finlay, performed so well by Grant McConvey that the judges decided to give a special prize of £50 to him in recognition, which host Mr Xavier matched to take it to £100. Both the first place and runner up places were taken by members of the Book, Music, and Lyrics (BML) programme.
Next we moved on to the big prize of the afternoon where the judging panel Chaired by Edward Seckerson, and made up of Elaine Paige, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Jamie Lloyd, Julia Mckenzie, and John Wilson, decided before announcing the winners to mention as Highly Commended Grant McConvey who, as well as singing the winning Stiles and Drewe Prize Song, gave a very touching performance of ‘No More’ from Into The Woods.
The runner up prize went to Arts Ed’s Leah West, who sang ‘I Read’ from Passion, only just about shaking off the ghost of Maria Friedman, however, for her utterly charming and captivating, as well as technically inspiring performance of ‘Broadway Baby’ from Follies, the 2015 Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year, along with a cheque for £1000, went to the Bristol Old Vic School’s Erin Doherty, a worthy winner, and someone of whom we will hopefully see more in years to come.
Garrick Theatre, London
Host: Michael Xavier