In a week when the British theatre industry was despairing at the lack of support for its workers and venues, and when sectors of the country were reopening for business and the performing arts still had no light at the end of the tunnel, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe shone the spotlight on the future of musical theatre, showcasing 15 songs from new works.
Stiles & Drewe, themselves known for writing Mary Poppins, Honk! and Soho Cinders among many other hits, have been hosting this competition since 2008; a competition that seeks to promote new musical theatre writing, and perhaps more importantly, encourage new writers in a landscape that must usually seem challenging, and at the moment must be pretty terrifying.
Supported by five guest judges: Dan Gilespie Sells (writer of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), Cassie Kinoshi (Cameron Mackintosh Resident Composer at Dundee Rep in 2019), Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss (creators of Six) and Tim Sutton (composer, lyricist and previous recipient of the Best New Song prize), Stiles and Drewe headed up this year’s virtual concert, which was moved online to enable the competition to go ahead despite the challenges being faced by the theatre industry as a result of Covid-19. The concert was also used to raise funds to support Mercury Musical Developments’ ‘Keep Writing’ Fund, to nurture new musical theatre writing and help writers remain connected.
Unlike previous years, this year’s song entries were performed by West End stars, who gave their time freely and for free to support the writers in their endeavours. The musicals were incredibly diverse, with subject matter ranging from a biopic of an 18th Century female French mathematician, to the story of a room and all the people who live in it over its lifetime, and from a Irish princess to a girl working in a fake tan factory. The songs covered everything from heartbreak to love and passion, to hope and pivotal realisation about the future. I was surprised by how much you could learn about a character in such a short space of time.
My personal favourites were ‘Home’ from Windows in the West, a song sung by a mother (performed by Louise Dearman) to reassure her daughter that the essence of home is not found in bricks and mortar, but in memories and people, a feeling that particularly resonated with me at the moment in this period of separation from those we love. I also enjoyed the comedy of ‘Bottle It’ (performed by Lizzie Bea), as a girl dreams about a future life with her crush; and I’ve already listened to #ZoologicalSociety many times over since the release of the concept album at the end of March: a musical that cleverly tells stories about many different aspects of life and love, from the point of view of animals in a zoo.
Thankfully though, I did not have to choose a winner, as there wasn’t a single song I didn’t enjoy and I would happily go and see any of the musicals introduced this evening! After interval entertainment provided by Charlie Christensen of the #CheerUpCharlie antibullying campaign and Omar Baroud who sang his song ‘My Pain’, which narrowly missed being listed as a finalist for this year’s prize, the judges shared their thoughts on the 15 finalists. It was interesting to hear a little about what they had been looking for in the songs, and the elements of the songs that had grabbed their attention, from the chorus in ‘Ride’ (Gillespie Sells) to the clever lyrics and rhymes in ‘You’ve Got A Problem’ (Marlow & Moss) and from the full-blooded characterisation in ‘Juliet Kind Of Love (Sutton) to the emotional resonance of ‘Home’ (Kinoshi).
As the concert drew to a close, a special prize of £250 for “vision, voice and potential” was awarded to Meg McGrady and Zoe Morris for ‘Broken Guitar’; Stiles & Drewe said that their song gave insight into the wish of trans people to be listened to and understood. Receiving £250 sponsored by the Stephen Sondheim Society, the competition’s runners up were Miranda Cooper, Richard Marsh and Nick Coler for ‘My First Ex-Boyfriend’, who were praised for their crossover between pop and musical theatre, and for developing such a believable character.
The top prize of the night, £1000 – supported by Joanne Benjamin and Clive Chenery of the Entertainment Business – was awarded to Amir Shoenfeld and Matthew Greene for the song ‘I’m Your Guy’ from their new musical Benny in Beta, about Ollie, a shop security guard who befriends Benny, a robot with a taste for adventure. Stiles & Drewe said of the song that it demonstrated great storytelling and built a great character, with Drewe saying that he listens to it every morning to start his day! Thanking his cowriter Matthew Greene, Shoenfeld thanked those who had supported them as well as the wider “close-knit London musical theatre community”.
It is very clear to me that the future of musical theatre is in great hands, and I can’t wait to see some of these works on stage… just as soon as we can get back in the theatre!
Information about all the finalists and judges can be found here:
The concert can be viewed online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZwKVy63KJw
Reviewer: Jo Tillotson
Reviewed: 5th July 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★
The complete list of finalists:
‘I’m Your Guy’ by Amir Shoenfeld & Matthew Greene from Benny In Beta, performed by Tyrone Huntley
‘Sparks’ by Freya Smith & Jack Williams from The Limit, performed by Lauren Samuels
‘Home’ by Jonathan O’Neill & Isaac Savage from Windows in the West, performed by Louise Dearman
‘My First Ex-Boyfriend’ by Richard Marsh, Miranda Cooper & Nick Coler from Son of Rambow, performed by Natalie Paris
‘Colour’ by Charli Eglinton from Colours, performed by Fra Fee
‘Heaven Can Wait’ by Julian Woolford & Richard John from The Devil’s Advocate, performed by Maiya Quansah-Breed
‘Bottle It’ by Jonathan O’Neill & Isaac Savage from Tanya: A New Musical, performed by Lizzie Bea
‘Broken Guitar’ by Meg McGrady & Zoe Morris from The Phase, performed by Alex Thomas-Smith
‘Juliet Kind Of Love’ by Victoria Saxton & Charles Miller from Marriage a la Mode, performed by Zizi Strallen
‘You Got A Problem’ by Rob Green & Nic Harvey from Hoarding: A Musical, performed by Marisha Wallace
‘Minnesota’ by Julian Woolford & Richard John from Comrade Rockstar, performed by Luke Bayer
‘The Something Else’ by Vikki Stone from #zoologicalsociety, performed by Allyson Ava-Brown
‘Ride’ by Freya Smith & Jack Williams from Ride, performed by Laura Pitt-Pulford
‘Two Ways To Australia’ by Rachel Bellman & Elizabeth Sybil Charlesworth from The Dickens Girls, performed by Rebecca Trehearn ‘Shape The Future’ by Thomas Sutcliffe from Borders, performed by Melanie La Barrie