A Miscellany of Memories – Part 9

There is so much that I could write about major developments, about the big issues and changing educational fashions, but instead what I have decided to do is recall some memorable moments and events.

In the summer of 1994 an invitation was sent to hundreds of Primary Schools across central Scotland asking if their children would like to audition to perform as the choir for the touring version of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ which was scheduled to be produced in the Playhouse Theatre 104 times over the winter. The Director was looking for two ‘teams’, each consisting of children from two schools, to share the run. Although I had organised over 50 visits to West End theatres earlier in my career (and was still doing the same for children in Primary 6 and 7) until that time I had no expectation that any of our children might have an opportunity to appear in professional productions.

Still, it seemed like a good idea so, as requested, we sent a cassette tape of our choir singing a couple of songs to London. I did not think much more about it until we were told we had been shortlisted with 23 other schools for live auditions in Edinburgh. It all began to seem a bit real then! Our choir was successful and we were paired with children from St Dominic’s Primary School in Castlemilk in Glasgow. Under the guidance of the Children’s Musical Director, Kate Young, who turned out to be a former pupil of Mary Erskine who was at the time enjoying a very successful career as a Musical Director in London, the children became close friends. She worked with the choir for almost three weeks in Leith Town Hall before the opening night of their run of 52 shows which were spread over three months.

I enjoyed the ‘Joseph’ run at least as much as the children and was particularly impressed by how quickly they matured as they strove to meet the professional standards demanded of them, even as they became more and more tired as the weeks turned to months. They all ‘hit the wall’ once or twice but they emerged stronger for it and I began to wonder if there might be an opportunity to do something similar again. I had no idea where to start so I decided to phone every company which was scheduled to bring a musical to Edinburgh to let them know we would love to provide any children needed for their casts. After some natural hesitation I managed to persuade casting directors that I was serious and, once it became clear that we could prepare the children (something which could never have happened without the support of our incredible Music Departments and Jane Duffy, our legendary Head of Dance) and that I was happy to arrange for all their transport and supervision, I began to receive calls asking for children rather than having to make them. Needless to say, the standards of performance and behaviour of the children had to be exceptionally high or we would have been dropped in an instant but in fact during the next 20 years girls and boys from the Junior School were part of over 35 productions (including over 250 appearances as the ‘Joseph’ choir, a tradition which still continues) on over 750 occasions.

Spending so many evenings backstage was an education in itself as the children and I, as well as all the other colleagues and parents who helped with supervision, quickly realised that mistakes are made, lines forgotten, props go missing and so on. What was very impressive was how rare it was for the audience ever to notice the mistakes, so expert were all the professionals at covering up what had happened. The children were sometimes caught up in these mistakes, adapting to unusual circumstances…

