The Dreamers is a new musical written by local writers James Beeny and Gina Giorgio that was enjoyed by audiences young and old at The Assembly Halls Theatre in Tunbridge Wells last November. It is now set to open at St. James’ Theatre in London between 30th June and 11th July.
Sammi O’Neill caught up with James and Gina this week as they prepare for their big opening.
The Dreamers is your first show, how did the story start?
JB: About five years ago I started a band called ‘Virgin Soldiers’ which Gina joined shortly afterwards. We had written some music together and we had talked about writing a show at some point but we weren’t sure when the right time would be.
It didn’t really feel appropriate in the early days of the band partly because we were busy writing songs, performing gigs and recording music but mainly because we didn’t know how we could incorporate the band in the project. We didn’t want to leave something behind that we had been working so hard at.
We stumbled across the story of David ‘Reggie’ Salomon and we wanted to put his story into song. As we started to write it we found that we didn’t really need anymore songs for our band’s set and one song was never going to do it justice anyway. We then made the decision to write a show.
GG: We initially wanted to put on almost ‘a gig’ with a few guest singers playing roles and it progressed from there. We locked ourselves away in a room and vote intensively for about three months.
One of our first decisions was that the band would be in the show as themselves, ‘The Virgin Soldiers’. We dress normally and are situated at the back of the stage on a rostrum while the characters are in front of us in costume. Although it is Salomon’s story in World War I, it has a very contemporary feel.
What sort of music do ‘Virgin Soldiers’ play?
JB: We are a 6 piece contemporary band. Gina and I both sing while I play acoustic guitar and Gina piano, we also have a base guitarist who also sings backing vocals, a cellist, a violinist and a viola player. We play a sort of acoustic rock with strings so we have called it ‘Strock’ which seems a good way of describing it.
How did you get your cast together?
JB: We started recruiting local singers and performers who had an interest in theatre or music.
We started rehearsing with them about 18 months ago. Most of them had jobs or were at school so could only rehearse at weekends. We worked very hard on their vocals and performances so that they were ready to perform in what we thought would be a one-off show at the Assembly Halls When ticket sales started going so well we decided to extend it to four It was a fantastic experience for everyone putting it on in such a massive theatre.
When we started out it we didn’t have any grand ambitions like putting on a show that would transfer to London. That never crossed our minds.
You have got celebrity narrators involved, how did that happen?
JB: Last year we performed a medley of songs from The Dreamers at the launch of a new charity called Never Such Innocence at Australia House in London. Amanda Redman had been invited by another Star Foundation for Cerebral Palsy which is a charity we do a lot of work for.
GG: She told us afterwards that she had been very moved by our performance and we asked her whether she would be happy to record a few lines for us as a narrator. She happily agreed and has ended up being our main on-screen narrator. Other narrators are Sir Tim Rice, Philip Glenister and Christopher Beeny is the storyteller.
Your cast is extremely young, what was the decision behind that?
GG: We decided quite consciously to use a cast which was representative of the young generation that were affected by the First World War. Our youngest boy a soldier is 12 but youngest cast member is only 8, she plays a little girl whose father has gone away to war. Our oldest cast member is only 28.
How was the production received at Tunbridge Wells?
JB: It was received extremely well. People get certain ideas when they hear the words ‘World War One’ because it is such a serious topic and it sometimes puts them off. People were surprised however at the youthfulness of the show. Having the band involved helps to give a contemporary edge that you wouldn’t expect to see in a World War One production.
GG: It was really interesting how many young people take an interest in the First World War.
At the matinee performance in Tunbridge Wells we had hundreds of schoolchildren and we were really delighted at their response. We had letters sent to us from schools, parents, teachers and from the children themselves telling us how moved they were by the performance.
Did you need to re-cast the show for St James or have you brought the original cast with you?
JB: We have kept the original cast from Tunbridge Wells with just a couple of extras people. Moving into London we did have the opportunity to bring in a fully trained and professional cast but we felt that one of the biggest assets of the show in Tunbridge Wells was that the cast looked like ordinary men, women, boys and girls. Sometimes in a musical the cast are one shape or size and all look very similar. We really have a complete mixture of people who all look completely different and also sound completely different. This gives The Dreamers a very raw feeling and makes it seem much more true to life.
The cast are young and have no professional training and are about to open on a London stage. Does that bring any difficulties? How are they adjusting and coping with it all?
JB: We have needed to do things in an unorthodox way. For example singers rehearsing for a show would usually know how to read music but we have needed to teach everyone by ear also instead of working for 2, 3 or 4 weeks solidly before opening, we could only rehearse at weekends. It is quite different to doing it this way and it comes with its challenges. Everyone really has to work hard to remember everything that they’ve done from one week to the next.
The wonderful thing about it is they look and sounds just right and they are growing in experience all the time. They really do look and act like professionals!
GG: We have also found it has worked really well because as a team we have all bonded really well. The cast have so much chemistry between them as a result. It has definitely created a real camaraderie between the cast which probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. This was evident on stage at Tunbridge Wells and I’m sure it will be again in London.
How are plans for the opening going?
JB: The week before the show opens, we are going to be performing at West End Live which we are very excited about because it’s a great opportunity and on Sunday ‘Vera’s Song’ was played on the Elaine Paige show on Radio 2.
Press coverage has started and tickets are selling which is great and we hope that the two weeks at St James will go well. We are hoping that The Dreamers will engage all age groups we just excited about getting into London now.
The Dreamers is playing at the St James Theatre from 30th June – 11th July