Top Hat, the stunning 2013 Olivier Award winner for ‘Best New Musical’ – Tue 23 to Sat 27 October 2018.
In the far off olden days, before on-demand TV, boxed sets, Netflix and hundreds of freeview channels, families would often go to the theatre for entertainment. Of course, the cinema was also popular, but live theatre attracted huge audiences and thriving amateur theatrical societies were to be found in most small towns.
Today, many of those societies have disappeared or are struggling to survive. Audiences have shrunk, members (especially men) are harder to recruit, and production costs have gone through the roof.
This last issue, the cost of putting on a show, is a critical one, as smaller audiences mean lower ticket sales and reduced income. The danger is that eventually ticket sales don’t cover the costs, and the society is forced to cut back on performances, which makes it even harder to find new members. It’s a spiral that many never recover from.
In Spring 2017, AOS staged the musical Annie for six performances, running Tuesday to Saturday evening, with an additional matinee performance on Saturday afternoon. The rights to stage the show for those six performances, plus the hire of the theatre, cost us £12,500. At an average audience ticket price of £14.50, this means that we needed to sell over 850 tickets just to cover those initial costs.
Hire of the musical scores cost over £1,000, while costumes, lighting, sound and scenery cost another £7,000. In total, and after being extremely careful with every penny spent, Annie cost just under £28,000 to stage. This means that we needed to sell over 1,900 tickets just to break even on the show. That’s a tall order for a small market town in rural England in the twenty-first century.
If every performance was completely sold out, our seating capacity of over 2,500 for the week would mean we’d be in profit for the show, but that’s very hard to achieve these days. This means that any loss on a show has to be borne by the members, which means increasing the show fees we have to charge the cast, and that makes it harder to recruit the new members we need.
This is the tightrope we walk today – trying to manage costs, while filling the theatre, and attracting new members. And we do this for two major shows each year. It can be stressful, to say the least, and it’s only something we do as a hobby, so it’s a good thing that we love musical theatre enough to keep balancing along that tightrope for year after year, determined to keep musical theatre alive in Abingdon. Just don’t look down!
April 2019 will see the ever-popular My Fair Lady, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, return to the Amey Theatre in Abingdon for the first time since 2008. This will be the fourth time AOS has performed the show, with earlier versions in 1993 and 1976.
Rehearsals for the production will begin in November 2017 and we’ll be looking for the perfect cast to bring this fantastic show to life. My Fair Lady made its debut on Broadway in 1956, with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in the lead roles. It’s interesting that, ever since Rex Harrison’s non-singing portrayal of Henry Higgins was first seen, it’s been the standard that other actors have tried to achieve. Even actors with wonderful singing voices slip into a Rex Harrison impersonation when they take on this role. Will this hold true for our new production?
The director for My Fair Lady will be Joy Skeels, whose previous directing credits with AOS include Sister Act, Barnum and Crazy For You. Joining Joy will be Mark Denton as musical director and Jess Townsend as choreographer.
Keep your eye on our Future Show Page if you’d like to stay up-to-date with all the production news for this show.
I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of memorable parts. Gilbert & Sullivan roles are always a good romp, and I enjoyed Gaylord Ravenal in Showboat. For sauciness, the Emcee in Cabaret takes a lot of beating and Evelyn Oakleigh in Anything Goes was great fun. But top billing probably goes to Oliver Warbucks in Annie – it’s a fulfilling part and the show is good fluffy fun.
Two things – the camaraderie of doing something with a great bunch of people. We’re all in it together and working to do the best we can for the audience. And that’s the second thing. I love the reaction of a live audience, and trying to please and entertain people who have made the effort to come and see us, rather than sitting on the sofa in front of the TV.
Gosh, yes! Performing would be a very flat experience without an audience reacting to what’s going on. I sometimes think the audience is half the performance. An audience is the very stuff of a live show and what makes it interactive and real.
Nerves are an essential part of performing, I think – they keep you on your toes. I don’t get nervous about the things I do, but about the things I might not do… like forgetting a move or a word, or to come on at all. I do look over my words and moves before going on to do a scene, just to get into the ‘zone’.
