Musical theatre and me

My earliest specific memory of musical theatre in any form is going to watch my beloved older brother as a sheaf of corn in a school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. My brother is two years older than me, and couldn’t have been more than 6 years old. I distinctly remember being allowed to sit on a gym mat at the front of the audience because I was so little, but my most abiding memory is overwhelming pride at how amazing my brother was in this magical thing. I don’t remember Joseph or his coat but I was blown away.

A couple of years later, when I had started school myself, I was cast in the seminal role of a flower selling woman in a production of Oliver!. I know I had to do a dance with a boy, and probably sang in the background of some scenes, but the whole experience is mostly a blur now. It was all wildly exciting though, sitting ‘backstage’ in the canteen serving area, listening to the show happening behind closed doors, waiting for my moments to come up.

As a child I was very shy and limelight-averse so I never felt a huge desire to be on stage in front of people - quite the opposite, in fact. I went to a couple of community theatre summer schools, but I never really had a good time. You hear about people who are terribly shy and introverted in everyday life, but come alive on stage, and, well, that just didn’t seem to happen for me. In primary school plays, I was mostly cast as a narrator (literally because I could read) or, once, as ‘Citizen #3’ in the big Year 6 musical Rats!. I actually even summoned the courage to audition for that one, so I was a bit gutted that I didn’t get a bigger role.

There was one early theatre experience I really enjoyed: a church nativity musical I was in one Christmas. It was taken bizarrely seriously, with auditions on stage with a microphone and everything. I sang ‘First Letter Home’ from Tell Me On A Sunday, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black’s tale of a single British girl in 1970s America (which seems a strange choice for a ten-year-old, on reflection...) at the front of the church, into the microphone, and it was completely thrilling. I was rewarded with the role of – I think – the angel Gabriel. I just know I was some kind of celestial being, and had a song all of my own, and not very many characters had that. At the show, I was terrified, but I felt like I did a pretty good job if I say so myself, and I was very proud.

My sole other musical theatre performance growing up was in Year 7, my first year of secondary school. We had an amazing teacher who organised a musical every year. Sadly, at the end of that year, this teacher retired and the musicals didn't carry on, so I only got to do one in my time there. In a neat twist of fate, it was Joseph again, and this time I was the sheaf of corn! Well, technically, I was one of those generic extras who loiters on stage and sings backing vocals but that's basically the same thing.

The experience of being in Joseph was entirely wonderful. I spent months singing all the songs in the shower and everywhere else. I looked up to the girl who played the Narrator so much – I had often been cast in the role of the narrator, and here she was, the star (in my eyes at least...), with all the best songs! I still enjoy singing songs from Joseph, and I got to see it on the West End a few years later with Lee Mead in the title role.

My love of musicals is directly linked to my love of singing, For as long as I can remember, and without wishing to sound like an X Factor contestant, singing is the thing that makes me happier than anything else. It is categorically far and away my favourite thing to do in the world. I almost exclusively used to sing in the shower, but I’ll sing anywhere really. As a child my family used to laugh at me for humming while I was eating dinner, and shout for me to be quiet when I was singing a tune to myself at night, keeping them awake (as well as, you know, telling me they loved my singing at appropriate times - they're not that mean!). I don’t know if it’s because the singing style feels more suited to my voice than some other styles of music, or because I like the storytelling aspect of musical theatre songs, but songs from musicals have always been my favourites to sing.

It’s definitely not insignificant that I grew up in the golden age of Disney movies. My dad used to get them for us on VHS and we’d watch the nineties classics over and over again. To this day, the songs I’m most likely to be overheard singing when I wash my hair are the stone cold classics 'Colors of the Wind' or 'Part of Your World' from Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid.

Now, why did I sing a song from Tell Me On A Sunday in a church audition as a young schoolgirl? Tell Me On A Sunday was probably my first favourite musical (that I wasn’t in) before I even really knew what they were. My dad had several musical theatre CDs, but Tell Me On A Sunday was the one I loved the most. I learned every song by heart and used to sing it all the time, especially in the car. I think, looking back, it probably had something to do with the fact that every song is just sung by the same person, a woman, so if you want to do a full solo performance it’s totally possible (not that a full solo performance of Les Misérables, Dear Evan Hansen or even Hamilton aren't possible, as my neighbours can attest). I also just really liked the songs, and Marti Webb’s performance on the album. In 2003 my dad and I went to see Denise Van Outen in a revival of the show in London at the Gielgud Theatre, which was not particularly critically-acclaimed, but we thoroughly enjoyed it nevertheless. (I mean she's no Marti Webb, but who is?)

As time went on, and it became the mid-2000s, I got really into the popular 'indie' music of the time and forgot all about musicals. I've heard people say that the music that you love as a teenager never really leaves you, and becomes the type of music you love for the rest of your life. That hasn't rung true for me so far (thank goodness). There are a few songs from that era that will be in my heart forever and always ('Don't Look Back Into The Sun' and 'Welcome To The Black Parade', are two notable examples) but generally I left all that stuff behind the moment I matriculated into university. Side note: when the inevitable My Chemical Romance jukebox musical arrives, it will become my favourite musical of all time, no questions asked.

Anyway, despite that detour, I spent the last year of school falling heavily in love with Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera, the former because of a wonderful 18th birthday West End trip in which I was exactly as blown away as I had been at my brother's Joseph, and the latter at the encouragement of a friend with the DVD of the 2004 film version. In that dramatic, formative year, I spent every journey to school performing all the songs from Les Mis in the car with my BFF (she was Jean Valjean and Javert, and I was... everyone else?) and much of my spare time lipsyncing to Gerard Butler's, ahem, powerful rendition of 'Down Once More'. Coupled with the release of the movie Hairspray in that same year - and, if we're being totally honest with ourselves, the Disney Channel classics High School Musical and Camp Rock (wait, was 2004-2008 some kind of golden age for movie musicals!? Have people analysed this? And, okay, look, I'm not going to sit here and say that I didn't go to watch Hannah Montana: The Movie at the cinema as well) - it was a musicals renaissance for me in a big way.

I went away to university and immediately failed to get cast in the college musical - Funny Girl - in the first few weeks there, and then Taylor Swift's Fearless album came out and I literally listened to nothing else all year. The arrival of Glee a few months later was almost seismic in my life, and gave me an unending supply of musical theatre-style songs to scratch that old itch. My love of songs and singing never went anywhere, but I never obsessed over musicals the same way until a fateful day in November 2015 when I decided to check out some new Broadway musical cast recording that promised Les Mis-style revolution with American sensibilities. And you can read about what happened next here!

These days, my life is filled with music and musical theatre and I'm so thankful for that. I live just a short tube journey away from the West End and get to go to see as many musicals as I want (finances and time permitting!) and I know what an incredibly privileged position that is. But more important than simple proximity is the people I am lucky enough to have in my life. Not long after I moved to London, I joined a community choir, and it gave me more music and more community than I could have ever dreamed of.

In one of the first rehearsals, we sang 'Defying Gravity' from Wicked (whose absence from this post so far is actually a criminal oversight) and the energy in the room made it abundantly clear I had found my tribe. I have met some of my best friends there and we get to geek out about musicals on a weekly basis. We're even going to be performing a song from Wicked (I love Wicked more than almost anything and I need to make that known) at the Barbican Centre later this year, where the English version of Les Misérables was first performed! The mind boggles.

I hope that singing will always be my favourite thing, and as long as I'm able, I will be listening to and singing songs from musicals for the rest of time.

Even when I'm holidaying in Spain, I can spot a musical from 500 paces. (No, I VERY SADLY did not attend Los Miserables)