A few hours after another failed entry in the Eurovision Song Contest courtesy of Bonnie Tyler, a song competition of an entirely different nature took place at the Garrick Theatre. SSSSPOTY (the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year) held its seventh annual competition, with twelve more young students from various colleges. Each student had to sing one Sondheim song and one song from a new musical in front of an esteemed panel including Julia McKenzie, Imelda Staunton, Michael Grandage and Ed Seckerson. The afternoon was hosted by Jenna Russell – currently playing Mary in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Harold Pinter Theatre, who gave an amusing, if slightly chaotic, narration throughout.

In some ways, the Sondheim songs provide the greater challenge – Sondheim’s music demands technical precision and a mature artistry not always present in younger performers, and the songs are, of course, more well known, certainly to an audience largely composed of the composer’s fans. The most successful attempts were by students who understood the character behind the song and conveyed that character’s journey. Two of the female students gave good renditions of songs usually sung by much older ladies in Follies (and in front of the original London star of Follies, Julia McKenzie!). Maud Miller gave a thoughtful and controlled performance of ‘Losing My Mind’ conveying Sally’s inner turmoil, while Nina Logue was both angry and ironic, displaying a range of emotions in Phyllis’ big number ‘Could I Leave You?’. Michael Watson-Gray gave a joyous performance of ‘Free’ from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, where Pseudolus dreams of freedom, with good control of the fast-moving lyrics and narrative throughout. And Brooke Markham provided star quality, a sense of fun and very good characterisation in her rendition of Into the Woods’ ‘Moments in the Woods’ – swiftly followed by Phoebe Pryce with a passionate rendition of another song from those woods, ‘The Last Midnight’. Some students chose even lesser known Sondheim numbers, with Kara-Ami McCreanor donning a shawl as Fosca in Passion’s ‘I Read’, giving a good dramatic performance, moving slowly down from the piano to her chair at the start. Beth Peach-Robinson sang ‘Don’t Laugh’ from Hot Spot, as a girl for whom everything seems to go wrong, while Turlough Convery explored questions of eternal love in ‘Ariadne’ from the rarely staged The Frogs, giving a dramatic and well-acted performance.   

Almost equally difficult to the Sondheim numbers is to convey a sense of character and emotion in a new song that few have heard before. Michael Watson-Gray gave a moving performance of Jenifer Toksvig and Alexander’s Rudd’s ‘The Pen Song’, a letter that a man writes to his wife against the backdrop of the Danish resistance movement in the Second World War. George Mercer was both earnest and humorous as a young gay man seeking conversion therapy in a very different way to The Book of Mormon’s rousing ‘Turn It Off’ in Lee Freeman and Mark Anderson’s ‘Proud’. Dylan Mason bared his soul in a confession room in Dan and Reece Looney’s ‘Excalibur93’, while Alistair Toovey channeled some intense emotion as a cocky young man in Chris Passey and Amy Carroll’s ‘Til Tomorrow’. Brooke Markham was hilarious as dreamer Amy, desperately in love with her best friend but doesn’t know how to tell him, writing ’17 Drafts’ of each text message, in Tamar Broadbent’s wordy, funny song, awarded runner-up prize for Best New Song. A standalone cabaret song was the Stiles and Drewe Award for Best New Song, with Laura Darton giving a funny yet reflective performance of Tim Sutton’s ‘That Once-in-a-Lifetime Feeling’ as a girl crazily in love...with her boyfriend’s dad.

Three students who succeeded particularly well in showing different sides to both their acting and vocal skills in their two songs reached the top of the judge’s list. Maud Miller – who was sassy, confident and humorous in her new song, Barry Anderson and Mark Petty’s ‘Love Will Find Its Way’ – was awarded a special commendation in 3rd place. Kara-Ami McCreanor was announced runner up, following her second number, Stuart Matthew Price’s ‘Ready for You’, including a Wicked-style riff, in a song where it’s make or break time for a young couple. And Turlough Convery – who conveyed a great sense of fun and presence in Darren Clark’s ‘The Only Prince Around’ took home the prestigious first prize.

A sold out event in this, the Stephen Sondheim Society’s twentieth year, SSSSPOTY looks set to continue for many years to come. But in addition to the twenty four songs from the twelve finalists, there was a further smattering of both Sondheim and new musical numbers, with all the students involved in the opening number ‘Waste’ from the most recent show from the Sondheim stable, Road Show, and last year’s winners, Kris Olsen and Emma Salvo giving a tender version of the little heard ‘Country House’ from the 1987 London production of Follies. Host Jenna Russell (who hilariously found it difficult to pronounce the competition’s full name at various points!) was joined by Michael Xavier for ‘Remember Us’, a nostalgic duet from Stiles and Drewe’s Soho Cinders, reprising their roles from an all too brief London run last year, also singing their ‘Carrying A Torch’. While waiting for the judges’ final decision, Russell took to the stage with the poignant ‘I Remember’ from Evening Primrose, and sang a moving version of ‘Like It Was’ from her current role in Merrily, a welcome reminder of Sondheim at his finest. Stripped down, honest, no frills and full of heart, it was a world away from the excesses in Eurovision the night before.