This week I’m remembering the first performance we gave at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004. I’ve always liked a challenge and we certainly gave ourselves one when we decided in two hours we would tell the story of the twentieth century.
Robert and I divided the 100 years up into 20 5-year periods. We found the big historic events of each 5-year period and chose the most popular song of the age, so we ended up with a journey through history and popular music, and it ended with Robbie Williams’ Millennium.
The two World Wars each had a medley sequence and the second half opened with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II followed by the King of the 50s– Elvis. It was fascinating hearing the cast belt out musical numbers of the 20s and 30s with as much gusto as the 90s. Naturally, young people are more drawn to their own music but as a performer, you have to be prepared to deliver songs that you don’t even like. After all it’s not pick and mix, it’s learning to bring anything to life as theatre.
We learned that a good song is a good song in any day and age. Act One ended with the foundation of the National Health Service and the song You’ll Never Walk Alone written in 1945. It’s a great song and you could feel the performers stirring something inside as it began small and quiet and built into a huge affirmation of hope and faith for a brighter future. While later Frankie Goes to Hollywood was the background of East Meets West in the Cold War while mask-wearing Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher danced until she whacked him with her handbag.
I liked to think that we switched on some understanding of our musical heritage as well as history along the way. The last 5-year period had the Verve’s Bitter Sweet Sympathy with its haunting string line while we watched Bosnia and the Balkans presented as a fight in the playground.
When we started there were people saying kids don’t like history, they especially don’t like all that old music and you mustn’t deal with things like war. But they were wrong – the kids loved representing their world and although they may have started out thinking the music was horrible they grew to love it and just threw themselves into it. You might say it was a gamble, but I always knew if you made it accessible and fun they would grow to love it.
After the last note, there was a pause. The only time I have ever experienced this before was at one of the preview performances of Les Misérables. The pause extended and my heart was in my mouth. They hated it! I was wrong. They were processing what they had just watched. The emotional power of that journey and the connection with the audience’s life packed a punch for them. Then someone started clapping and before I knew it, it seemed the whole audience was on its feet. I was engulfed with tears and when I looked around it wasn’t only me. When young people have something important to say they own it – and it sends shivers up your spine.