Desmonda Cathabel Wins Stephen Sondheim Society’s 14th Annual Student Performer of the Year 2022 Competition

Desmonda Cathabel from Jakarta, Indonesia, who studies at the Royal Academy of Music, has beaten stiff competition from 11 other talented young singers to be named student performer of the year by the Stephen Sondheim Society.

She was crowned last night at the end of a hotly contested West End final – the first since the death of legendary composer Stephen Sondheim – deservedly, at the Sondheim Theatre.

Runner-up was Ella Shepherd from Bird College Conservatoire, with third prize awarded to Jade Oswald, also in training at the Royal Academy of Music

This year, the Stephen Sondheim Society (a charity founded in 1993) chose to open the field to all musical theater students and requested that auditions be done by video.

Over 350 submissions were received, and the 12 finals, plus 3 reserves, were selected by critic and broadcaster Edward Seckerson (judges chair) who said the standard for this year’s final was the highest of all the times, and musical director Nigel Lilley.
Desmonda wins £1,000, the chance to headline her own Sondheim-infused cabaret in London and she will also be the subject of an intimate Comparing Notes conversation and performance night at Crazy Coqs in London, hosted by Edward Seckerson. The runner-up received £500 and the third winner £250.

Each of the 12 finalists had to sing a Sonheim song of their choice and a new song by new or up-and-coming composers and lyricists, curated by New UK Musicals. Desmonda sang ‘The Miller’s Son’ from Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ and Eamonn O’Dwyer’s ‘I’m Ready’ from his musical ‘The Snow Queen’

Desmonda grew up in Indonesia, where she says there is no musical theater training, before moving to London to study for her current master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Music.

She said: “As someone who came from a distant land to pursue an impossible dream of musical theater and have English as a second language, I used to be extremely doubtful of having what it takes to But being selected for this final, doing Sondheim’s job – which is notoriously hard to do – I’m 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.”

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 Theater 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 Conservatory for Dance and Musical Theatre. Due to the still precarious COVID-19 situation, the directors and judges of the Sondheim Society have also agreed to identify three reserves: Mackenzie Larsen – London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), Izi Maxwell – Mountview, Tom Watson – Bird College Conservatory for Dance and Musical Theatre.

The students performed in front of a highly respected panel of judges, including Daniel Evans, Theo
Jamieson, Caroline Sheen, Liz Robertson and Michael D. Xavier.

The presentation of the award was led by Julia McKenzie, founding patron of the Stephen Sondheim Society and one of the most celebrated interpreters of Sondheim’s work.

Jenna Russell returned as host, having anchored the Final in 2013. The Final was directed by Hannah Chissick. Music Director Nigel Lilley.

The contest has an impressive track record for identifying young talent. Previous finalists have
included Cynthia Erivo, Oscar Conlon-Morrey and Shaq Taylor, and winners included Alex Young, Taron Egerton, Turlough Convery, Erin Doherty and, most recently, Stuart Thompson (Most Promising Newcomer, Critics Circle Theater Awards, for “Spring Awakening” at the Almeida).

Craig Glenday, President of the Stephen Sondheim Society, said, “What an absolute privilege for the Society to welcome these remarkable young performers to the Sondheim Theatre. Each of them took to the stage like seasoned pros, and they all achieved the occasion – you would never know they had been training during a global pandemic!The level of Sondheim’s numbers and New UK Musicals songs was exceptional, and after sitting in the deliberation room with the judges, I can confirm that the The debate was heated! The stronger the peloton, the harder it is to make a call, and almost every student was singled out for aspects of their performance. But it’s Desmonda’s name that the judges kept coming back – a most deserving winner. With the young voices of NYMT also honoring Steve with their beautiful chorus of “Sunday”, what this evening proved was that the future of musical theater is bright and healthy. re very good hands.”

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