50 fabulous years!
It was back in 1963, with the production ‘Trial By Jury’, that the Society launched itself on an appreciative audience courtesy of the determination of Belinda Story, who was a music teacher in Londonderry High School.
Originally from new Zealand, she came to the High School from England, and on discovering there was no music society and no tradition of musicals in the High School - back in the 1950s it was Foyle College which excelled in this regard - but Belinda had plans.
Donald and nan Hillare among the Society’s longest standing members and well remember how Belinda went about gathering the right people to form the Society.
“She approached me over the garden fence,” said Donald, adding: “We lived at that stage over the other side of town near the High School. She lived there and was out walking and either walking to or from the High School, or whatever, and she asked me would I come along and I said certainly, and I was automatically hooked, and I have been at it now solidly for 50 years.”
It fell to Belinda Story to undertake the musical direction for the first six years, and later came there was Scott and Olivia Marshall, Scott was a friend of the Hills, and was very interested in drama and in time took over production, while his wife, Olivia undertook choreography.
Donald recalled: “Scott started with the Mikado in 1966, and went right through to 1976, but went then to England to teach.”
Nan recalled them as “a great team”, commenting: “In Waterford the adjudicator said that he could not award the producers award to one person , that it had to be to the two of them because their work as so interwoven, the choreography and the production.”
Another producer the couple remembered was Mary McCann who was a drama teacher in the High School, who did the production for the first three years.
Over the years Nan and Donald have seen a lot of solid members come and go, and some characters as well. Among them are Trevor McLucas and Alistair Kingham, who stood out for Donald because they were “very good actors and very musical”. Alistair was one of the founder members.
“Les Carruthers also comes to mind. He was a very good comedian and comedy actor, and Gwen and Les Appleby. Gwen was a wonderful singer and they were there in the very early days, in the mid-1960s and up to the end of the 1970s,” said Donald.
Nan added: “He came from England and he came over to Du Pont and they were a great asset.”
Gilbert and Sullivan
In the very early years the ‘big’ Gilbert and Sullivan shows were very much part and parcel of the local scene, according to Donald, because they had been done by Foyle College, and quite a number of members in the Society had been pupils in the College in the 1940s. So the influence was very strong...
“We did Gulbert and Sullivan productions right up to...I think the first non-Gilbert and Sullivan production was Oklahoma in 1969,” he said, with Nan adding that ‘Ruddigore’ was another Gilbert and Sullivan that they did, this time in 1971.
That production marked the start of a four-year hiatus for the Society, as the Troubles made it’s presence felt, not least with the bombing of the Guildhall in 1972, rendering the Society ‘homeless’ as far as staging a big production was concerned... Things resumed in 1975 with the show ‘The Merry Widow’.
“We took Oklahoma down to Waterford - it wasn’t the first show we took down to Waterford International Festival of Light Opera, but we took Oklahoma down to that in the month of September and, of course, it ran into October, and we were coming home more or less at the time of the Civil Rights marches, and it caused problems for the Musical Society. We were off the boards altogether for three years,” said Donald.
Nan chips in: “We started doing the productions in the Guildhall in 1964 and that went right through until 1971 and then the Guildhall was bombed in 1972, so there were no shows put on, but they did various concerts, and went back to the shows in 1975.”
Parts of Mozart’s Requient and Handel’s Messiah were staged along with Pirates of Penzance and various other events were staged in halls and available buildings, and the Society travelled around various locations as best they could to entertain, including a request to perform at the Arcadia Ballroom in Portrush.
The Society doesn’t have a home as such, but members meeting in City of Derry Rugby Club, and rehearse in hotels and in schools in the city.
“We used to have our own home in the city. We started off in Noel May’s studio. He was an electrician and in Great James’ Street, and we had there for two or three years and then we had premises down on the Quay, called Derrycraft. We paid rent of £120 for the whole year. The rates were about £60 and the only access was up the fire escape, and that is where we did all the rehearsals, where we made our costumes, where we made our scenery. We did everything in there. It was a great place because we had three big rooms and we had a kitchen and three or four smaller rooms which could be used for offices or whatever. We were there for... oh I can’t remember how long we were there,” said Donald.
He continued: “The thing about doing the shows was that we had to take our own piano to the Guildhall. we carried the piano down the fire escape. I remember bringing the piano down the fire escape...I don’t think a hoist would have been strong enough to life the piano and then when the show was over at the end of the week we carried the piano back up again.
“The piano normally stayed in Derrycraft. There were about eight of us round it, down the fire escape...did you ever see the Laurel and Hardy film of them taking the piano up the building? It was a bit like them with everybody shouting instructions at the one time,” he says.
“At that time there were no ‘elderly’ people. We were all young people, but now I am saying to people that we are full of elderly people and people like me, but in those days we were all young, but the crux of the society was that we were all young,” says Donald.
Asked if he still loved the Londonderry Musical Society as much as he did back at that start, he admitted it was an integral part of his and Nan’s lives: “We are very much involved and we have the Showstoppers concerts as well, and I would be very much involved with that. Those are done with the Britannia Band.”
As Nan points out, it is very much a family affair: “This year for example, our daughter and two granddaughters, Christine, Hanna and Holly, are involved and are in the show this year, in the King and I.”
Donald takes up the thread enthusiastically: “The other interesting thing as far as Hanna’s concerned, her first appearance on stage was when she was only a month or two old. She was the baby in a production of Oliver in 2001, she was the baby Oliver when the mother and the baby arrive at the workhouse and then the mother dies.”
Like a seasoned professional Hanna did not cry, but Nan adds: “No she did not cry. I think we wanted her to cry so that people would realise that it was a real baby on stage. But she didn’t cry.”
Nan continues, saying that the big thing over the years is that there has been a lot of family involvement in the Society: “I couldn’t begin to mention how many husbands and wives, children, have all taken part in shows. In fact, this year Showstoppers had three generations involved, with a lady, her daughter and granddaughter all on stage. There has always been great family involvement and interest of families back stage as well.”
In days gone by audiences flocked to the colourful musicals, but with the advent of on demand digital TV and the plethora of touring shows now criss-crossing the country, the Society has had to work hard to maintain audience numbers, with shows becoming lavish spectaculars. But while the ‘big’ professional productions are charging a small fortune for seats, Londonderry Musical Society has kept it’s tickets modest with tickets at £12.50 to £16, making their shows very good value for money for an excellent show.
The King and I starts tonight, Wednesday, March 21, and will run until Saturday with a Matinee at 2pm and in the evening at 7.30pm.
Nan explained: “‘The King and I’ is going to be a very lavish show because we are having professional sets and costumes from London.”
Auditions began in November last year, with rehearsals for ‘The King and I’ beginning after Christmas, with two nights of rehearsal a week, but the team have been flat out busy for the past couple of weeks now and will remain so until the show is over on Saturday.
There’s a lot of work involved, with extra classes for the dancing and choreography and rehearsals for the children as well.
Anyone who has every fancied being part of a big music production is welcome to get in touch with the Londonderry Musical Society at www.londonderrymusicalsociety.co.uk.
The Society is always looking for male singers, who would enjoy the experience immensely as there have been some truly amazing parts written in the big shows for male leads. That’s not to say that the Society isn’t always pleased to welcome new female members too, which they are, but men who sing are much sought-after.
There is also a need for back stage helpers as there is a lot to do behind the scenes helping with costumes, make-up, hair, lighting, production and the like, and front of house staff are also needed.
What better year to join than the 50th anniversary year?