Producing ‘The Producers’

The Producers is a musical about people making a musical. When I heard this was West Bromwich Operatic Society’s next production, it felt like serendipity. What better time to look at one of the Black Country’s oldest and proudest amateur arts organisations in action?

We’re going to tell the story of a musical theatre group putting on a musical about putting on a musical. It’s like Russian dolls.

As a writer, I’m interested in people’s artistic lives – their loves and delights, the stories that make them dream, the music that soundtracks their days, the films that flicker in their heads, the plays, the dance steps, the books – in fact, everything that gives flavour to our lives.

The first conversation I had with a WBOS member was a revelation. I heard two hours of stories spanning 70 years: friendships, marriages and costume changes, chorus lines and curtain calls, auditions, committee meetings and long service medals. I leafed through decades of programmes that are a unique social history of the Black Country. The adverts for engineering firms and shops that have long closed. The cast lists with names over three or four generations. The Vice-Presidents. The frocks.

WBOS members say wryly that they’ve closed seven theatres. The truth is they’ve outlived them: the Plaza and the Kings, the Alex and the Grand, the Hippodrome. The company was there when closure was announced. It was waiting at the stage door, when the theatre reopened under new management. Over the years, they’ve become nomadic, but always taking the pride of West Bromwich with them.

And year after year, they’ve put on spectacular shows, each one more ambitious than the last. Laurels are for reaching here, not resting on. Each show has stretched the company further: Evita, Ragtime, La Cage aux Folles, Beauty and the Beast. And now they’re doing a show about Nazis that questions very idea of taste, just because they can, just because it’s fun. Who wouldn’t want to play Max Bialystock?

This is a story that begs to be told. And, thanks to the West Bromwich based arts company Multistory, that’s just what we’re now doing. Multistory works with leading artists, photographers and writers to tell stories about the Black Country, to challenge assumptions and stereotypes and to imagine other, better ways of living together. It’s a process of co-production in which artists work with local people to create work together.

I’ve called this story Where we dream because musical theatre creates such strange worlds, where we can all be different for a while, whether we’re sitting comfortable in the red velvet seats or giving it our all on stage.

Where we dream will be a short book about the show and the company. It will be published by Multistory in the new year. Not a  simple company history, the book will mix members’ voices, images and narrative with echoes of past productions and vanished worlds. It will be a celebration of achievement, longevity and a huge amount of fun.

Alongside the book, Ben Wigley is making a 15-minute film documenting the rehearsal process and Kate Jackson is photographing it all. We’ll present everything at a special evening at The Public in West Bromwich in April: the date will be announced in February.

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