Over 100 Years of Musical Theatre

Durham Amateur Operatic Society (DAOS) was founded in 1908 and gave its first performances of “HMS Pinafore” in 1909. The society produced other Gilbert & Sullivan operettas until 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War. After the war, the society started performing again and in 1920 presented “The Gondoliers”, again by Gilbert & Sullivan. Performances continued yearly and other composers were tried out. Modern-day rarities such as “Miss Hook of Holland” and “The Geisha” were mixed with the G & S canon of works. In 1931, the society presented its 17th show, “The Duchess of Dantzig” and reported a loss of £115 on the production. The country, at the time, was in the grip of the great depression and the society decided to postpone any new productions until there was an upturn in the financial climate.

Live theatre, both amateur and professional, seemed to be dying. Similar societies were closing daily. The remaining funds of the society, £100, were invested and the society went into hibernation. No further minutes of the society exist until 1939, when it was revealed that a new theatre was to be built in Durham City within the next two years. It was agreed to defer any plans until this had happened. Who would have thought that the Third Reich would delay Durham’s cultural advances for so long? We had to wait until 2002 for the promise to be fulfilled.

Nothing more happened until 1955, when an extraordinary general meeting of the society was held in Durham Town Hall. It was reported that the society funds had swollen to £140 and it was unanimously agreed that Durham City could support an operatic society again. After a gap of 25 years, DAOS presented “The Mikado” in the Assembly Rooms Theatre. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle produced a ‘Mikado Edition’, devoting four whole pages to this exciting rebirth. They headed their article, “A Young Company – But How Enthusiastic!” The article continued, “A lot depends on this week’s production. But everything points to a new lease of life for musical shows in Durham City, a new series of productions, to rival the old in popularity, and in the power of giving pleasure.”

From 1956, the society went from strength to strength. Operetta gave way to more modern musicals, the first of these being “The Desert Song”, performed in 1968. This brought together for the first time at DAOS the production team of George Hetherington as musical director and Fred Wharton as producer. They had already worked together on shows at Ferryhill Grammar School. It was a partnership that was to endure and benefit the society greatly, until George’s retirement in 2005.

In 1974, DAOS took the brave step of expanding the size of the company to perform “Fiddler on the Roof”. This involved moving the production to the larger Technical College Theatre in Durham. This was a gamble as there were twice as many seats to fill, but it paid off. At this venue, which later became the Garland Theatre, New College, a rich variety of work was presented ranging from Ivor Novello to Stephen Sondheim. DAOS developed a strong association with the musicals of Sondheim, who is believed by many to be the greatest composer of musical theatre in the last 50 years. The society has staged four of his wonderful shows and a fifth one is planned for 2006, Company.

In 1977, the society performed its first Christmas pantomime, which was to become an annual feature in the DAOS calendar. Junior membership of the society flourished. Summer entertainments and full-scale summer shows were also regularly performed.

1997 turned into our ‘annus horribilis’ and no show was produced that year. We were due to perform the circus musical “Barnum” and had been practising for months to perfect our circus skills – juggling, unicycling, tightrope walking, etc. However, two weeks before the show was to start, there was a fire at the Garland Theatre and the stage was burnt out. A huge amount of effort had been put in by a large cast, but unfortunately it was not seen by an audience. After such a tragedy, there is only one thing you can do, and in the words of the song, we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down and started all over again!

The theatre reopened in 1998 in time for us to perform “The Sound of Music”. In the following year the college announced it was to move onto one site and the theatre would therefore close. DAOS decided to return to its roots by performing at the Assembly Rooms Theatre again. Some smaller scale productions were played there until finally in 2002, Durham got its long awaited new theatre, the GALA, in Millennium Place. We were very privileged to be chosen to be the first amateur group to perform in the theatre. In fact we were only the second company ever to play there. Me and My Girl, our opening production, turned out to be the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the society.

