Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2023

A wonderful afternoon full of joy and fantastic performances from everyone involved

The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year or SSSSPOTY as it’s referred has become a big event in the theatre calendar; a competition which over the 15 years has gained a glittering alumni including Taron Egerton, Erin Doherty, Cynthia Eviro and Oscar Conlon-Morrey, it truly is a place to see the stars of the future! 

This years event is hosted by Alex Young who won the competition back in 2010. Alex is a brilliant host, bringing humour and warmth to the afternoons proceedings. Having been in the contestants shoes before she does well at making them feel comfortable. 

The format for the afternoon is that the contestants have been split into 4 groups of 3, each performer sings their chosen Sondheim piece following by something from ‘New UK Musicals’; a store of music from new and fresh writers. This was something insisted upon by Stephen Sondheim himself, as a champion of new work and new writers he said the competition could only take place if every song from his catalogue was matched by something recently written. 

We are treated to an opening number of ‘The Hills of Tomorrow/Merrily We Roll Along’ performed by the finalists (and the 2 reserves in case of sickness) and it perfectly sets us up for an afternoon of brilliant performances. 

The competition then begins and the talent being showcased was incredible, there is no doubt we were seeing the stars of the future begin their careers in front of our eyes. The 12 finalists were chosen from 250 applications and it’s not hard to see why these were the chosen few. Each person had a clear understanding of their songs and the context in which they took place. 

I am glad I was not a judge as it would have been impossible to choose. The judging panel is made up of seasoned performers; Nicola Hughes, Michael Jibson, Jenna Russell along with The Chair, Edward Seckerson. Whilst they take their leave to deliberate we get to see performances from Alex Young, singing the song which won her the competition in 2010: ‘Sunday In The Park With George’. Last years winner Desmonda Cathabel returns to the stage and sings ‘The Millers Son’ with incredible passion and emotion. 

Then the members of the National Youth Musical Theatre take to the stage and give us a wonderful rendition of ‘Old Friends’, we had seen them earlier in the afternoon opening act 2 with ‘Our Time’, showing us just how much talent there is in the youthful performers of today! 

Our final guest performance comes from Ellie Nunn along with host Alex treating us to a performance of the hilarious ‘There’s Always A Woman’ a cut song from ‘Anyone Can Whistle’. 

SSSSPOTY 2023 winner Milly Willows with Julia McKenzie

Then it’s time to announce the winners.  The judges and Stephen Sondheim Society founding member Julia McKenzie take to the stage and firstly commend all the contestants on their fabulous performances before announcing special commendations to Harry Warburton and Pétur Svavarsson. Runner up was Emily Botnen who created an emotional response in the audience with her rendition of “Watching The Door”, she’s the one we should be watchin’. A star in the making!

Taking the overall prize of The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year was Milly Willows, who stunned us all with ‘The Worst Pies in London’, perfectly showcasing the humour and grit of Mrs Lovett. It’s no small sing and she did it with ease and grace before giving us a more delicate song in ‘A Story Of My Own’. Milly is clearly an adept performer and able to give a huge range in her performances. A thoroughly deserving winner and one I’m sure we will be seeing lots in the future! 

SSSSPOTY 2023 winner Milly Willows with Runner up Emily Botnen with Julia McKenzie

This is a great competition to give performing arts students a chance to perform on a west end stage and a credit to kick-start their career. It’s also a wonderful showcase of new songs as well as Sondheim classics we all know. A wonderful afternoon full of joy and fantastic performances from everyone involved. 

This event took place on Sunday 11th June 2023 at the Sondheim Theatre, London.

Review written by Rosie Browne

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Photo credit: David Ovenden

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