All your favourite musical songs, but not as you know them, in Joseph Rowntree Theatre Co’s Musicals In The Multiverse

Helen Spencer directing a rehearsal for Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s Musicals In The Multiverse. Picture: Jenny Jones

JOSEPH Rowntree Theatre Company’s summer fundraising show, Musicals In The Multiverse, will be their “most ambitious concert production ever”.

Staged at the JoRo on June 29 and 30, this out-of-this-universe show will be directed by Helen Spencer, last seen on that stage in the title role of JRTC’s Hello, Dolly! in February.

“We have some of the best talent York has to offer in our 36-strong cast, so it’s been a joy to cast,” says Helen. “We were delighted after the success of Hello, Dolly! to welcome a lot of new members and this concert is the perfect showcase for the ever-growing JRTC as we invite the Yorkshire community to this epic show.

“It’s our ‘most ambitious’ concert in that it’s the biggest cast we’ve had for a summer show and it’s much more of a production than just a concert: more numbers, more choreography, more cast members, and the concept itself is more ambitious and challenging.”

Introducing the show’s concept, she says: “Musicals In The Multiverse will be an exciting evening of musical theatre favourites with a twist. In the parallel universes of this musical multiverse, you’ll hear the songs that you know and love, but with their traditional presentation turned on its head, so they are different but still recognisable. This means gender swaps, minor to major key swaps, musical style swaps and more!

“The concept came from a conversation among JRTC members about songs they would love to sing but would never get the opportunity to do so in a fully staged musical production, for example due to the gender, age etc of the character in the original setting.

“We pride ourselves on being an inclusive and welcoming artistic space for all. The concept for this show allows our wonderfully talented and diverse cast to perform songs that explore and celebrate who they are, to push some of the traditional musical theatre boundaries and ultimately honour some of the best musical songs ever written.” 

Cast members in an early rehearsal for Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s Musicals In The Multiverse. Picture: Jenny Jones

Accompanied by a five-piece band, Helen’s cast will perform a mixture of solos, duets, small group and full ensemble numbers on a set list featuring songs from Les Miserables, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Rent, Blood Brothers, Company, Bat Out Of Hell, The Little Mermaid, Jersey Boys, Chicago, Guys And Dolls, Beauty And The Beast, Frozen and Billy Elliot.

“As well as showstopping songs from a whole cast bursting with vocal talent, our strong core of dancers will perform several spectacular featured dance numbers, such as Electricity from Billy Elliot,” says Helen.

“Every song in the show will have at least one twist. Our tagline ‘Expect the unexpected in the multiverse’ is absolutely right. The most basic shift will be from male to female voice, for which we have to change the key. Then we have musical style changes for songs that were classical or musical theatre pieces into jazz or blues numbers.

“There are era swaps too, moving songs contextually into a different era so that the words take on a different meaning. Bring Him Home, from Les Miserables, is moved from 19th century France to Second World War Britain, sung beautifully by Jennie Wogan-Wells as a mother to her son on the front, wanting to bring him home safely.”

In the shift from major key to minor, two Disney numbers change dramatically. “Frozen’s Let It Go, sung by Connie Howcroft, and Little Mermaid’s Part Of Your World, sung by Rachel Higgs, take on a more sinister, evil vibe,” says Helen. “Let It Go becomes a much darker song, less Disney, more jazz.”

Focusing on the gender swaps, Helen says: “Often we’ve not changed the gender within the song, so the sexuality of the song becomes different. For example, Rosy Rowley sings Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer For Love from Bat Out Of Hell and takes Frankie Valli’s lead vocal in Who Loves You from the musical Jersey Boys.

“That’s one of the things we’ve loved about the rehearsal process: people have the chance to sing songs they now feel comfortable with, so we’re proud of supporting of that aspect of the show, because of the gender diversity in the cast.”

