Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

65: Fifty Years in Show Business!

As we were rehearsing Uncharted Crossings in December, the climax of the Grand Union Orchestra’s autumn programme, it suddenly struck me that it was exactly fifty years since I had written my first ever show…

50 years ago to the day as I begin this Post, on Boxing Day 1968, I was in Nottingham directing the first performance of a show, for which I’d written the music. At the beginning of the autumn season that year, I had landed the dream job for a practical creative musician – musical director of Nottingham Playhouse. Regional theatre was flourishing at that time; at Nottingham we played in repertoire, cycling two or three different shows in any one week, most of them featuring live music, which I got to write or arrange.

The Artistic Director Stuart Burge then gave me and his assistant Alan Dossor (with whom I later worked extensively at the Liverpool Everyman in the 1970s – see Post 55) a tattered copy of an old Swiss folk tale called The Mountain King, and said “I think this could make the basis of a great family show – would you like to do it?” It had much in common with other seasonal stories, like A Christmas Carol – in this case the redemption of a Scrooge-like misanthrope called Wolfgrind, but in a more exotic, dramatic setting, through the intervention of a beneficent wizard Astralagus.

So we devised the book ourselves, I got an inventive cabaret/sketch-writer friend, Pete Spence, to write the lyrics, and hired six very versatile musicians from the University Music Department to play in the pit band. There was even an elaborate ballet of the elements to open the show, with Stuart’s daughter Lucy and other students from the Northern Dance Theatre in Manchester – choreographed by its distinguished director Laverne Meyer!

I’m delighted to say we vindicated the trust placed in us, and the show proved very successful; it certainly gave me huge confidence, and my career developed from there. 15 years later I was co-founding Grand Union Music Theatre, and the rest – as they say – is history.

Sadly, none of the music for The Mountain King, nor the dozens of other theatre scores I wrote over the next decade or more, was recorded. However, I have from time to time recycled or adapted some of the material from these scores for other purposes, and used the techniques I learnt for all my music. Here is the story of one such piece…

Strange Migration

This song began life in a touring show in the mid-1970s, in part of a story that concerned coal miners drafted from their native Yorkshire to work the pits in Kent, contributing to the war effort. Here is the chorus with the original lyrics, though not of course sung by the original cast:


One of the things I learnt early on working with actors was to keep the vocal lines themselves simple and easily learnt by ear. I also wrote them so that different melodies could be combined to create a chorus, or combine or contrast in different ways. (I wrote about this technique in my very first Post !) Furthermore, the musical resources of many theatre companies were often slender, so accompaniment and harmonic backings needed to be minimal and basic.

Its next appearance was not just as a song, but serving also as the theme and title for a show in its own right: Strange Migration was the third of Grand Union’s touring music theatre shows in 1983-84. It expressed different experiences of migration worldwide, and proved crucial in determining the course of the Company’s future work. (Another song I wrote for this show became a much-loved staple of the Grand Union Orchestra repertoire, By the Waters of Babylon).

Then more recently, I used it in Undream’d Shores (2014-15) as a recurrent story-telling device: the recurring verses and choruses form a thread throughout the show, linking or introducing the different episodes. The words of the verses change, but not the chorus.

Here are all the verses and choruses (bear in mind these tracks are taken from the live performance!) as they occur in Undream’d Shores:

Verse 1:

Verse and chorus 2:

Verse and chorus 3:

Verse 4 (no chorus):


Sung by three contrasting voices in counterpoint, apart from the points noted above, another interesting technical feature of the composition is that the voices often have only tangential relationship to the harmony (sketched in here for guitar and bass); moreover, the vocal lines themselves look quite dissonant on paper, as well as unrelated to the harmony! The effect, however, is quite haunting, and works particularly well when the singers’ voices have markedly different characters. It highlights the contrasts in timbre between them, and heightens the dramatic narrative or tension, as the voices both blend and clash with each other to give apparently simple musical textures such a rich variety of colours.

Undream'd Shores full stage

The singers (more or less in order of appearance!) are Adwoa Jackson (Jamaica), Tommy Ng (Malaysia), Liana (Portugal), Victoria Couper (England/Brazil), Jacqueline Lwanzo (Congo), Richard Scott (England), Maja Rivic (Croatia), Akash Sultan (Bangladesh), Noga Ritter (Israel), Günes Cerit (Turkey) and Jonathan André (African British). The verses are sung here by Adwoa, Liana, Maja and Noga (who also of course sing in one of the other choruses), and each introduces a new episode in the narrative.

This is surely a measure of how far we’ve travelled in 50 years! Who could have imagined such a stellar, international company of performers – anywhere, let alone in a regional theatre – in the winter of 1968?


You might also enjoy our New Year Mixtape for 2018

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