Feature Review: The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2012 / The Stiles and Drew Best New Song Prize 2012

Written by: Michael Darvell

Assassins – Everybody’s got the right

Matt Corner (Arts Educational School)
Follies – Uptown/Downtown
Julian Woolford & Richard John
Smallville Colorado

Jennifer Greenwood (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School)
Sunday In The Park With George – Everybody loves Louis
Charles Bloom

Mark Donald (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School)
Marry me a little
Laurence Mark Wythe
To belong to someone

Jason Broderick (Centre School of Speech & Drama)
Sunday In The Park With George – The day off
Danny Davis & Pete Gallaher
‘Shine on down

Ewan Black (Dance School of Scotland)
Follies – Multitudes of Amys
Charles Bloom
Why can’t a man sing the blues?

Kris Olsen (Guildford School of Acting)
Follies – Buddy’s Blues
Chris Passey
If only they knew

Bryan Parry (Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts)
Anyone Can Whistle – Everybody says don’t
Eamonn O’Dwyer
Sunday afternoon

Hatty Preston (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art)
Dick Tracy – Sooner or later
Chris Passey & Chris Smith
Blue sky thinking

Matthew Cavendish (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art)
Merrily We Roll Along –Good thing going
Conor Mitchell

Tia Renée Konsor (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts)
Into the Woods – Witch’s lament
Alexander Bermange
Somehow I’ll be famous

Charlotte Smith (Oxford School of Drama)
Hot Spot – Don’t laugh
Douglas Hodge

Emma Salvo (Royal Academy of Music)
Sunday In The Park With George – Sunday in the park with George
Dougal Irvine
Do you want a baby, baby?

Claire Moore – Compere
Follies – Losing my mind

Taron Egerton (Winner of the Sondheim Student Performer Competition 2011)
Sunday In The Park With George – Finishing the hat

Beverly Rudd and Suzie Chard
George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
Soho Cinders – I’m so over men

Mark Etherington – Musical director & piano
Chris Hocking – Director

Queen’s Theatre, London

27 May 2012

Stephen Sondheim

This is the sixth year of the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Competition and the fifth year of the Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Prize. When Sondheim was asked to put his name to the Competition it was on the understanding that it would include not only his work but also songs by new writers. The students are auditioned from music academies around the country and each performer sings a number by Sondheim and a new song which they choose from those submitted by songwriting members of Mercury Musical Developments, the organisation that runs the Best New Song Prize. The New Song Prize is under the aegis of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, the successful musical writing partnership that has produced such shows as Just So, Honk!, Peter Pan, Betty Blue Eyes, and the new songs for the stage version of Mary Poppins.

All the new songs are by MMD member composers and lyricists who already have a deal of experience behind them. For instance, Richard John and Julian Woolford have written musicals of Wind in the Willows and The Railway Children, the latter having appeared in over forty productions around the world. They have re-written Lionel Bart’s Twang! and have a new show on the way called Comrade Rockstar. Charles Bloom has an extensive catalogue of songs that have been performed by celebrated performers including Patti LuPone, Michael Feinstein, Mandy Patinkin, Christine Ebersole, Cheyenne Jackson and others. His shows include Pablo (on Picasso), Insomnia and Heaven Knows.

Laurence Mark Wythe wrote the multi-award-winning show Tomorrow Morning, as well as Through the Door, Roll on the Day and The Lost Christmas. Danny Davies and Pete Gallaher have written over a dozen shows between them and are currently collaborating on two more. Chris Passey has recorded his own songs and composed for internet films, plays and musicals including Vinegar Tom, Dracula, Antigone and The Good Woman. Eamonn O’Dwyer has worked extensively as a composer, musical director and actor in theatres all over the UK and around the world. He is currently Musical Director for Merrie England at the Finborough Theatre (q.v.). Conor Mitchell is a musical dramatist who has written a Requiem Mass for Belfast Cathedral, a short opera called Our Day, which opens the Olympiad celebrations on the Southbank in July, and he is writing a new piece with playwright Mark Ravenhill for the Benjamin Britten centenary next year.

Alexander S. Bermange is a veteran composer/lyricist of some seventeen musicals that have been staged in the UK, USA, Europe and Russia, and he has also written songs for BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. Douglas Hodge is an actor and director, and also composer who has released two albums of songs and co-written the musical Meantime. Dougal Irvine has written music for many Shakespeare productions as well as contributing the books, music or lyrics for musicals at the Waterloo East, Bridewell, Stratford East and Watford Palace theatres.

The judging panel for the Sondheim performance was chaired by writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson of The Independent newspaper, with actress, singer and director Julia McKenzie, Laurie Sansom of the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton, composer, arranger and musical director David Shrubsole, actress Danielle Hope who won the part of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium, and Michael McCabe, executive producer of Wicked at the Apollo Victoria. At the end of the proceedings, both MMD patron Julia McKenzie and Edward Seckerson agreed that for sheer talent this was the best year so far in the competition’s six-year history.