As consultant psychiatrist and JRTC regular Helen swaps Dolly’s red feathers for the director’s hat, she is joined in the production team by musical director Matthew Clare, choreographer Jennie Wogan-Wells and assistant musical director James Ball.

“It’s a formidable new creative team for this adventure,” says Helen. “I have a huge amount of professional experience as a performer, vocal coach and company manager and I’m delighted to be taking the reins for this exciting project.

“Some of his arrangements are absolutely stunning,” says director Helen Spencer of musical director Matthew Clare. Picture: Jenny Jones

“Well known on the York musical circuit as a director, musical director and musician, this is Matthew’s first production with JRTC. However, he has close ties with the cast and the company, and he is most excited to be writing unique and innovative arrangements of some all-time favourites.

“I approached Matthew, who I’d worked with before, as he’s very good at rearranging music and parts and that’s what we needed for this show, altering songs in some way. Some of his arrangements are absolutely stunning, some are challenging to sing: he never does anything easy!”

As for choreographer Jennie, Helen says: “She has been a key figure in JRTC for many years, both on and off the stage, and we’re thrilled to have her experience, energy and vision as the choreographer in the multiverse. 

“We’re super-super happy to have Jennie doing it as she’s a really strong dancer in JRTC shows and she’d expressed a wish to get more involved in the choreography. She has the imagination to run with an idea, which is perfect for this show.

“We’ve also been lucky to get some really good dancers so that it’s not just a stand and sing show but has lots of great dancing in it.”

Helen will feature in the show in a “very tiny way”. “I’ll be performing in a fun number from City Of Angels, What You Don’t Know About Women, which is usually sung as a duet, but we’re doing it as a sextet where we’ve changed it from the 1930s to the modern day as a pyjama party for women bitching about men!

“I’m only doing it because I was feeling jealous about not doing anything at all on stage, though I’m a believer in stepping back as the director and giving everyone in the company as much chance as possible to shine,” she says.

“It felt right to do that as we’re determined to have featured parts for everyone, even if its’s just a featured line or a highlighted moment to show what an amazing company we’ve put together.”

Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company in Musicals In The Multiverse, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, June 29 and 30, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 501935 or All profits go straight back the Joseph Rowntree Theatre.

Making moves: Choreographer Jennie Wogan-Wells in action. Picture: Jenny Jones

Cast List:

Abi Carter; Alex Schofield; Ashley Ginter; Ben Huntley; Catherine Foster; Charlotte Wetherell; Chris Gibson; Connie Howcroft; Dan Crawford-Porter; Ellie Carrier; Helen Barugh; Jack James Fry; Jai Rowley; James Willstrop; Jen Payne; Jennie Wogan-Wells; Jenny Jones; Jono Wells; Kat Dent; Kathryn Lay; Lorna Newby; Meg Badrick; Nick Sephton; Nicola Strataridaki; Pamela Bradley; Rachel Higgs; Richard Goodall; Rosy Rowley; Ryan Richardson; Scarlett Rowley; Steven Jobson; Tessa Ellis; Vanessa Lee and Victoria Beale.

Did you know?

HELEN’S children, Temperance and Laertes Singhateh, aged ten and seven, will be singing in the show. “In When I Grow Up, from Matilda, adults will sing Matilda’s lines and Tempi and Laertes will do teacher Miss Honey’s lines, because the concept is, we’re all children but we happen to grow up,” says Helen. “It realy changes the song doing it this way.”

Did you know too?

HELEN Spencer worked in theatre professionally, touring Europe in her 20s, having studied for a music and drama degree.

She has been a consultant psychiatrist for 12 years since changing her career path. Initially she combined performing with her medical studies but then decided psychiatry should be her focus.

Now she is embracing performing and directing anew. “I love psychiatry, working for the NHS in my job, but part of my well-being is doing music and drama, so it’s good to be doing that too. If I don’t do it, I’m sad,” she says. “Being busy and happy is fine by me.”

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