The National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) today is a many-headed creature. It works with young people aged 10-19 in many directions and on many different levels, but there is one basic characteristic which is common and central to everything it does: namely every young person, regardless of their talent, background or training, can always learn and grow from the ensemble experience which is 'music theatre'.
Over the years, we have seen countless young people touched by their experience with the company in ways they never expected or knew about. They have discovered things they never knew they could do (and discovered there are things they can't do!). They have grown in confidence and stature and, most valuable of all, have made friends who frequently remain friends for life - something I can personally vouch for after serving with the NYMT for 26 years!
A Happy Accident
It all started, by accident. In 1976, I was working as an actor/'wannabe director' with the National Theatre at the Young Vic when an old university friend, who was head of music at a school in Berkshire, called to ask if I could help with his school production of Oliver! Their director was ill. Desperate to get back to directing, I grabbed the chance. It was my first experience with 11-18 year olds. The young cast was invigorating, fresh, dangerous, good and huge fun. Still holding down my weekday job at the Young Vic, we did another show - Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - and thus exhausted the entire repertoire of anything worth doing with young people in the musical theatre at the time. So we decided to write something new.
Another ex-university friend, director of music at another school, had a very good choir that year. This gave me the opportunity to write about a subject that had always fascinated me - the Elizabethan theatre. A chance discovery of a Ben Jonson poem lamenting the death of a 13-year-old boy actor, Salomon Pavey, a child of the Chapel Royal, was the starting point for a totally fascinating six months of research and workshops with a brilliant young cast which resulted in a musical play about the theatre, musicians, Queen Elizabeth and life and death. And it was about young people - the cast had to be 12/13 year olds - and it was true!
Madness at the Edinburgh Fringe
It was a triumphant success at the school where it was performed in a tent in the grounds. I remember thinking "How absurd. All this work for just three performances!" I suggested to the Head of the school that we take the whole thing in the summer holidays to my old student haunt, the Edinburgh Fringe. "You're mad," he said. "Can I come?"
We put up a tent in Edinburgh and won a Fringe First award! The show was invited to London in 1977 as part of the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations at the Young Vic. It was official so the press had to come. They did and they loved it. It was televised. It was published. Sam Wanamaker saw it and requested it for the Shakespeare's Globe he was yet to build (it went there in October 2000), and The Ballad of Salomon Pavey was the first production by the company that was to become first the Children's Music Theatre.
Edinburgh became a regular fixture. In 1979 we took over and ran the George Square Theatre, which became the NYMT's home for 17 years. New work, exciting music and brilliant and dangerous young performers were our trademark. Because of the exciting work that emerged and the high production standards achieved, fine directors, designers, choreographers, writers and composers were all happy to work with us. This, in turn, encouraged more and more interesting and interested young people to audition for us. It also resulted in invitations from festivals, TV and radio companies and major touring theatres.
West End Girls & Boys
In 1979, Tin Pan Ali played at the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End at the invitation of Ray Cooney. In 1981, Captain Stirrick was invited to the National's Cottesloe Theatre. Granada TV commissioned two new works from us (The Roman Invasion of Ramsbottom and Witches!), as did the BBC (Bendigo Boswell and The Ragged Child).
The change of name in 1985 to the National Youth Music Theatre had to happen. The word 'children' had gone out of fashion (our top age was now up to 18) and we were a national institution. In 1986 Frank Dunlop included The Ragged Child and Let's Make an Opera in his Edinburgh International programme. Both the Royal Opera House and Sadler's Wells wooed the company. HRH The Prince Edward agreed to become our President. Nationwide came on board as chief sponsor. A regular Christmas season at Sadler's Wells and a summer season in Edinburgh were enhanced by Easter and October trips to the likes of the Swan at Stratford, the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, Glyndebourne, and tours to New York, Toronto, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Norway and Greece.
In 1991, when our Nationwide sponsorship drew to a close, Andrew Lloyd Webber generously took over the reins and gave the company a new lease of life, including an extraordinary short season on Broadway in the 2,600 seat City Center Theater which we packed with The Threepenny Opera and Pendragon - the latter winning Critic's Choice in the New York Times!
Bugsy Malone proved an unexpected hit in 1996, so much so that it transferred to the West End's Queens Theatre at Christmas 1997 for an 11-week capacity run - sadly terminated when the author, the only person in the world it would seem, who didn't enjoy the piece, withdrew the rights! The sadness of Bugsy was, in retrospect, countered by the delight of discovering an important new writing team in the form of Howard Goodall and Charles Hart whose version of She Stoops to Conquer (titled The Kissing Dance) in 1998 will become a classic and whose latest work for the company, The Dreaming, plays in Guildford and Edinburgh this summer.
Dreaming, Funding & the Future
By this point, alongside the multitude of new work - 29 commissions in 26 years - an ever-increasing programme of workshops and other outreach work was developing apace. Vital to expand the work and profile of the company, to ensure that everyone can be included in the excitement of the company's work regardless of the where they come from or how much experience they have, our various schemes have also helped the company with its constant need for funding from all bodies, be they corporate sponsors, governmental agencies, trusts and foundations or individual benefactors.
The NYMT continues to look ahead. A current programme of expansion into Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and a number of English regions keeps the company moving on. Alan Ayckbourn has just finished writing next year's new show, which he is to direct himself at Scarborough before it goes out on tour. Along with The Dreaming in Guildford and Edinburgh, a new production of Oklahoma! opens at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in August before going to the Cardiff International Festival of Musicals in October.
And the brilliant young performers and musicians and technicians and administrators keep on coming....and coming....and coming! Long may they do so!
The Dreaming plays at Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from 6 to 10 August 2002 before transferring to George Square Theatre from 15 to 25 August 2002 as part of this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
For more information on the National Youth Music Theatre, visit the company website.