No business like show business

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Inspired by Andrew Lloyd Webber, teachers are writing their own musicals. Paul Fisher goes behind the scenes to find out how its done. Two weeks before the first night of Shrewsbury School's home grown production of Jekyll and Hyde and the band has hardly rehearsed a tune. Though John Moore, the head of music, has only just completed the score he's unflustered. Remember, he tells every-body, Sondheim is desperately last minute and come the performance, it will be all right. On stage they're still blocking the final scenes and it's a shambles down there. Continuity problems dog the direction as a singer stumbles through lyrics about the incriminating discovery of Dr Jekyll s bag.

"Is the doctor carrying that bloody bag throughout the performance?" "No. Put it there."

"That's where I stand, sir," says one of the girls who's been bussed in from a nearby state school. "Leave it there then, OK?" And there's no bag yet because costumes and props hired from the Bristol Old Vic won't be delivered until the dress rehearsal.

The actors are quietly confident. Some are former choral scholars from Lichfield or Westminster and many are experienced troupers from productions of Grease and Little Shop of Horrors. In 1993 they took Guys and Dolls to the Edinburgh fringe and they've got the self possession that comes from experience. They say that while the big scenes are coming together, solos and link sections still need practice. The boy playing Mr Hyde arrives late, freshly scrubbed after playing football. He denies any hearties vs aesthetes divide at this school and, answering his cue, is up on stage and going OTT. He's wholly unaffected by teen reticence, as is everybody else in a scene crowded with 30 boys and girls. They hit into an utterly coherent song and dance routine. It will be fantastic on the night.

The burgeoning of school musicals, many written by teachers, reworks that most insulting of putdowns. Teachers are proving that those who can, do. Full stop. The only other generalisation is that skill and inventiveness must be augmented with a huge amount of planning and off curricular work. The Jekyll and Hyde production was conceived a year ago and the libretto was all but finished by Easter. At St Birinus School for boys in Didcot they're already auditioning for a Treasure Island extravaganza scheduled for next March. It was written by two teachers, Dave Draper and Peter Brown, and their new musical is set ten years after the original story ended. The cabin boy Jim Hawkins has grown up and is getting married and here's an excuse for a large cast of girls and boys who will blend a wedding bash with a look back on a buccaneering past A Pounds 2,000 production budget, which is recouped from ticket sales plus teeshirts, videos and tapes, is ten times as small as a West End sign on fee. "We use a cast ten times the size of a West End musical," Dave Draper says and explains that more than 100 of the school's 700 pupils become involved. As with Shrewsbury, easy links are established with the girls' schools down the road and this is one of the reasons given for making all the effort. "It's a chance for girls and boys to mix in a friendly regulated set-up," Dave Draper says. In addition, teachers get contact with kids in an informal way, children gather confidence and everybody gets extra cred." Like Shrewsbury, St Birinus draws from a wealth of experience. For example, last term's adaptation of Hard Times, which included clowns and fire eaters, went to the Oxford Playhouse. Even so, the Barclays Music Theatre judges (following a Booker like row), turned it down for their summer finals. Better luck next year.

Back to the Shrewsbury rehearsal where the drama is in the direction. Peter Fanning is the main director and he occupies centre stage, transferring arm-flung, face-wrenching talent to the cast. Alex Went, the drama teacher who wrote the libretto, is yelling from the Gods. "Play it to the audience. The eyes. Move your heads." He dashes into chorus lines with detailed instructions. "Leap and then freeze." They leap and freeze responding to a teacher whose style runs from frenzy to hysteria.

John Moore is cool on keyboards. Earlier in the day he'd given me a private lesson in the art of musical pastiche. After one hearing, I can recall what he dubbed "the innocent folkiness" of a clarinet line. The shadowy leitmotif, which sounds like Phillip Glass to me, echoes a Britten passage from the London Song Cycle. Love songs are deliberately Lloyd Webber and, like his hero Sondheim, Mr Moore has plundered Gregorian plain chant. "Frightful hack work," he calls it. Untrue. However, composition was done at the last minute because the tunes must fit the words of Alex Went who, in repose, is an A-Grade rhymester. "Of the mind he is the master, no-one faster knows the scoreKnows the brain and all its functions, has the unctions that will cure."

