I know, this blog is meant to be about travel. “Breakfast on the Beach” should, hopefully, take you back to that feeling you get when you’re far from home and you have a day of exploration, discovery and excitement ahead; a day away from your normal life; a day of being free from the day-to-day routine. So bear with me while I tell you about another way I’ve found of transporting myself somewhere else…..
It’s no secret that I LOVE musicals; I was brought up listening to film soundtracks, and from a very early age I knew every word to all the songs from West Side Story, which I remember seeing at the cinema with my Mum. We lived in South East London when I was a child, and occasionally Mum or one of my aunties would take me to the West End to the cinema or theatre – I particularly loved going to the ballet, and would stand behind the sofa on tiptoes after seeing The Nutcracker or Swan Lake. I’d dance around the living room to music from the ballets and sing along to the soundtrack from West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins.
Let’s get this straight – I cannot sing, and my dancing (which was ok when I was younger) can only really be described as ‘enthusiastic’ these days. I still wish fervently that I’d had the talent to go into musical theatre when I was deciding what I most wanted to do with my life, but even my best rose-coloured glasses couldn’t allow me to fool myself that I would ever make a living on the stage. So I’d sit through show after show, singing along in my mind, and with every bone in my body itching to join in with the dance routines.
I’ve lost count of how many productions of ‘West Side Story’ I’ve seen over the years, as well as lots of the older ‘classics’ – South Pacific, Oklahoma, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The King and I….. I’ve seen Annie, Pal Joey, the original productions of A Chorus Line and Chicago as well as the recent versions, Grease, Fame, Saturday Night Fever, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, Evita; Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Memphis, Wicked and Jersey Boys (oh, that show is SOOOOOO cool!!!) and countless others; and next year I have Guys and Dolls and Mamma Mia to cross off the list, as well as, hopefully, many more……
I opened my theatre programme while waiting for a show to start here in Norwich in the winter of 2011, and saw an advert which said something along the lines of “HAVE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE IN MUSICALS? How would you like to learn and perform numbers from top West End shows alongside professional performers…?”
I applied straight away…
The company is called ‘West End Experience’, and they describe themselves as “…the ultimate workshop for anyone who loves musical theatre”. The company holds courses at various locations around the UK, giving children and adults the opportunity to train and perform with professional choreographers, musical directors, dance captains and actors from the West End or Broadway. Courses run for five consecutive days, from the first workshop on the Monday to the final show performed in front of a paying audience on the Friday. The courses are always held during school holidays; here in Norwich we have a course at Easter and another during the October half term. The children (about 70 of them, although it feels like about 700 when we’re all squeezed backstage on show night!) learn their routines from 9am to 4pm from Monday to Thursday, with the adult group (around 30 of us) taking over, after work each evening, from 6pm to 9pm. On Friday – show day – we spend most of the day going over routines and songs ready for the one and only run through of the show with both the children AND the adults, before the show itself in the evening.
I don’t know too much about the children’s workshops. For most of the week, we adults have no contact with them at all, apart from the odd comments from the professionals who teach both groups (and there are a few parents in the adult group whose children are also doing the course during the day). What I do know is that they are very well chaperoned, with responsible adults present at all times to dish out water, plasters, and friendly help. The chaperones make sure the kids are in the right place at the right time, they will look for lost jazz shoes and lyrics sheets, and they make sure that nobody feels lost, left out or lonely (no chance of that!). I also know that WEE receives hundreds of letters and emails each year from grateful parents, thanking them for the incredible experience their child has had and the confidence they’ve gained throughout the week.
WEE, to me, is so much more than a ‘workshop’.
I have just completed my 8th course, and because most of us love it so much, we sign up for the next one as soon as each show is over. The same, lovely, people each time, referring to ourselves as our ‘WEE family’ – we have a shared, wonderful (but exhausting!) experience, and we see each other at our worst (tired and sweaty) as well as at our best (elated, having finally remembered complicated dance routines when it mattered most)! That feeling of camaraderie as we all take our bow together to rapturous applause at the end of another show…well, it’s hard to beat.
