Guest Blog: Alex Young On The Stephen Sondheim Society's Student Award

By: Jun. 06, 2017
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Alex Young

The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year prize is awarded annually, with 12 talented finalists, picked from drama schools across the UK, competing in a gala show. This year, former winner Alex Young joins the judging panel.

I found out about the SSSSPOTY Award (surely the most sibilant award in show business) whilst studying Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. I had started off my training quite quietly, growing in confidence painfully slowly. But when I heard about the competition, being a huge Sondheim fan, I really felt I had to swallow hard and ask if I could be one of the two students put forward to audition for it.

I was (and still am a bit) pretty terrified of singing, so Sondheim was a particularly helpful learning tool for me: it's challenging vocally, but there's tons of story and text for a nervous singer to cling desperately onto.

Mary Hammond, the brilliant then head of the MT course, let me audition, and happily I got through to the final. Looking back, my confidence must have been growing, as I chose to sing the title song from Sunday in the Park with George - a six-minute marathon, one-act play, mother-fudging BEAST of a song; who did I think I was?!

At the time I think I just saw it as a great showcase song that has everything in it: lots of text (praise be), emotional complexity (fine, mate), lyrical middle section (terrified), comedy (whoop whoop), big old belt at the end (aaaaaarrrgghhh). Mary arranged for me to work on the song with Jeremy Sams and Matt Ryan - two people who I just think the world of - and they helped me unfold the song, and find a response that felt right and personal.

The final at the Queen's Theatre was ridiculous. The other students were so incredible, (one of them the amazing Daisy Maywood, who I worked with earlier this year in Promises Promises at the Southwark Playhouse - I was a filthy drunk Margie, she a heartbreaking Fran). The panel, too, was ILLUSTRIOUS: Maureen Lipman, Sally Ann Triplett, Julia McKenzie, all of whom I wanted to be; and very fortunately David Grindrod, who has been the casting director on some of my most favourite and most special jobs.

Whilst my CV has undoubtedly benefitted from being in the SSSSPOTY final, undeniably the best thing about it was something harder to put my finger on. In my short time in the business I've felt daily insecurity; I've pretended to be both extremely modest and outrageously confident; and I've experienced personal and professional wobbles of varying degrees; all this whilst continually wondering "Am I good enough?".

And it's hard to appreciate your own talent without feeling arrogant or awkward, but I think the competition instilled in me a tiny, private, essential inner mantra: "This is something I can do". When you get the third "no" of the week or your best mate gets a job you wanted, that assurance is priceless.

I'm so so thrilled and utterly flattered to be on the judging panel this year. It feels like a really lovely way for me to say thanks to the Sondheim Society and to Mercury Musical Developments.

I can't wait to see the finalists perform some cracking new writing, and a whole concert full of Sondheim, of course (salivates). Singing actors are always my favourite, and I think this competition celebrates that. It applauds the ability to not only tackle Sondheim, but to practise the skill of interpreting a new song, of being inventive when there are no previous examples or Original Broadway Cast Recordings to copy.

It's not the only skill that matters obvs, but it is one that endures, I think. It is perhaps no coincidence that when I look at the names of past finalists I see so many that I recognise and hugely admire, and I feel really very lucky and honoured to have been a part of it.

This year's SSSSPOTY finalist gala takes place at the Noel Coward Theatre at 3pm on 11 June


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