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Stephen Sondheim Student Society Performer of the Year | Sondheim Theatre

‘Something familiar, something peculiar…'

Familiar tunes met new faces as the performing arts community came together for the Stephen Sondheim Student Society Performer of the Year (affectionately known as SSSSPOTY) in the West End theatre named after the legendary composer himself. The annual competition, organised by The Stephen Sondheim Society, held its inaugural event back in 2007 and now celebrates its 16th year of championing emerging talent in the arts in memory of one of the most influential figures in musical theatre. This year's event sees twelve finalists (plus two reserves) from various drama schools across the country compete for the coveted title and a prize of £1000, judged by an panel of distinguished professionals and hosted by none other than the renowned stage and screen star Bonnie Langford.

Each contestant performs two songs for the audience, one from a Sondheim musical and another from the New UK Musicals Collective catalogue in an effort to foster up-and-coming British musical theatre writers. Out of over three hundred participants, all twelve finalists gave their all in presenting a breadth of songs; no performance is the same, from movement to the occasional improvisation, each finalist seizes their moment to shine as individuals.

Within the Sondheim portfolio itself is already a huge variety of choices, a testament to the composer's extensive legacy, having penned anything from jazz hands-style dance numbers to the more ambiguous yet rapid syllabic sequences - notably some of the most challenging diction to perform in musical theatre - quickly becoming a defining feature of the writer's work. All contestants bring their own take on these timeless numbers, confidently bringing moments of humour and sentimentality. What makes each young performer's versatility even more prominent however, is the addition of the new musical songs, giving each performer the opportunity to showcase a completely contrasting side of themselves; all of whom are accompanied on the piano by the equally talented Musical and Assistant Musical Directors Nigel Lilley and John Haslam.

The afternoon also saw guest performances from a range of talents, including the National Youth Music Theatre with a rendition of Sondheim's Into the Woods. Further Sondheim performances were also given by previous winner Milly Willow, guest star Joaquin Pedro Valdes and NYMT Performer Ronav Jain, all singing just a few unique renditions taken from the many classics in the composer-lyricst's extensive repertoire through the years. Similarly to the new musicals component, the audience were treated to a sneak preview of the upcoming West End transfer of new musical The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, soon to open at the Ambassadors Theatre this autumn. But to top it all off, the gala concluded with an impressive special performance from Langford herself, once again met with rapturous applause.

The competition nears the end as the judges confer and attempt to make the difficult decision of winners, out of all the top-class performances presented today. The panel is comprised of professionals specialising in both music and theatre fields, including WhatsOnStage Award winner and MCU star Fra Fee; BAFTA winner Callum Scott Howells; Olivier Award winners Jak Malone and Jenna Russell and Musical Director Alex Parker, led by music writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson.

Seckerson notes that the amount of talent from auditions through to the finals makes it unjustifiable to just highlight two winners, so Oliver Halford from Emil Dale Academy was highly commended for his dynamic delivery of numbers from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Blackfriars Boys. Gavin Rasmussen from LAMDA was awarded runner up, particularly memorable to the audience with a hilarious interpretation of a number from The Sorrows of Satan. Finally, of all finalists with endearing songs from Into the Woods and Mayflies, Madeleine Morgan from the Royal Academy of Music was chosen to be this year's SSSSPOTY.

With the energetic cheers from the supportive audience and fellow contestants, the competition came to a close with an encore from the newly crowned winner Morgan. Looking back on all the dynamic performances tonight, one can agree, that the sheer potential from young talent in the arts, however challenging the current landscape might be, is what truly breathes life into the British theatre scene.

The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2024 was held at Sondheim Theatre on 9th June 2024. To find out more about the Society’s work and news about upcoming competitions, keep in touch on their website.

Gifted tickets | photography by David Ovenden


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