Now in its sixth year, the Rob Guest Endowment Concert, presented by ANZ, is well and truly one of the highlights in the musical theatre year. Appropriately, the event took place on Sydney's Capitol Theatre stage: the current set of Wicked. It was both nostalgic and poignant for those who remember Rob Guest as the wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The ANZ Trustees Foundation: Rob Guest Endowment was created with the aim of building and maintaining a community for emerging musical theatre artists and to provide one day per year where all facets of the industry join together for a night to remember Rob Guest OBE and to usher in a new generation of musical theatre performers. Two hundred auditioned. Thirty made it through to the semi finals, but only six made it through to the grand final concert. This was their night to shine – six performers chosen with the potential to be stars of the future: Ben Bennett, Andrew Cook, Joshua Robson, Angela Scundi, Monica Swayne and Karla Tonkich.
The evening was hosted by Bert Newton. Still as sharp as ever, he had the audience roaring with laughter. He was later joined by Lucy Durack who then shared the hosting role.
The evening opened with a fabulous performance of “Something's Coming” by Bobby Fox, before the first of the six finalists appeared.
Monica Swayne gave a beautiful rendition of “Falling in Love with Love.”
Ben Bennett followed with “Corner of the Sky” which included some introductory dialogue with Sophie Wright. He sang well and used the Wicked set to advantage.
Last year's Rob Guest Endowment Award winner, Samantha Dodemaide demonstrated why she won with a superb performance of “Meadow Lark.”
Then back to the competition: Andrew Cook came out with Justine Puy and delivered a superb performance of “Lonely Room.”
Next up was Karla Tonkich who received a huge applause from the audience with her bright and energetic performance of “Show Off,” supported by Tom Handley and Heath Keating.
With four finalists already through their first song of the night, it was time for another break in the competition, with the Tap Pack.
As a special treat for Sydney audiences, Eddie Muliaumaseali'i performed “Old Man River” from The Production Company's recent staging of Show Boat.
It was back to the competition with Angela Scundi presenting a heart felt rendition of “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.”
Five finalists through – all faultless, all strong performances – and so far a very close competition.
The last finalist to deliver his first song was Joshua Robson who performed “Soliloquy.” I wasn't the only audience member who was left with a gaping jaw at the end of the song and exclaiming, “Wow.” Around me, people were wiping tears from their eyes. Personally, this was the performance of the night – well so far, at least.
Something pretty impressive was needed to top of the act – and they pulled it off with a spectacular arrangement of Defying Gravity featuring Jemma Rix, Ali Calder and Sophie Wright as Elphaba and joined by cast members of Wicked.
Act two opened with past finalist of the Rob Guest Endowment, Kirby Burgess, singing “Do You Want to Dance.” With Burgess about to make her leading lady debut as Baby in Dirty Dancing the song acted as a suitable promotion for the upcoming Sydney season – but it was so much more than just a promo. It also served to highlight that simply making it to the finals of this prestigious competition is a huge accomplishment in itself – and many of the past finalists, as well as the winners, have gone on to achieve great success.
Back to the 2014 competition with Andrew Cook performing a very lively and muscle popping rendition of “Here For You.” The audience loved it and the competition suddenly seemed a lot tighter now.
Angela Scundi came out with Matt Holly and gave a fabulous performance of “Mein Herr.”
Joshua Robson returned – with a bit of pressure to back up his exceptional act one performance. This time it was “Let Me Drown” – which provided Robson with the opportunity to demonstrate some impressive dance moves.
Time for a break in the competition, with Oscar and Joshua Han giving a wonderfully entertaining performance on piano and violin.
Karla Tonkich returned to the stage and showed a very different side to her cutesy “Show Off” number from act one, with a powerful rendition of “Don't Cry For Me Argentina.”
Ben Bennett was next up with his final song of the night – “Someone Else's Shoes.”
The last finalist for the night was Monica Swayne who performed “Wherever He Ain't” – showing her impressive dance skills.
Another break in competition with a performance by Swing On This.
All six finalists then returned to the stage to perform “Putting It Together” as the judges made their final decision. With all finalists giving such strong, flawless performances it really could have gone to any of the six.
Finally it was time for the awards to be announced. First up, Isaac Hayward won the RGE Musician Award. This is a $10,000 cash prize to be used for professional development to further the winner's career. Isabelle Stadler was presented with the RGE Technical Award in honour of Sue Nattrass. She took home a $10,000 cash prize intended to help fund "the tuition and experience needed to help them become a leader in their field". Both these awards were sponsored by the Sydney Lyric and Capitol Theatres. The Playbill Future Prospect Award went to Daniel Assetta, who is currently performing in Wicked. This is a $1,500 cash prize to a semi-finalist who didn't make the finals but the judges wanted to encourage to return to the competition next year.
Supported on stage by fellow judges Nancye Hayes and Guy Simpson, Todd McKenney confirmed what the audience already knew – the six finalists had all been flawless, but a decision had to be made.
The winner of the new Melbourne's East End Theatre District Award was announced: Andrew Cook. Sponsored by Melbourne's East End Theatre District, this $5,000 cash prize is an initiative of Mike Walsh and the Marriner family to celebrate the six beautiful heritage theatres located in the cultural heart of the city. There was much excitement on stage from his fellow finalists.
Time for the big one … the winner of the 2014 Rob Guest Endowment Award: Joshua Robson. More excitement on stage – with Robson running across the stage and literally jumping into the arms of his friend and fellow finalist, Andrew Cook.
Robson gave a lovely, spontaneous acceptance speech.
Robson took home $20,000 as the prize, and the runners up were each awarded $1,500. But the greatest prize for each of them was the opportunity to perform with an orchestral backing and be in the spotlight – to gain exposure to industry greats as well as the general public. As clichéd as it may sound, there really are no losers amongst the finalists. Remember their names.
As for the winner … Robson is currently in the ensemble of Les Misérables and has a special connection to this show. His mother was pregnant with Joshua when she first saw Les Misérables. When Joshua was born the only music he would settle to was the cast recording of Les Misérables. It's been a touching story shared to his fellow Les Misérables cast members and to media. It seemed it was his destiny to be part of Les Misérables. It's also fitting that Robson should win the Rob Guest Endowment Award – it was Rob Guest who was performing the role of Jean Valjean when Robson's mother first saw Les Misérables.
The finalists and judges made their way off the stage and the evening closed with the final number of the night: “Seasons of Love” by the cast of Strictly Ballroom.
In only its sixth year, the Rob Guest Endowment Concert has become a slick concert of high quality performances – and often providing an opportunity to hear some new or seldom heard songs from the musical theatre repertoire. If you've never attended a Rob Guest Endowment Concert, plan to be at the next one. It truly is a highlight in the musical theatre year.
All photos: Kurt Sneddon