Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2022

Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2022 Winner announced following an evening of impressive talent

After a gap forced by the pandemic, the much-loved showcase is “Back in Business” and proudly holds the longest show title in the West End.

It is widely agreed that Stephen Sondheim was the most ground-breaking, important and significant composer and lyricist in modern musical history. For half a century he broke the mould of what was accepted and expected when you go to see a musical; his unmissable librettos and scores have won awards all over the world. It is no surprise then that he has his own Society here in the UK devoted to his work, and they hold an annual singing competition fondly known as SSSPOTY to find a performer of the year.

Photo by David Ovenden

In 2007, when the competition started, they had just 10 applicants. Fast forward fifteen years and more than 350 young performers graduating from Drama Schools all over the UK applied for a chance to win the £1,000 prize and their very own night of cabaret at Crazy Coqs in London’s glittering West End. Those 350 students each submitted videos of their favourite Sondheim songs and were whittled down to the final twelve performing in the Grand Final at the Sondheim Theatre, the home of the world’s longest running musical Les Misérables. There is not a musical theatre student in the world who doesn’t know or hasn’t seen this show, so even the chance to perform on those famous cobbles (and prodigiously steep rake) must have been a massive honour to each and every one of them.

Expertly hosted by the award-winning West End star Jenna Russell, who has herself performed in several Sondheim musicals (Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George and Into The Woods to name three) and worked with him personally, the audience was packed with friends, family, Agents and even a few Casting Directors! The twelve contenders were split into four groups of three and each performed a Sondheim classic followed by a piece from New UK Musicals, an organisation which offers digital sheet music from a new generation of UK musical theatre writers. A place where performers and fans can purchase fresh, new songs and connect with the writers who create them.

This year’s competition had a stellar and robust set of judges from the industry, including Daniel Evans, Caroline Sheen, Michael D. Xavier and SSSPOTY patron, the Sondheim musical legend Julia McKenzie.

The competition ran incredibly smoothly, with credit to the professional and slick performances from each of the students who didn’t seem in the slightest bit nervous that they were performing on the West End in front of this group of musical titans, as well as the rest of the industry in the audience. There really was not one weak link which made the judges job even more difficult to choose a winner by the end of the night.

Opening the show was Caitlyn Allen of Arts Educational School, and my what an opener. Singing There Won’t Be Trumpets from Anyone Can Whistle, Caitlyn has one of those voices with such purity and consistent tone that it would be pleasure to listen to her in any format, but was her Broadway style belt (seemingly with no break to her voice) that felt like there was no limit to her range, with the power to satisfy a full house at Drury Lane.

Jade Oswald of the Royal Academy of Music delighted the audience with her rendition of On the Steps of the Palace from Into the Woods, playing a cockney Cinderella who has just run away from her Prince at the stroke of midnight. She hit every comedic moment perfectly and acted the song with total conviction. She followed this with her new musical piece Coming to Terms by Christopher J Orton and West End leading man Jon Robyns, which was beautifully sung and perfectly suited to her casting, helping bag her a well-deserved 3rd place in the competition.

Act Two took another step up and we were hit by yet more unbelievably talented young people, but Cassius Hackforth of Trinity Laban Conservatoire was a real highlight in both of his songs. He performed a less well-known Class from Saturday Night with the focus and determination you’d normally only see in the likes of Bernadette Peter’s portrayal of Sondheim’s work, not leaving a single second of his performance to fall flat. His second piece What’ll it be? was sung with the same focus but this time perfectly coloured with true emotion. He is one of those natural musical theatre actors who draws you in and takes you on a journey with complete conviction and embodiment of the character they’re playing. This young man has a wonderful career ahead of him and it was disappointing that he didn’t take home a prize.  

Desmonda Cathabel of the Royal Academy of Music hit us all hard at the opening of Act 2 with her somewhat raunchy but perfectly choreographed rendition of The Miller’s Son from A Little Night Music. It was hard to believe she wasn’t a seasoned performer as she brought such a degree of confidence to the stage that you were gripped immediately. Amazing when you discover that Desmonda moved to the UK from Indonesia where there is no formal musical theatre training, and has only spent one year achieving her Masters at RAM. It was clear that not only were both of these songs a great match for her voice, there is so much more to be heard from her in the future, and the judges agreed as she was awarded the winner of the competition. Congratulations Desmonda!

Desmonda Cathabel (centre) with Runner Up Ella Shepherd (Left) and 3rd placed Jade Oswald photo by David Ovenden

The Recs has to give its special mention of the night to the person who gave us our standout performances of the night and that was Ella Shepherd. Her powerhouse vocals and stunningly acted portrayal of I Read from Passion had the audience cheering and screaming with applause, and then she brought down the house with her performance of Alex James Ellison’s Press Hash to Re-Record. Ella was a shining star of the evening and placed very respectively as runner-up in the competition. Special mention must also to go to the writer of this song, who if anyone saw his musical Fiver at the Southwark Playhouse a few years ago will agree. Ellison writes with such brilliant humour but also tenderness that even the great Sondheim would commend his work in the world of modern musical theatre.

Congratulations to all of the performers, you were all brilliant. The Recs is already looking forward to next year’s competition!