Michael Alexander speaks to the president of St Andrews Musical Society Jeannine Nicholls who explains how the society has managed to overcome the challenges of recent years in style.
St Andrews Musical Society (SAMS) president Jeannine Nicholls laughs when she explains how she got involved with the amateur production company 11 years ago.
“I got into it by accident,” she says.
“It was actually my next door neighbour who’d been with the society for years.
“They were putting on Oliver and they wanted children. My daughter was into dancing and stuff, and my neighbour said to me ‘you should get her to audition’.
“So I did, and she got in. She wanted to stay with the company but at that time they didn’t take anyone under 16.
“They said my daughter could stay if she had a chaperone which meant I had to join! As it was I got right into it and I’ve been there ever since!”
It’s certainly been an eventful few years for SAMS. In February/March 2018, the arrival of the ‘Beast from the East’ meant they had to close their show Sister Act after the first night.
While they did manage to get it back on stage a month later once the snows receded, the logistics meant some members couldn’t make it.
In February 2020, they managed to get Dirty Rotten Scoundrels out just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
However, when theatres, including the St Andrews Byre, were forced to close, the Wedding Singer, which was planned for February 2021, was scuppered.
The show must go on, however, and now, the lifting of restrictions mean that rehearsals are well under way for their next show Calendar Girls, which is due to take to the stage in February 2022.
This show is extra special as SAMS believe it’s the first time Calendar Girls will have been performed in Scotland by an amateur company.
Jeannine, who enjoys the creative outlet SAMS brings, says that in spite of recent disruption, members feel as if they have been “very lucky” and she’d recommend joining.
“The best thing is it gets you through the winter,” she says.
“There’s also the fitness side of it. Our choreographer Donna Reilly from Dundee is very enthusiastic – it doesn’t matter how old you are, you will dance!
“And she has put us through our paces I can assure you.
“Obviously there’s the social side as well. A lot of us have been in the society quite a long time.
“You might not see each other through the summer months. We have the odd quiz and fundraising.
“But when we all meet up again in September and it all starts up again, it’s fun it’s exciting!”
When Jeannine, whose first appearance was as a dancer in Guys and Dolls, first started with the company, it was actually called the St Andrews Amateur Operatic Society.
However, there was a sense that the “operatic society” element sounded old fashioned and tended to frighten people away.
The change to musical society aimed to give it a more modern image.
Charitable status was applied for and granted, and SAMS continues to welcome new members to this day.
With a fundraising target of around £8000 per year, they hold various events with the main aim being the sale of all show seats.
However, with at least a couple of members having been involved since the 1970s, the society also remains proud of its long history.
Founding of society
Founded in 1939 during a packed meeting in the Old Court Room, St Andrews, a discussion arose regarding the possibility of St Andrews starting its very own operatic society.
The proposal for such an organisation came from Mr Alex Maxwell who “was surprised that a city like St Andrews was not represented in this branch of theatre art”.
It was noted by another speaker at the meeting that “If Cupar can do it so can St Andrews”.
St Andrews Amateur Opera Company (the title was soon to be changed to Society) was formally inaugurated at a meeting on March 21, 1939.
Later in the same year rehearsals began for a performance of A Country Girl by James T. Tanner which was due to be staged in 1940.
However, the outbreak of war meant it never took place. In fact, it wasn’t until 1947 that St Andrews Amateur Operatic Society was to stage its first show The Pirates of Penzance.
The choice of show had been decided after Sheriff More, who was now the president of the society, had been urged by the County Music Organizer to select a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.
The performance was to begin at 7.30 pm as this would allow the members of the orchestra to catch the last ferry back home to Dundee!
The production was presented at the New Picture House, which had a large stage area but limited back stage facilities. Because of the large capacity seating area, it ran for only three nights.
For the 1951 production of Patience Miss J R McFarlane, known to all as “Taffy”, took over the role of honorary conductor, continuing in post until 1968. Taffy established very high quality choral singing, which the company maintains to this day.
In the late ‘60s productions moved to Madras College then to the Town Hall.
The society continued to perform Gilbert and Sullivan shows until 1964 when Oklahoma was chosen.
Since then the society has continued to perform a variety of shows from Viennese operetta to modern musicals.
The miners’ strike in 1972 led to the three day working week with attendant power cuts.
These affected the nightly timing of Calamity Jane when the show had to run from either 6 – 8 pm or 10pm – midnight when power was available. Audiences were advised to bring rugs for warmth as the heating was also affected.
In 1979 a world premiere was chosen as the production. Hamelin, based on the story of the Pied Piper, was co-written by Ken Horton who took over as musical director and remained in post for 10 years.
In 1988 during the dress rehearsal of Fiddler on the Roof a fire in the hired lighting system set off the fire alarms in the Town Hall resulting in the whole cast having to evacuate the building in full costume much to the amusement of passers-by.
In 1989 St Andrews AOS celebrated its 50th anniversary. For this golden celebration the society went back to its G&S roots and chose “The Gondoliers” as the show was celebrating its centenary.
In the summer of that year the society also performed a specially written show entitled When the Lights Come on Again, written by Carole Tricker.
The show looked back to the formative years of the society between 1939 and 1947, telling the memories of local residents and events of St Andrews.
St Andrews AOS continued to perform its shows each year in the Town Hall, but in 2002 the society was able to move to the newly opened and rebuilt Byre Theatre.
Brigadoon was chosen and the production was greatly enhanced by the facilities available in the new theatre.
At the AGM in 2011 it was decided that the society should change its name to St Andrews Musical Society – SAMS to give it a more modern image and charitable status was applied for and granted.
The society continued to present musicals, G&S and operetta very successfully until 2013 when the sudden closure of the Byre Theatre meant that the society had to return to the Town Hall for the production of Carousel.
The reduced technical facilities available necessitated many changes to the production in the final four weeks of rehearsals, but the show opened on time and all tickets sold by the Byre Theatre were honoured.
Today, the society, which is back using the now university-run Byre Theatre, has around 30 members, says Jeannine, who is often asked about up and coming shows while working on the tills at Marks & Spencer in St Andrews.
“We always try to attract a couple of members from the university,” she adds. “I always think it’s good for them to be involved in something in the society and not just their own stuff.
“We also encourage youngsters to get involved. But we are also phenomenally lucky to have the Byre. It’s what lifts our show from very amateur to semi-professional.
“We did a couple in the town hall when the Byre went down. But it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t have the same feeling. We aim to be as professional as we can be. We’ve got a good musical director, excellent choreographer, good producer, we go the full hog.
“We always have a fantastic band – sometimes 16/17 members in the band that have to go on stage. And again the backstage crews at the Byre have helped us no end.
“Then having our photographer John Stewart always make it special, and your sound people. But having the Byre Theatre is phenomenal.”