I know a lot of people come down with a bump after the excitement of the week of the show, but actually I feel okay. I think that we’ve done our thing and now it’s time to move on to something new.
We’ve written elsewhere on this site about the difficulty in getting one of the ‘crown jewel’ shows. But every now and then all the calls and pleading pay off. And so, in October 2019, we’re excited to bring Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita to Abingdon.
The show tells the story of Eva Perón and her love affair with the people of Argentina in the late 1940s. It must have seemed a strange subject to choose to follow up the success of Jesus Christ, Superstar, and when Rice first suggested it to Lloyd Webber, he turned the idea down.
But in 1976, the pair released a concept album called ‘Evita’, with Julie Covington singing the role of Eva and Colm Wilkinson as Che. The first single from the album, ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’, went to number 1 in the UK charts, and a full staging of the show became inevitable.
Evita opened in the West End in 1978, with Elaine Paige as Evita and David Essex as Che, and ran for over 3,000 performances. The show also ran for 1,500 performances on Broadway. In 1996 it was turned into a movie, with Madonna taking the starring role.
Since then it has toured around the world in professional productions, with very few full amateur societies being given the opportunity to perform it. Which explains why we’ve already had so much interest from our membership about this. We’re certainly all looking forward to the auditions in the spring of 2019.
When new members join a musical theatre society, full of wide-eyed enthusiasm and ideas, they often ask the same question.
“Why are we doing Oklahoma! None of my friends have heard of it. Why don’t we do Wicked, or that new production of Frozen – we’d pack the audience in for those.”
At this point, the members of the society’s committee generally sigh and then gently explain the reality of amateur theatre to the innocent new member.
First, at any time, the range of shows available to amateurs is limited. If a professional production is being staged, or even being considered, the show will usually be restricted. For Abingdon, the problem is often greater, because we’re considered to be within the gravitational pull of London. This means that, if a professional producer is even heard whistling the overture of a particular show, it’s likely to be restricted. The same show may be available for an amateur production in Yorkshire, but in Abingdon it will be off the table.
Some shows are never released for amateur performance, even when they’re not being performed on the professional stage. These are the crown jewel shows, like Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables, that aren’t generally keen on amateur interpretations. The rights holders will usually laugh scornfully if a society is silly enough to even enquire about them. Oddly, there’s often a children’s version of these shows that will be available for school productions.
Another important consideration when selecting a show is the range of roles involved and the opportunity for the chorus to be on stage. There may be a great ‘box office’ show available, but if the cast involves four people for most of the show, it would not be a popular choice for the thirty members in the chorus. For a society like AOS, the members’ show fee is a vital part of the show income, so the bigger the cast the better. A show with a cast of four people will cost almost as much to stage as a show with 50 people, and this makes it an unlikely choice.
Finally, it can be difficult to stage some shows on a budget. For example, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang would be a lovely show to perform (if it was available for amateur performance), but the audience would rightly expect to see the car on stage. And at some point, they would also expect to see it fly. This can be magical on the West End stage, and even professional touring productions will have the necessary equipment, but for an amateur society it would add thousands to the show budget and so rule it out.
It’s not that there aren’t shows available. Amateur societies are constantly being contacted by rights holders offering amazing deals on shows that no one has ever heard about. Then it’s our turn to laugh scornfully. But in general, it’s the rule of supply and demand, with all the power in the hands of the rights holders.
Now, put on your cowboy hat and let’s get on with rehearsing Oklahoma!
Archives can be dusty, dreary places and that’s certainly been true of the AOS photo archive. For years, shelves full of photo albums from decades of our show history have been gathering dust on a kind member’s spare bedroom wall. And the saddest part of this archive is that no one ever got to look at it.
So, in recent months, we’ve gradually been working through this archive digitalising as much as we can. So far, we’ve managed to scan paper photos and 35mm slides from every show we’ve been able to find. For some shows we’ve found very little, but for others there have been fifty or more images to capture.
All this content is now hosted on the Flickr web site, and is also held in a secure cloud storage area. You can visit the show archive here.
The work isn’t completed yet. There are still years worth of programmes to scan and cast lists to include, but we hope to eventually have all this captured so that the passage of time can’t damage it further.
So if you have a few minutes to spare, why not take a trip down memory lane with us.