The move to the GALA Theatre was another big step for the society. GALA is a state-of-the-art 510-seat theatre with a stage bigger than the Theatre Royal in Newcastle. This contrasts with 350 seats in the Garland Theatre and 210 seats in the Assembly Rooms. The costs of performing in a professional venue are also so much higher than the spaces the society had so far used. This meant a huge increase in ticket prices; in fact they virtually doubled. This was simply to cover the costs of putting on the show. It was a huge risk for the society, but it proved to be a huge success.

The excitement caused by the opening of the GALA Theatre brought many new people to the society, both as performers and as Friends. We now have so many Friends that we had to appoint someone to look after them. Sheila Cottle was appointed as our Friends’ Liaison Officer and undertook this role for three years. Sheila was one of the few remaining society members who had been at that extraordinary general meeting in Durham Town Hall in 1955. She was an enthusiastic, stalwart member of the society, performing on stage and serving on committee. She was secretary of DMTC for 25 years. The role has now been taken on by Eunice Sneddon.

With the influx of new members, the committee of DAOS started to look very hard at our name. This subject had been broached before, but it had never felt right to alter it. However, times change. The society had been founded in 1908, only seven years after the death of Queen Victoria. This was a very different time, when life and entertainment were much more formalised. The evolution of our language has meant that the word ‘amateur’ has taken on a totally different meaning to that intended when the society was originally founded. The days of using the word ‘amateur’ as a proud title have gone. It is now used more frequently as one of criticism to imply shoddiness. Similarly, the word ‘operatic’ now has connotations of some form of highbrow, elitist entertainment that does not truly reflect what DAOS is all about. This problem concerning society names was at the same time being highlighted by the National organisation to which we belong, NODA (the National Operatic and Dramatic Association). It was therefore felt that the time was now right for the society to adopt a new name that would truly reflect what we do. This was proposed to the membership of the society at the Annual General Meeting in July 2003. It was unanimously agreed to change the name of the society to the Durham Musical Theatre Company.

Since moving to GALA, we have now staged seven shows. Our opening production of Me and My Girl was a total sell-out. The staff of the theatre was 110% committed to making sure that both we and the theatre succeeded. They have since been unfailingly supportive of all our endeavours. It is a true partnership, which we hope will continue for many years to come. We were not due to return to GALA for a further year, but the theatre was so keen for us to perform again that we put together our own tribute to the life of Cole Porter, another musical genius, called What a Swell Party! This played in the summer of 2002 and again was a complete sell-out. It was a huge undertaking in a short period of time, but proved to be very popular.

February 2003 saw our flying production of Peter Pan take to the stage. This was in the tradition of DAOS pantomimes, but we had always stayed away from this one because of the flying. With the technical facilities available to us in GALA, this was the obvious choice for us to perform. It turned out to be our last pantomime. As all professional theatres, GALA now undertakes its own pantomime. During this time GALA was having its own teething troubles, but the staff never let this get in the way of their total dedication and professionalism.

June 2003 saw a new staging of My Fair Lady. This was the first time since the society had reformed that a show had been repeated. We had always tried to avoid this, as there is such a large body of work to choose from. The new stage, however, which provided us with vastly improved facilities, allowed us to think about revisiting some old favourite shows, because we knew we could stage them in a new way, using more modern scenic techniques.

This proved true again for our next production in February 2004 of Camelot”. Our props team spent hundreds of hours making the banners that were used in the production, and the overall effect was spectacular. Camelot has one of the most expensive costume budgets of any musical, especially with a cast of 70+ on stage. Add to this a dog and some live hawks and some magical stage pictures were created.

In June 2004, DMTC staged a rarely seen musical that had been performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company a few years earlier. This was the magical production of The Secret Garden. Based on the famous children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it proved to be a very moving experience. The show was equally popular with the cast and our audiences. DMTC was lucky enough to recruit into the production 5 children who were an absolute delight to work with and who gave such unforgettable performances. They are the future of companies like ours. Their enthusiastic commitment makes us feel that the future is in very safe hands.