All the organising and administration for WEE in Norwich is done by an incredible lady called Jo Chandler. Jo posts out application forms, collects the payments, deals with all queries, sends out emails, and is a cross between a friend, a mother hen and a headmistress. Before my very first WEE workshop, back in April 2012, I was thrilled to receive an email from her, a week or two before the course, telling us what shows we would be covering and with lyrics attached for the songs we’d be singing. Our shows at that time included Billy Elliott, Wicked, Legally Blonde and….West Side Story!! I almost cried with happiness!
I could happily wax lyrical about every course I’ve taken part in, every song we’ve sung, every dance we’ve performed, every dramatic scene we’ve acted in, every incredible West End Performer who has generously taught us the actual dance routines from the show or sung with us on the stage. It has always been magical, and each time the course ends, we all feel at a loss, deflated…
Around mid October (at which point we were already frantically counting down the days to the next WEE on Facebook!), Jo sent us the eagerly anticipated email outlining the shows and songs we’d be performing. Not for the first time, I was initially a bit disappointed; the line-up included Dirty Dancing (which I’ve never quite ‘got’), and Starlight Express (I saw the touring production, and really didn’t think much of it – the cast were fantastic, but I just didn’t like the songs). However, Saturday Night Fever was going to be fun, and I was really excited to be doing Mamma Mia! Straight away there were Facebook messages going backwards and forwards (“OMG! Mamma Mia!! SOOOOOOO excited!!”), and YouTube clips downloaded so that we could familiarise ourselves with the songs.
So, Monday night, 6pm: many of the WEE adults had already arrived in the ‘music’ room at the venue; lots of hugs all round – lovely to see old friends again, along with some new faces! We started with a singing session with our MD (Musical Director), the hilariously naughty Karl Davies, who has us in stitches every night while somehow managing to teach us to sound rather wonderful when we sing! Although I really don’t sing well, it’s such an amazing feeling to be singing along as part of a group, especially when Karl throws in harmonies and makes a bit of magic! Then it was up to the dance studio, where Claire Cassidy, our Dance Captain, taught us the choreography for ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’, from Starlight Express. In spite of not having loved the show, I really enjoyed the dance routine – which is often the case! We have about an hour each night to learn a dance, which is as close as it can be, choreography-wise, to the actual dance performed by the cast in the show. We ended with an acting class with the lovely Craig Whiteley, using a selection of hand puppets to act out a scene from Avenue Q.
Then Day 1 is over – I get home around 9.45pm, have something to eat, and try to remember the dance routine and the song harmonies which I’d learnt just a couple of hours before, but which are already slipping from my mind…..luckily, I have the video of the dance (recorded during the class and posted on our closed Facebook group) and a voice recording of the song harmonies to help refresh my memory before falling, exhausted, into bed.
The days follow a pattern; up early for a full day’s work (where the only chance I have of practising what I’d learnt at WEE the previous night is in my half hour lunch break, during which I also have to eat some lunch, as I won’t eat again until around 10pm….), drive the 17 miles from work back into Norwich for WEE, where we learn ANOTHER song and ANOTHER dance routine and go over bits and pieces of what we’d learnt on previous nights.
Then back home for a bite to eat, a glance at the recording of the new dance routine (by which point I have no recollection whatsoever of the previous night’s routine!), before collapsing into bed after a much needed bath! I have learnt that it helps to have a day’s leave from work midweek; it gives me a chance to go over the songs and dances learnt on the first couple of days before learning yet more on the Wednesday and Thursday nights!
We are incredibly lucky to have some absolutely wonderful professionals teaching us dance routines from West End shows they’ve performed in. This week we had Emma Woods, who appeared in Dirty Dancing (among other things), and taught us to bring out our Latin side with sultry salsa moves.