  • During a performance of ‘Scrooge’ with Tommy Steele one of our boys was on stage walking around with his stage parents and pointing out all the lovely food items in a shop that his ‘family’ could not afford at Christmas – ‘I’d like some apples, I’d like some grapes …’. As the music swelled he realised he had missed a phrase, so he suddenly stamped his foot and exclaimed very loudly ‘Oh no, I forgot the oranges!’. His two stage parents could neither speak nor sing for several seconds which caused the Musical Director a few problems as he had to ‘hold’ the music while they regained their composure.
  • One night during the Take That musical ‘Never Forget’ the intercom failed. The children in their sixth floor dressing-room did not hear their call to the stage for their big number, which happened to be the title song. We eventually heard a scream from several floors below, raced downstairs and split the children into their two groups as usual so that they would enter from the two wings, one of which unfortunately took a few seconds longer to reach. The music started and the first girl on Stage Left was sent on by the Stage Manager. Glancing across to Stage Right he suddenly realised the second group of children had not yet appeared and made an instant decision to hold back the rest of his group. As a result, there was now one 11-year-old girl on stage on her own as the music continued. No one seemed quite sure what to do next! She realised what had happened and began to move in time to the music. The conductor caught her eye and indicated that he would get the orchestra back to the start of the number. She kept dancing, the audience loved it, a few seconds later the music was back where it should have been, and the two groups of children went on stage to join their friend as though nothing had happened. Panic over – after all, the show must go on!
  • One year, Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, was in the city rehearsing for a production of ‘Kiss me Kate’ – there were no children in the cast so we were not involved. The rehearsal venue which had been booked was for some reason unavailable so at very short notice we agreed that the cast could rehearse in the Tom Fleming Centre, a decision which could not have been made without the active support of the Tom Fleming Centre team led by Chris Duffy who are always incredibly supportive of all things performing arts. I offered our visitors a school lunch and that proved to be the highlight of the day. When I asked them if they were ready to go across to the Dining Hall, collect their own trays and cutlery and queue with the children Lorna became very excited at the ‘back to school’ opportunity. She arranged the cast in pairs and led them in crocodile-fashion across for lunch, singing all the way and then ‘acting’ as schoolchildren as they enjoyed their lunch with bemused girls and boys. A very unusual ‘Hollywood star comes to school’ moment. Lorna and the others were very gracious, and their Director was very grateful.
  • Perhaps the most challenging request we ever received happened during one of the ‘Joseph’ runs which was supposed to last for 3 weeks in the Playhouse Theatre. ‘Joseph’ was usually only in Edinburgh for a week-long run of 11 shows but on this occasion we had been asked to provide two choirs, each as usual including 40 children, to share a longer run. The reason for the extended run was the fact that the tour took place almost immediately after a very popular BBC 1 series in the summer of 2007 called ‘Any Dream Will Do’, which was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for a new actor to perform the title role of Joseph in the West End. After Lee Mead won the competition and went to the West End, the five runners-up joined the cast of the touring production which was scheduled to be in Edinburgh that  Christmas. Two of the finalists, Craig Chalmers and Keith Jack, were both from Edinburgh and so, reflecting the power of television at the time, the 3-week run in the Playhouse sold out very quickly, some achievement considering that there were 11 shows each week and the theatre boasts the biggest auditorium in the country with over 3,000 seats! The children had a fantastic time and then, just as they were beginning to flag, I was asked whether they would be able to continue for another 3 weeks into the New Year as there still such a huge demand for tickets. Needless to say, and following discussions with parents and children, we agreed and the show continued until almost the end of January. We were delighted that both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Bill Kenwright flew up to Edinburgh one day shortly after Christmas, came on stage after the matinee and made a point of thanking the schools, and in particular the children, for their involvement over so many weeks.
  • On one tour of ‘Evita’ the company forgot to engage local adult extras for the crowd scenes and I was phoned the day before opening to ask whether, in addition to the 15 children in the cast, I could now find 20 adult extras at 24 hours’ notice. Well, why not? Following an email to colleagues and parents we quickly enrolled our ‘extras’ and, having learned their roles during a very hectic couple of hours during the afternoon, they were on stage on opening night. Some needed a bit of ‘nudging’ from the cast to make sure they were in the right place as they mourned the death of Evita,shouted (in character!) and much more besides. The audience was none the wiser, the week went very well and a tradition had been started – every time ‘Evita’ returned to the Playhouse thereafter ESMS staff and parents were on stage with the children!
  • The only part for a child in ‘Miss Saigon’ requires a Primary 1 age girl to perform as the child of a Vietnamese woman escaping from Saigon in a helicopter, helped by American. The scene is extremely loud and the rescuers look very fierce so the potential of a scared child was obvious. However, there was no problem in the end as the actors spent so much time with the child beforehand, showing her that nothing was real and that they were ordinary, friendly actors. She ended up loving the noise and the action and, as was the case with all the children fortunate enough to appear in professional productions, she became a more confident and adaptable child as a result. She and many others only spent one week on stage but plenty of children appeared between 50 and 100 times as they moved up through the schools and played roles in whatever shows happened to be touring in Edinburgh including  ‘Joseph’, ‘Annie’, ‘Whistle down the wind’, ‘Carousel’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘The King and I’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, ‘Miss Saigon’, ‘Scrooge’, ‘Never Forget’, ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’, ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘South Pacific’. Each appearance required weeks of rehearsals.

Have a look at two very short examples of children working hard to prepare for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar!’ and ‘Joseph’ below:

Jesus Christ Superstar Rehearsal – YouTube

Close Every Door by the 2015 ESMS ‘Joseph’ Choir – YouTube

Our children’s regular performances in West End shows led to an increasing number of requests for groups of children to support other charities and businesses by singing songs from the shows at a wide variety of events ranging from black-tie dinners to charity fund-raisers. We formed a Show Choir which over the years performed on over 30 different occasions some of which were recorded, including the two available to watch below:  

This first video is of The Show Choir performing music from ‘Joseph’ at the ‘It’s good to give’ Charity Ball

The ESMS Junior School Show Choir – YouTube

This second recording is of The Show Choir singing music by Queen at a formal dinner, celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Daniel Stewart:

ESMS Junior Show Choir – YouTube

3 thoughts on “The show must go on – ESMS on stage

  1. How I wish that I had attended school in the days of participation in musicals! However, I was a little too old for that, having left Mary Erskine’s in 1960. My favorite subjects were, without doubt, singing and dancing, for which I got several prizes, and my ambition would have been to be a star in musical theatre! However, sense prevailed, and instead I trained as a nurse at the Western General Hospital. All was not lost as in my first months of nursing I would sing at the top of my voice when doing the “ cleaning” jobs assigned to me and entertained the patients. Looking back I must have had a very tolerant ward sister!


  2. I will never forget that “Never Forget” moment, as I was a parent helper that night. However, on mentioning it to my 21-year old son (who was in the children’s choir that night) I was surprised to find he had no recollection of it! That perhaps says a lot about how it was handled, that the children experienced no undue stress, and they took the experience in their stride!


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