The audience had the chance to assess the quality of the singing right from the ensemble’s opening number, ‘Everybody’s got the right’ from Sondheim’s Assassins. Obviously the plan was to sing the less well-known songs of Sondheim and the chosen numbers, several of which were actually cut out of their shows, certainly tested the vocal mettle of the students present. For example, Matt Corner essayed ‘Uptown/Downtown’, a number cut from Follies at the request of the star Alexis Smith. It is a pastiche of a Cole Porter ‘list’ number and is witty, clever and fun as it details the schizophrenic life of Harriet who is not happy with either her smart uptown friends or her downtown lowlife buddies; a good song but obviously in the wrong show. Matt Corner, however, gave it plenty of oomph.

Mark Donald sang another cut Sondheim number, originally in the score of Company. ‘Marry me a little’ was to be Robert’s proposal to Amy after she has turned Paul down (in the song ‘Getting married today’). Sondheim was not happy with its place in the production, although it did subsequently return to the show and also became the title song of a compilation comprising just cut Sondheim numbers. Mark Donald gave it the requisite plangent feeling of desperation. ‘Multitude of Amys’ is also sung in the show by Robert but was cut from Company before it even reached the rehearsal stage. Despite being one of Sondheim’s own favourites, it went because, by the end of Act One, Amy has agreed to marry Paul after all. Ewan Black gave the song a definite emotional bite at the point where we realise that Robert is never going to marry Amy – or anyone?

Bryan Parry sang ‘Everybody says don’t’ from Anyone Can Whistle, the Sondheim musical that lasted all of nine performances. It has some fine songs and ‘Everybody says don’t’ is a great rabble-rousing number, an anthem to rebellion which Bryan Parry performed with avid authority. Authority of a different – sexual – nature came in Hatty Preston’s juicy performance of ‘Sooner or later’, one of the Sondheim songs Madonna sang in the film Dick Tracy. Watch out Madonna, here comes Hatty! ‘Good thing going’ from Merrily We Roll Along, the story of the break-up of the partnership of two songwriters which is told in reverse, affords the audience the pleasure of knowing the ending before the beginning. Matthew Cavendish gave ‘Good thing going’ the right sort of upbeat/downbeat feeling; although it’s a jaunty tune there is an ultimate sting in the tail: ‘we had a good thing going,/ Going,/ Gone.’

Into the Woods is a combination of pantomime, fairy tale and horror comic. It has some beautiful songs and Tia Renée Konsur did justice to the ‘Witch’s lament’ number. Under all the knockabout humour is the grotesque story of a witch and her fate. Tia provided a suitably sympathetic reading. With Mary Rodgers and Martin Charnin Sondheim wrote ‘Don’t laugh’ for Hot Spot, Judy Holliday’s last stage show in 1963 which needed some extra work on it. The song, a real rarity, is about Sally, a total putz of a person who here catalogues all her failings. Although the show flopped, the song is a delight and Charlotte Smith put it over with great relish laced with humour: ‘Show me a tube of toothpaste,/ I’ll show you a mess.’

Songs from Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George were well represented in three performances. Firstly Jennifer Greenwood sang ‘Everybody loves Louis’ in which Dot, who is the painter George Seurat’s long-suffering model, compares her artist friend with her other amour, Louis the baker, with whom (she informs George) she has decided to leave for the US. It’s a comic song, although underneath there is sadness too, and Jennifer Greenwood conveyed both moods with commendable panache. Jason Broderick was hilarious playing Spot and Fifi, the two pooches in the Dog Song part of ‘The day off’, from Sunday In The Park. He has an obvious funny bone and is destined to be a notable musical comedy actor.

Comedy came to the fore in Emma Salvo’s interpretation of the title number from Sunday In The Park With George, as Dot becomes ever more uncomfortable with having to stand still at great length, the state of her dress and the extreme heat, in a stream of consciousness song that says it all. Emma Salvo performed it in a broad northern accent (‘Soonday in the paaark with Jarge’) that made it even funnier. Since the characters are French it doesn’t really matter what accent is used, although most singers tend to adopt an American one for an American show. The northern brogue certainly added an extra layer of humour to the song. Emma’s audience appeal was palpable and it obviously also made an enormous impression on the judges, which is why they gave Emma Salvo the runner-up prize of £500 in the Sondheim Student Performer Competition. Mark Donald was also singled out for Special Mention.

The top prize was really a foregone conclusion. From the moment Kris Olsen stepped forward, he had complete control of the audience, the song and his performance. He had chosen ‘Buddy’s blues’ from Follies and I for one have rarely heard a better version. In this astonishingly assured performance Olsen had to sing two parts, Buddy himself and a fantasy lover called Margie. He executed the number with such brilliant panache, using body language that oozed enormous confidence which became an essential and riveting part of the song itself. It is no wonder that he won top prize of the silver salver plus £1000 donated by Overtures, the Bunnett-Muir Musical Theatre Archive Trust. Karl Olsen could well be the next Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane.

