Where better to celebrate the 14th annual Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2022 than in the West End theatre dedicated to him and who better to host the gala than the Olivier-Award-winning leading exponent of Sondheim’s music, Jenna Russell?
With the 12 finalists for the competition already announced, they had to sing just one song by Sondheim along with a new song freely chosen from the selection at New UK Musicals, the organisation founded by composer Darren Clark to showcase the UK’s best new musical-theatre writing for the stage. This was in accordance with Sondheim’s express wish that for every one of his songs selected by the finalists, a new song be performed, in order to encourage and support the work of emerging composers.
This year, the Society elected to open the field up to all students of musical theatre, with auditions being made via video. More than 350 submissions were received and the final 12, plus 3 reserves, were selected by critic and broadcaster Edward Seckerson (Chair of the Judges) and Musical Director Nigel Lilley.
This was the first competition since the passing of Stephen Sondheim and marked its return after a two-year COVID-enforced hiatus. Jenna Russell’s light-hearted approach to compèring made for a comfortingly laid-back evening that even seemed to put the contestants at their ease. To show everyone how it’s done she was also billed to wind up the first half with a rendition of Losing My Mind. Of course, she was stunning.
The level of performance gave the judges a thankless task and while these occasions often invite observations that it's the hardest year ever to find a winner and make a decision, those remarks seemed absolutely valid. The level of performance, the vocal qualities and interpretations were of the highest standard. As the judges' deliberations went on past the anticipated time it was hoped it would take them, Jenna Russell was left to ad-lib and we were treated to some amusing insights from her past as well as a performance of Sunday from the National Youth Musical Ensemble.
Then the moment came. The panel of judges consisting of Daniel Evans, Theo Jamieson, Caroline Sheen, Liz Robertson and Michael D. Xavier entered to stand by their decision. The finalists assembled themselves on stage and Julia McKenzie, one of the most celebrated interpreters of Sondheim’s work and a founding patron of The Stephen Sondheim Society was ready to make the announcement. In third place was Jade Oswald. The runner was Ella Shepherd and the winner was Desmonda Cathabel. They received prizes of £250, £500 and £1000 respectively.
Cathabel had sung The Miller’s Son from Sondheim’s Into the Woods and I’m Ready by Eamonn O’Dwyer from his musical, The Snow Queen. In addition to the monetary prize, she wins the chance to headline her own Sondheim-infused cabaret in London and she will also be the subject of a Comparing Notes intimate conversation and performance evening at the Crazy Coqs in London, hosted by Edward Seckerson.
Her triumph is all the more impressive given her background of growing up in Indonesia, where she says there is no musical theatre training. She was able to move to London where she is studying for her Masters at the Royal Academy of Music.
Commenting on her award she said, “As someone coming from a faraway country to pursue an impossible dream of musical theatre and having English as a second language, I used to be extremely doubtful that I had what it takes to do it. But being selected to this final, doing Sondheim’s work - which is famously hard to do - I am now more confident that I’m good enough to do what I love to do and be able to convey the stories that I want to convey through my performance”. She made the
Craig Glenday, Chair of The Stephen Sondheim Society, concluded that ‘what this evening proved was that the future of musical theatre is bright and in very safe hands'. There is no arguing with that.
The 12 finalists were:
Caitlyn Allen - Arts Educational Schools (ArtsEd), Rithvik Andugula - London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), Annabelle Aquino - Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Tommy Bell - Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Joe Boyle - Mountview, Desmonda Cathabel - Royal Academy of Music, Ed Cooke - East 15 Acting School, Cassius Hackforth - Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Izzy Mackie - Royal Academy of Music, Callum Martin - Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre, Jade Oswald - Royal Academy of Music, Ella Shepherd - Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre. Owing to the still-precarious situation with COVID-19, The Sondheim Society Trustees and judges also agreed to identify three reserves: Mackenzie Larsen - London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), Izi Maxwell - Mountview, Tom Watson - Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre.
The three reserves were:
Mackenzie Larsen - London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), Izi Maxwell - Mountview, Tom Watson - Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre.
Photo: Desmonda Cathabel (centre) with Runner Up Ella Shepherd (Left) and 3rd placed Jade Oswald