There are hints of teacherly wish fulfilment in their radical rework of R L Stevenson's Victorian morality tale for the lawyernarrator has been recast as an actormanager. This fictionalised fictional character is producing Beauty and the Beast, a pantomime within a play which mirrors the good and evil duality of the original. They've created extra transformations from shadows to innocence, with added love schmaltz and dry ice. Behind it are Byzantine cross curricular logistics. The art department handles the sets, computer the lights, physics for sound, chemistry for coloured smoke, and English and music for half of everything else. "Traditionally." says Peter Fanning, "public schools have been insular even internally." Musicals demand unprecedented departmental co-operation and they must go outside for the female cast members.

All good trendy stuff, but the teachers-cum-actormanagers keep aloof from state directed edu-theories. Peter Fanning celebrates music theatre for being uncompetitive and all three worry that sporty demands will shrink time for arts activities. Alex Went, who is fighting for the survival of his one-man drama department, stabs at educational correctness by saying how Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is part of a GCSE course. But his heart is in a performance which, according to John Moore will teach how order and form can emerge from much revised chaos. They agree on the phrase "highly attuned group work" and that's justification enough. A convention of reports into school productions is to stress group achievement at the expense of singling out individuals. Well, sod that. I've seen Charlotte Worlock do her number and believe me, she's a total showstopper.

Blame Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber for the school musicals which double a term's workload. His example has spurred this generation of children to discard the shackles of teen reserve in the same way that earlier generations trod the boards as wannabe Beatles, Stones and Claptons. The difference about this round of showbiz aspiration is its demand for a host of stars and a high degree of organisation. Sir Andrew has shouldered responsibility for creating huge extra-curricular burdens by giving four figure sums to the National Youth Music Theatre.

NYMT's founder and director Jeremy James Taylor won't reveal the exact amount of the knightly generosity. The publicity he wants is for his national production company and its autumn auditions. "There's still time for late entrants." he says. The NYMT commissions original material and performs it everywhere from the Horsham Arts Centre to New York theatres. Recently there's been a Radio 3 recording of Factory Children for broadcast in January and James Taylor wants a plug for Whistle Down the Wind. It's at the Riverside over Christmas.

Former NYMT members have turned professional, though the idea isn't to churn out paid performers. "I'd never recommend anybody to go into this stupid profession, James Taylor says. He's into inspired amateurism and tells of the NYMT workshops which travel to schools advising how to start productions. His advice is that while pupils can often write dialogue, tunes and lyrics are best left to adult talents.

Larry Westland's Music for Youth is the other body which straddles the youth music theatre stage. For the past eight years, its national competition has culminated in a festival at London's South Bank. Westland (who sits on the NYMT board) has a fight on his hands now that Barclays has finally withdrawn its Pounds 80,000 annual sponsorship and the 1995 competition will therefore be trimmed. Fundamentally, it will be unaffected for, instead of adjudicators visiting schools, initial selections will be made from videos. Finalists will appear at the South Bank as a part of the National, Festival of Music for Youth.

Larry Westland, a man who has reached more sponsors than anybody in the history of showbiz, has charted a growing interest in school music theatre with a record 200 plus entries in 1994 and even more expected next year. Richard Stilgoe, a Barclays Music Theatre judge and the author of several National Youth Music Theatre scripts, explains the phenomenon.

He says most children have seen Lloyd Webber shows and that many want to imitate the success. "Music appreciation," he says, "is only possible if you've done it yourself and music theatre gives everybody a chance to be a practitioner. Musicals democratise the theatre and, though I wouldn't see them primarily as therapy, they certainly allow young people to get out of themselves."

Music Theatre Awards, co Music for Youth, 4 Blade Mews, Deodar Road, London SW15 2NN O81-870 9624 National Youth Music Theatre, 2 Bow Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7BA 071 836 9791.

Jekyll and Hyde, tonight and tomorrow, Shrewsbury School 0743 232926.

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