A musical written to protest a school closure is hitting the big screen, courtesy of pupils, parents, stars and public, Kelly Apter explains
It all started with a bit of eavesdropping. In 2009, walking past the assembly hall of my daughter’s school one morning, I heard a group of Primary 7s singing. Catchy, funny, melodic, instantly memorable – the song immediately grabbed my attention. After further enquiry, I discovered it was one of several written by a fellow parent at the school, Angus Reid.
A year earlier, when the rest of us had been holding meetings and signing petitions in the face of the school’s threatened closure, Angus had taken a different approach – he wrote a musical. A funny, empowering, joyful and ever-so-slightly anarchic show that centred on a group of disparate primary school pupils who band together to save their school.
At that point, he was teaching it to a few children in an after-school club. But having read the script and heard the rest of the songs, my immediate thought was “every primary school in Scotland should be staging this show”.
In the months that followed, the project expanded to include children from other schools. Funding from the Big Lottery was secured, and suddenly Primary School Musical (you can see what he did there) was a very real proposition.
Reid, already an Edinburgh Fringe veteran (and a Scotsman Fringe First winner) wanted to try it out during that year’s festival. So we enlisted the help of Te Pooka – a merry band of circus artistes and performers based at the sadly now defunct “Big Red Door” – to stage it.
Audiences loved it, the press gave it a glowing four star review – but most importantly, the kids had a ball performing it. I’ll never forget the whoops and hollers they produced as they ran back to the dressing room each night. Our desire to replicate that feeling in children across the country grew stronger.
But, like most things in life, unless you see something for yourself, it’s hard to appreciate its value. If we were going to spread the Primary School Musical word beyond Edinburgh, we’d have to find a more accessible medium. We’d have to make a film.
It had to be real enough for kids watching it to think “that’s just like me” – but polished enough to hold the attention of a generation raised on high definition quality. To say our budget was shoestring would be a disservice to the shoelace-making industry. Enough money was found to hire a camera, a computer to edit it on and, most costly of all, the post-production services. The rest, somewhat miraculously, came free.
We filmed each Sunday during the summer term – Angus directed, I choreographed and the kids sang, acted and danced to a level beyond everyone’s expectations, even theirs.
Scottish actor Dolina MacLennan (The Queen, Hamish Macbeth) gave up her time to play “Gran” – the elderly rebel who inspires the children to head to the City Chambers and sing their way to victory. Other professional performers and technicians volunteered to take part.
It’s sometimes said that Edinburgh is a village – and on this occasion, it proved to be true. A capital city full of busy people it may be, but when we came knocking, the community opened its door. Much of it was shot in and around Stockbridge Primary School, where it all began – forcing the school janitor and his wife to give up their quiet Sundays in the garden. A slightly puzzled Lothian Bus driver took us around the city, so we could film on the top deck. Edinburgh Leisure cordoned off a swimming pool for us, Our Dynamic Earth let us use their rainforest, we redesigned the window of the local video store, Edinburgh Council lent us a crane for the high shots and, crucially, gave us free run of the City Chambers entrance hall. The list of in-kind support goes on and on.
The kids messed around between takes – but the second they heard “action”, they gave their all. Today, after many hours of post-production mixing and polishing, Primary School Musical will receive its cinematic premiere at Cineworld in Edinburgh. At which point, memories of dashing between the Royal Botanic Gardens and Portobello beach on a (donated) mini bus, frantically trying to remove green face paint on the journey, will melt away.
Getting the finished product to the big screen has been a long, slow labour of love. Putting on the show in your average primary school should be a blast. In the words of Angus Reid: “Schools need a good musical that kids can identify with and relate to. Why stage Bugsy Malone or Joseph, when you could be learning about the present – that you have to stick up for yourself and band together to make things happen? And taking part in Primary School Musical brings out talents in kids they didn’t even know were there.”
• Primary School Musical, the film, is premiered at Cineworld, Fountain Park, today. For more information on the project, visit www.primaryschoolmusical.org