For over eight decades, Scarborough Musicals has been at the heart of Scarborough’s cultural and community life.
It started in 1927, when Scarborough Philharmonic Society disbanded, leaving a gap in the townʼs entertainment provision, which Sidney Carter (the Philharmonic’s secretary) filled by persuading the town’s leading businessmen to back a newly formed Scarborough Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (the ‘Dramatic’ was dropped in the 1930s). People ﬂocked to support the new society, and within a month, 200 local people had joined.
The society’s first production was Edward German’s Merrie England which opened to enthusiastic reviews and audiences at the Royal Opera House in 1927, to be followed by further annual productions, including The Gondoliers, The Geisha, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. Obviously, these shows reflect the popular singing style and audience taste of the period: light opera or operetta. Tin Pan Alley and jazz-based popular music had still to make its mark in those acoustic, pre-microphone years.
So successful were the societyʼs early productions, that when the 5,000-seat Open Air Theatre first opened in 1932, the society’s annual Summer musical became a major seasonal fixture, drawing huge attendances, of up to 70,000 a year. In the 1930s, the society was actively supported by the town’s “great and good”. Sir Paul Latham MP was President and Vice Presidents included Cllr E H Robinson (Mayor of Scarborough), Claude Rounder and A J Tonks.
In those pre-TV days, with foreign travel a luxury, and seaside holiday resorts like Scarborough at the peak of their popularity, spectacle was all, to fill the 5,000-seat Open Air Theatre twice weekly. A huge local amateur cast of singers and dancers was supported by a large orchestra, with professional principals and production team. West End singers would angle for invitations to guest, and production values were high. Old-timers still recall the vast sets and extravagant effects: live horses on stage, fleets of canoes paddled across the lake and so on, for Rose Marie, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Desert Song, Hiawatha or The Arcadians.
The great Scarborough Summer shows must have rivaled Ivor Novello’s lavish Drury Lane spectaculars, which wowed the West End in the 1930s, and were the equivalent of today’s Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables or the big Arena shows. One gets an idea from a splendid 1938 LNER poster advertising Scarborough, dramatically depicting a night-time performance of Tannhauser at the Open Air Theatre.
World War Two interrupted the society’s activities, but the large-scale Summer musicals at the Open Air Theatre resumed from 1948 until 1968, when West Side Story saw a significant drop in attendances and the Borough Council decided to end the expensive annual Summer musicals at the Open Air Theatre. Times were changing. Cheap foreign package holidays and TV had arrived, and perhaps by 1968 (the year of student protests, Vietnam, flower power, hippies and ‘Hair’) tastes had moved away from the society’s repertoire of grand old operettas like The Quaker Girl or The Gypsy Baron.
A glance at the society’s list of shows 1948-1968 reveals a continuing loyalty to these operettas, with occasional dips into 1920s musical comedy (No No Nanette and The Girlfriend in 1957-8), and the post-war musical theatre style established by Rodgers & Hammerstein (Oklahoma! in 1964).
One also notices that after 1954, Gilbert & Sullivan was not presented, and it was in order to perform G&S that in 1967 a group broke away from the original society to form Scarborough & District Light Opera Society (SADLOS), which flourished until 1967, presenting two shows annually for many years, initially at the Graham School’s theatre, alternating Gilbert & Sullivan with such popular standards as The Sound of Music, Hello Dolly! and Fiddler On the Roof.
The G&S issue is ironic. A third of the pre-war Summer shows were G&S, but no G&S was presented between 1954 and 1996. Five of SADLOS’ first six shows were G&S, but the breakaway company produced no G&S after 1989, while SMTC produced four G&S operettas, after 1997!
So, after the society’s Open Air Theatre days ended in 1968, its annual shows were presented at the Floral Hall, Royal Opera House or Futurist Theatre; and there were now two rival amateur societies producing annual musicals in Scarborough. Recent years have seen greatly increased amateur performing opportunities, especially for young people, with the busy YMCA Theatre (four productions annually), showcases by the many dance and performing arts schools and colleges, Stephen Joseph Theatre’s outreach programme (including ‘Rounders’) and musicals staged by Scalby School and other independent amateur or school groups locally.
After 1968, both societies shifted away from the vocally demanding, large cast operettas with their costly staging needs, in favour of post-war musical theatre standards: Carousel, South Pacific, The King & I, Annie Get Your Gun, My Fair Lady, Calamity Jane etc (although G&S and operettas like White Horse Inn, The Desert Song, The Merry Widow and The Count of Luxembourg were occasionally presented).
It is significant, reflecting changing lifestyle and leisure patterns, as well as Scarborough’s altered character as a visitor centre, that the three theatres used since 1968 are now gone forever: Floral Hall (1,600 seats), Royal Opera House (1,200 seats), and Futurist Theatre (2,150 seats).
Since the 1990s, both former societies (with much reduced but enthusiastic and loyal memberships) staged their annual Easter or Whitsun musical at the 300-seat YMCA Theatre. In 2004 the old operatic society renamed itself Scarborough Musical Theatre Company.
In November 2012, the two societies united in order to combine their resources in a new single society, Scarborough Musicals, with the hope of increasing activity, membership, audiences, resources, and maybe staging two musical shows a year.