For February 2005, DMTC chose to stage the wonderful Frank Loesser musical Guys and Dolls”. This musical fable of Broadway is based on the stories of Damon Runyon and tells of the cartoon-like characters of New York during the prohibition period. It was huge fun to perform and proved to be equally popular with our audiences. It was at the end of this production that George Hetherington decided to hang up his baton, after virtually 40 years of continual service as musical director. It was a great shock to the society, but everyone appreciated his reasons for doing so. Everyone at DMTC thanks George for his unswerving devotion to the society over many years and wishes him a long and healthy ‘retirement’.

In February 2005, we welcomed our new musical director Paul Wood, who started us on our next adventure, staging the Northern Première of the spectacularly emotional “Titanic”. This was a huge musical and theatrical undertaking for the society. “Titanic” was staged at GALA in February 2006 and used all of the resources available to depict this tragic but ultimately uplifting musical. Paul is a Methodist Minister in Durham City and has extensive musical experience, having worked previously backstage as stage manager, before becoming a musical director. “Titanic” proved to be a popular hit with both the cast and our audiences and we virtually sold out all performances. The feedback after the show was extremely positive.

Within weeks we were up to our vocal chords in rehearsals again for our second show of the season, the multi-award winning Stephen Sondheim musical comedy “Company”. This was another massive undertaking for the relatively small cast. Sondheim’s musical has become a classic of modern musical theatre and like much of his work it divided audience opinion. Some loved it, others did not. Even though shows do not meet with universal appeal, DMTC feels that we still have a duty to perform such classic works of the genre, so that our audiences have at least the opportunity to experience these works in live performance.

2006 had been a very heavy year and so it was decided to stage just one show in 2007. This was delayed until June. It was another Lerner & Loewe classic, “Gigi. A brand new set and splendid costumes resulted in a series of gorgeous stage pictures that left the audiences wanting more.

The first recipient of the Mary Hamilton Award was Sophie Begg, given for her commitment and brilliant undertaking of the title role in “Gigi”.

In 2008 we reached our centenary, having been founded 100 years previously! In January, we performed the UK première of the 2002 version of Jerry Herman’s wonderful “Mack and Mabel”, the love story of silent movie director Mack Sennett and his star actress Mabel Normand. The audience response was amazing.

Sadly at the end of this show we had to bid farewell to our Musical Director.

Paul Wood had made a huge impact on the company in a short space of time. We were lucky to enlist the services of Steven Hood to replace him.

For the end of June, Fred Wharton and Steven devised for us a tribute to two of Britain’s greatest song writers. “Noël and Ivor” – the lives and music of Noël Coward and Ivor Novello. This was a huge undertaking by all concerned. It was also very well received and proved to be a fitting contrast in this our special year.

The second recipient of the Mary Hamilton Award was Sarah Jackson, given for her splendid achievement in her first major role (Lottie), in “Mack and Mabel.

In September 2008, the centenary of the company was celebrated with a Gala dinner at the Three Tuns Hotel in Durham, and presentations were made to Janet Dixon for 30 years of choreographing for the company and to Fred Wharton for 40 years of directing for the company. Our first production was staged in 1909 and therefore our main production in 2009 celebrated the 100th anniversary of that event. The show chosen was the moving, ever-popular “Fiddler on the Roof”, which the society previously staged 35 years earlier at the Technical College Theatre in Durham. This run of performances was dedicated to the memory of Harry Dallard and it was fitting that Harry’s daughter Janet, who had been the 1974 production, drove up from the Midlands to honour his memory with us. Technical advances allowed us in this production to fly Frumah Sarah in the ghost scene and to have “real” snow for the ending. It proved to be a smash hit with our audiences.