Emma’s husband, Stephane Anelli, showed us how to strut our stuff when he taught us the ‘Staying Alive’ routine from Saturday Night Fever; and the lovely, smiley Nikki Mae (who, like Claire Cassidy had been in the cast of Mamma Mia) showed us the moves for the ‘Money, Money, Money!’ scene: “Be more Greek!! Exaggerate your hand movements! Donna! Table! Table…”!
Not only are the professional tutors extremely talented, they are very generous: not only do they patiently teach us almost the exact choreography from the shows, they also chat to us about their lives and pose for photos; and they NEVER patronise us – we have to turn out our knees, extend our arms, straighten our backs and perform complicated footwork just like the West End cast do, AND do it with as much passion as possible! We may not be as slick as the professionals, but hey – we’ve only had 12 hours to learn everything we do!
Working with the stars (and I include all the regular WEE tutors here, not just the visiting performers) gives us moments of such surreal pride and joy. We’ve met some really talented people; I particularly remember being taught by the lovely Laurie Scarth (Hairspray) and Jonathan David Dudley (one of the students in the film version of Les Miserables), as well as Gemma Baird, Zizi Strallen, Rachael Wooding and Ruthie Stephenson, to name a few. But there were some real highlights for me; we performed one of my all-time favourite routines – ‘One’, from A Chorus Line – complete with top hats, taught by Michael Steedon, who I’d seen dancing the same number in the show at the London Palladium. Where else would I ever get the chance to do that?!
Then we had the incredibly handsome (and extremely nice and chatty!) Oliver Tompsett, who had played Galileo in We Will Rock You, before taking the role of Fiyero in Wicked; he’d even performed with Idina Menzel!
Then we had one of those ‘pinch-me-I’m-dreaming’ moments: we were rehearsing the poem ‘The Naming of Cats’ from ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ as an introduction to a section of the show dedicated to ‘Cats’ the musical. Sophia Ragavelas, who was starring in the show, came to tweak our performances; she showed us how to be more cat-like as we spoke, and then we were supposed to slink away, cat-like, as we shunned the aging Grizabella (Sophia) as she walked among us to sing ‘Memory’. We all assumed she’d save her voice for the show, but up there in the dance studio, with the music track playing in the background, we were treated to a private (and beautiful) performance of an iconic song from one of the most famous musicals in the world, by the star of the show! We were all speechless and emotional afterwards – that voice!! Wow!
But for me, the absolute peak of happiness was meeting Eugene McCoy, who played Nick Massi in the original London cast of Jersey Boys.
At this point, I’d seen the film version of the show, which I really enjoyed, and had tickets booked to see the stage show. We were introduced to this tall, gorgeous man who had the sexiest voice and a wonderful smile, and he taught us the coolest dance routine we’ve ever done at WEE (to ‘Who Loves You?), explaining how he and the other Jersey Boys spent weeks just perfecting the tiniest movements – which is why Jersey Boys is so slick. I’m so upset that I was too overawed and embarrassed to ask for a selfie with Eugene at the time…!
For four nights, we had strutted and sweated, posed and pranced, sung our hearts out (in four-part harmony) and worked our socks off. All too soon it was show day. I’d taken the day off work, so that I could wash my hair and practise the songs and dance routines prior to the final rehearsals. I packed my spare rehearsal clothes (it does get rather hot in that dance studio), my jazz shoes and my stage make up. I grabbed some healthy food on the way in – we have to eat when we get the chance, because we can be called onstage at any time for a run-through – and arrived at Open Studios around 1pm. The staff had already set up the chairs for the audience (over 400 expected that evening), and the tech crew were running sound checks and adjusting lighting, while a group of the children were being positioned for one of their numbers on the stage. The children are expected to arrive around 11am, and any adults who are free get there as soon as possible after that.
About half the adult group were already up in the dance studio, running through our dance numbers under the expert guidance of a wonderful lady called Katy Carroll, who runs a local dance school and acts as our Dance Captain during the rehearsals. I don’t think Katy realises how immensely grateful we all are to her for going over and over the niggly little bits of choreography that we all stumble over during the week, but which she breaks down for us and practises with us as many times as we need on show day!