The Sondheim songs were sung in groups of three, followed by three new numbers sung by four trios of student singers. With the new songs the judgement concerned the quality of the songs rather than the singers, although the individual performances would naturally help in selling the songs to the three judges, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe plus Seán Gray, Managing Director of the London office of licensing agent and music publisher Josef Weinberger. This was their part of the show and they too found it so difficult to choose just one winning number.

And so to the new songs themselves by the members of MMD. ‘Smallville Colorado’ is from Comrade Rockstar, the musical by Richard John and Julian Woolford, which tells the true story of Dean Reed, an American singer who defected to the Soviet Union and found great success, but whose body was discovered in mysterious circumstances when Perestroika arrived. Matt Corner sang a farewell song in an affectionate and emotional way that coupled the excitement of starting a new but as yet unknown life with the regrets of leaving his family and friends behind in his small US home town. ‘Blue sky thinking’ by Chris Passey and Chris Smith comes from their musical Bridges and, like ‘Smallville Colorado’, is about leaving behind everything (including the boyfriend) as an actress contemplates the next stage in her career when she accepts a job in New York. Hatty Preston’s performance evoked the feeling of being emotionally pulled both ways at once. The Big Apple beckoned again in ‘Shine on down’ by Danny Davis and Pete Gallaher from a piece provisionally titled Living the Dream, a black comedy musical about four visitors to New York with plans of making their way in the world of the big city. Jason Broderick set out their plans in the song in an effective and telling way.

More dreams figured in ‘Somehow I’ll be famous’ from Alexander S Bermange’s new musical The Road to Happiness, about three people and their hopes for the future. Tia Renée Konsur sang about an actress called Trinity who once again finds out that she has failed yet another audition. This goes with the territory but Tia imbued the piece sympathetically with the inherent frustrations of knowing that it’s back to square one – yet again. Kris Olsen also sang a song from Chris Passey’s Bridges (see above). ‘If only they knew’ was one of the most touching songs in the whole concert, in which a man stands by the graveside of his dead lover, a married man, as he tries to hide his grief from the family who would not understand his feelings now for the loss of the man he truly loved. Once again Mr Olsen hit the spot, but here with gravity rather than humour.

Sadness and loss were the obvious themes running through the new songs competition. ‘Easy’ was originally written for Charles Bloom’s musical Heaven but has been revised to be sung outside the context of that show. It details the thoughts of a woman who has left a difficult relationship to find something better. Jennifer Greenwood demonstrated well the costs involved when you have to lose something in order to gain something better. Charles Bloom was also represented by his cabaret song ‘Why can’t a man sing the blues?’ Although the idea behind the song is actually debatable – many very famous male singers have always sung the blues – in execution Ewan Black gave a wryly winning performance of an entertaining number that is both clever and witty. It was certainly on my short-list of top songs.

‘To belong to somewhere’ is part of a song cycle, Ohana – Songs of Kin and Kind by Laurence Mark Wythe. A man and his son have just buried their wife and mother, the son having returned home for the funeral. Is this the father’s chance to make amends? Mark Donald evoked very well the feelings of regret that lie unspoken but which are still there. Of the remaining songs, Eamonn O’Dwyer’s Sunday Afternoon was given a good reading by Bryan Parry; Conor Mitchell’s ‘Easier’, from an abandoned musical called Letters to an Absent Other, about an actor who tells lies in his lonely hearts letter was sung suitably comically/sadly by Matthew Cavendish; and from Douglas Hodge’s Meantime, Charlotte Smith engaged us with ‘Powercut, the tale of an airport employee who reveals that she had lost her partner some time ago.

Finally, Emma Salvo, having made a big impression with her ‘Sunday in the park with George’ performance, topped it with ‘Do you want a baby, baby?’, from Douglas Irvine’s show The Busker’s Opera, a version of you-know-what with Emma as Lucy Lockitt confronting Macheath with her latest piece of news. She and the song brought the house down. For Stiles & Drew it was a difficult decision to choose between twelve such outstanding songs that they split the prize money and gave £500 to Douglas Hodge for Powercut and £500 to Douglas Irvine for ‘Do you want a baby, baby?’

With host Claire Moore singing Sondheim’s ‘Losing my mind’ from Follies and Taron Egerton, last year’s winner of the Sondheim Student Prize singing ‘Finishing the hat’ from Sunday In The Park With George, the afternoon was one of the best concerts of the year, proving that British talent is as good as it gets. A rousing finish by Beverly Rudd and Suzie Chard singing ‘I’m so over men’ from Stiles & Drew’s new show Soho Cinders (coming to the Soho Theatre very soon) proved that the British musical is alive and well and living in London!

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