At the next AGM, the third Mary Hamilton Award was presented to David O’Donnell, the first male recipient. David has been a dedicated member of DMTC since he joined as a young man for “Me and My Girl”. He has been in the chorus and played parts in many of our shows at GALA, notably the stoker in “Titanic” and Mendel, the Rabbi’s son in “Fiddler on the Roof”. He has also served on both the executive and entertainments committees and he became the company’s librarian.

For November 2009, DMTC chose another show based on one of the wonderful Charles Dickens’ creations – “A Christmas Carol”. “Scrooge – the musical” is an amazing Christmas show that is guaranteed to leave audiences with a warm glow ready for the festive season. Another spectacular production was offered to the Durham public, with a cast of 70, including 3 who flew across the stage, magical effects and a toe-tapping score. These all combined to tell this excellent story so brilliantly – a marvelous lead up to the Christmas period.

Immediately at the start of the New Year, rehearsals began for the company’s second production of the light-hearted musical comedy “Hello, Dolly!” DMTC had previously staged the work at the Garland Theatre, New College in 1977. That production was staged by Ian Wells and starred Audrey Robson in the title role. It was great to see them both treading the boards again with DMTC in this latest production. Peter Clapham and Anthony Smith were both in the chorus of that original production and they also appeared again, peter in the chorus and Anthony as Horace Vandergelder. The title role, this time around, was played by Delia McNally. It was also an opportunity for several of our younger members to shine in major roles. Kathleen Knox joined us again and the “Waiters’ Gallop” with the 18 dancing men was a true highlight of the show. Michelle Hood and Paul Maddison were huge hits with the audiences showing just what can be done with small parts.

At the 2010 AGM, Nicky Tones was awarded the 4th Mary Hamilton Award for services to DMTC. He had revamped the rule books as well as designed and produced two other booklets for members to use. They were very much appreciated at floor rehearsals. Nicky joined DMTC as a teenager to play the part of Rolf in “The Sound of Music” in 1998.

In September, singing rehearsals began for our next venture – the Northern Première of the Maury Yeston revised version of “Grand Hotel – the Musical”. This show has not been often performed in England but is a huge hit in America, where its original run played for more performances than “West Side Story”, “Carousel”, “Brigadoon” and “Showboat”. It is a great contrast to “Hello, Dolly!” and has a very cinematic feel to its construction. It has 22 named parts, which were all cast from within the ranks of the company and marked the return to DMTC of Eileen Glenton, as the fading ballerina, for the first time since “Noel & Ivor!”.

Goodwill messages have been received from Maury Yeston, who composed all of the additional music in the show and from Daniel Evans, artistic director of the Sheffield Theatres and who played Otto Kringelein in the 2004 Donmar Warehouse production of “Grand Hotel”.

For 2012 Durham Musical Theatre Company staged a lavish production of the tap dancing sensational musical extravaganza “42nd Street”. This also celebrated the 10th anniversary of the opening of Durham City’s GALA Theatre and was the 17th production staged by DMTC in the venue. “42nd Street” is a spectacular, wonderfully tuneful musical comedy that has instant audience appeal. The toe-tapping score lends itself to tap dancing choreography, which audiences find so exhilarating. The company spent the whole of the preceding summer being put through their paces learning to tap dance by Kathleen Knox and her very able assistants. To say they have the patience of a saint is a mild understatement! The result though was mightily impressive, with the entire company tap dancing. To do justice to this wonderful show any company is dependent on having a pair of youngsters who can not only sing and act, but also must be superb tap dancers. In this we were blessed with having Jennifer Kirby as Peggy Sawyer and Matthew Banks as Billy Lawlor. Their amazing skills were breathtaking and rapturously received by our audiences. We were also fortunate to have within our ranks six girls who could play the young chorines. Not only did they have many of their own numbers to perform, they also danced in all the chorus numbers – an immense achievement. It was for this reason that at the AGM in July it was felt appropriate to bestow the Mary Hamilton Award for 2012 to Katy Croy, Rebecca Dixon, Catherine Finn, Catherine Marsden, Katy Walton, and Emily Wright.