At various points during the afternoon we were called down to the stage so that we could work out the logistics of getting on and off the stage with the children for the first time, as well as being given our positions for the songs. Claire – who had almost lost her voice completely by now – either praised us or scolded us, as necessary, for forgetting instructions or for being too slow to make an entrance. Claire has spent the entire week going through all the dance routines we’ve learnt and polishing them up – for both adults and children – as well as staging the songs, and somehow still has loads of energy, prowling in front of the stage and trying to organise over 100 nervous, excited performers. Claire is our hero; she always gives the adults a pep talk, and we absolutely don’t want to let her down. She tells us how she loves working with the adults, because we’re so desperately keen to do well and because we work so hard while holding down daytime jobs, and because, however tired we may be during the rehearsals, we always do her proud in the final show. She tells us that she drives us hard because we can take it, because she knows we will shine on the stage, because we are the ones performing, and there will be people in the audience – watching us – and thinking how lucky we are to be up there in the spotlight, performing with the stars. We know that this is true – it takes courage and guts to do what we adults do, especially those of us who are less….well, young…than we used to be!
We have one, single run-through of the show; one attempt to get on and off the ridiculously narrow steps to the stage without bumping into hundreds of children; one attempt to pick up the cue and get into the right position before the lights come up; one attempt to get the lighting right with the full company on stage, and one practise of being in the right place at the right time. Things go wrong, we forget our words, we arrive on stage late; but the audience isn’t there yet, and we have a precious hour or so to change into our show clothes (black leggings or trousers and a WEE navy T-shirt, which WEE provides), drink several litres of water and eat something – including the lovely cakes that Hayley and Tristan somehow have had time to make!
The audience is already coming in. We’re told to get ready for the first song, ‘Roar’. We’ve already checked the running order sheets, stuck on walls and doorways backstage, to see how much time we’ll have before we’re on next for our Dirty Dancing routine. The noise level backstage drops – “ssshhhh!” – as the doors are opened, the lights are dimmed and we take our places to sing. Heads down, arms by our sides. Deep breaths. We’re aware of a sea of faces, watching us expectantly, but I’m used to this now, not worrying about the audience, concentrating instead on remembering the words, the harmonies and the steps. The music starts; the lights come up….
….and we’re off! Somehow, we remember the words, the lyrics, the choreography. Somehow I manage to keep my body moving in spite of the dodgy knee and the swollen ankle. We watch the children from the back of the stage – so much enthusiasm, so much energy, so much joy on their faces! From the corridors, we hear the visiting professionals singing so beautifully. We hear the applause, for them, for the children and for ourselves.
We sing, we dance, we act, we sing again. We make the odd mistake, but we cover it up with smiley enthusiasm and jazz hands. We’ve been trains, nuns and crazy Greek peasants; we’ve hammed it up for Avenue Q and soothed the soul with The Sound of Music. Finally, it’s over; we all follow Craig in a celebratory ‘Dad dance’, performed by the entire company, before we stagger down the steps as the applause dies down. We collect our bags from the changing room, take photos, hug each other, and go out through the auditorium to meet up with family and friends who’ve watched the show. I share a hug with Jo, Karl, Craig and Claire, each with a queue of very happy and excited children and their proud parents, waiting to thank them and say goodbye until next time.
We have already got our application forms filled in for next April, and we’ve ordered the DVDs of the show; the adults will get together for a DVD night in a couple of weeks, so we can re-live the experience and see the parts of the show that so far we’ve only heard from backstage. Another amazing night with my WEE family….another amazing West End Experience.
Info: I can’t explain how special WEE is to me, twice a year. We are so lucky, here in Norwich, to be able to be part of the West End Experience. Although so many of us return time and time again, there are always some new faces, and we love seeing how the slightly nervous newbies fall in love with the whole process! If you want to know more, please visit the website: www.westendexperience.net .
Some photos on this post are my own, but most are by Lee Harper, our official WEE photographer: www.leeharperphotography.com.