Overture and beginners

Birmingham, late November 2011, early evening. Along New Street and around the Town Hall, the Christmas Market offers glühwein and frankfurters, cake, strudel and chocolate to the last office workers and the night’s first revellers. Bars and restaurants spruce up for the evening trade. There’s a chill in the air but the party season is just starting.

A few hundred yards away, past streaming traffic on Suffolk Street Queensway, an audience is gathering at the New Alexandra Theatre. The foyer windows shine in the orange sodium night. Above each one is the rubric: world class theatre.

The glassy eye of a pigeon stares from the poster for tonight’s show. It’s wearing a German helmet, complete with swastika. Above, in block letters: THE PRODUCERS, and then ‘A New Mel Brooks Musical’. And at the top, freehand in a scatter of stars: WBOS Musical Theatre.

Inside, the preparatory rituals are being observed: sweets chosen, interval drinks ordered and programmes bought. People swap news and titbits about the production. Committee members in evening dress welcome loyal supporters. On gowns and lapels, NODA (the National Operatic and Dramatic Association) long service medals glint in the lights: sky blue for 25 years, maroon for 50.

The bubble of anticipation grows as the 5-minute warning sounds. People make their way to the auditorium.

There have been so many nights like this in the past 110 years, since a man named William Coutts invested £10,000 to build this palace of dreams. So many fantasies have been played under this arch: melodramas and pantomime, musicals and variety. All lies, every one, but good ones – the best, good enough to be true. So many audiences, settling down in their tip-up seats, wanting to be transported away from work, ordinariness and private troubles.

‘I was always nervous before I went on stage. I’ve often thought about this. Why do we put ourselves through it? I mean, I was a nervous wreck. Driving to the theatre you’d be going through all your words, all your music; you’d get there and then – suddenly you hear the overture and the adrenaline starts. Two or three minutes on stage: you’re there. You’re there.’

The dimming lights act like a mother’s hush. You could touch the silence. Boinnng! A spongy thump on a bass drum, and the horns pipe up that catchy, irrepressible, tasteless tune and already you’re singing along under your breath, ‘Springtime for Hitler and Germany…’.

The orchestra is out of sight in the pit. There’s just the velvet curtain to watch as your fingers tap along. What’s waiting behind? Then it starts to move.

‘Opening night – It’s opening night!’

This is an extract from ‘Where we Dream: West Bromwich Operatic Society and the Fine Art of Musical Theatre‘, which will be published by Multistory on 1 May 2012. The book and accompanying film will be available from Multistory after that date or in digital form from this site. 

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