After a suitable break rehearsals began earlier than usual for the next show, the amazing “Sweeney Todd” by Stephen Sondheim. Auditions were held before the summer holidays so that time could be spent over summer mastering this massive, difficult score. The show puts great emphasis on the chorus’s acting skills and they rose to the challenge with relish. The show proved to be more difficult to sell than the previous show, but we still sold more tickets for it than we had for any previous Sondheim musical. It was a risk to undertake 7 performances with two matinées because of the vocal stress imposed on the two lead characters. It proved to be unfounded and all performances went without vocal problems. Eileen Glenton returned for a second shot at the evil Mrs. Lovett, while Anthony Smith played Sweeney Todd, having been Tobias in the 1991 production. They had a wonderful chemistry together and were able to portray both the comedy and the tragedy of the tale perfectly. Steven Berry played Tobias and sang a superb rendition of “Not While I’m Around”. The young love interest was in the safe hands on Catherine Marsden as a beautiful Johanna and Andy King as the fabulous voiced sailor Anthony. The creepy Judge and Beadle proved to be excellent vehicles for the talented Clark Adamson and Ed Turner. The audience response was very enthusiastic at all performances and the reviews were superb. It proved to be another feather in the cap of DMTC.

We wanted to stage another smaller show this season, and it was decided to stage another of our tribute shows to a famous composer. Previous similar shows at GALA have been our 2002 “What a Swell Party!” devoted to Cole Porter, “Noel & Ivor” in 2008 comparing and contrasting the works of Noel Coward and Ivor Novello and now in 2013 “Some Enchanted Evenings” was dedicated to the talented Broadway composer Richard Rodgers. Written by Fred Wharton and musically prepared by Steven Hood, a feast of varied entertainment was placed before our audiences. The first half concentrated more on Rodgers’ partnership with Lorenz Hart and had a nightclub setting. The second half was more concerned with the latter part of his life and his work particularly with Oscar Hammerstein II. This had more staged numbers. A cast of over 80 was involved and the small band consisting of grand piano, double bass and drums was on stage. There were 23 soloists and 16 children, who gave a lively rendition of “The Other Generation”. It was good to welcome Rachel Orr and James Manning back to the company as performers and Kathleen Knox who shared the choreography with Janet Dixon. Our audiences really appreciated a return to the tuneful musicals of yesteryear. Following the last performance, we were approached by the ‘Salute Our Heroes’ soldiers’ charity and asked if we would perform an extract from the show at their next concert which is to be staged at the Sage in Gateshead. This will take place at the end of September and is a testament to the quality of our show. We felt honoured and privileged to have been chosen to help such a worthwhile cause.

On the Saturday before the performances it was announced that Fred Wharton had been honoured in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list by being awarded the British Empire Medal for “services to amateur drama in the northeast”. DMTC could not have been happier for him or prouder of the long association we have had with him. Over 45 years he has produced 64 productions for DMTC (out of a total of 133 since the company was founded in 1908)! This is a staggering achievement representing nearly half of all DMTC productions!!

At the AGM in June 2013, the big shock was that long-standing chairman Mike Dixon had decided not to stand for re-election. As it was too late for anyone else to be nominated the new committee was elected without a chairman. They have co-opted Anthony Smith to be chairman until the next AGM. It was also decided that DMTC should pursue the option of becoming a company limited by guarantee to make us more financially secure. The 2013 Mary Hamilton Award was presented to Ed Turner for his outstanding contribution to DMTC.

Our next big adventure will take to the stage in April 2014, when DMTC stages its 144th production, and our 20th at GALA. It will be the northern premiere of the brilliant Broadway musical “A Tale of Two Cities”. We would love to see you there either by joining us on stage, backstage or in the audience. You’ll say to yourself: “It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done!