End of an era for society’s leading lady

Emma LeeCoral Newell's association with the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society goes back more than half a century. She speaks to EMMA LEE as she prepares for her last production as chairman – West Side Story, which opens at the Norwich Theatre Royal on Monday.Emma Lee

When Coral Newell first auditioned for the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society, she had hoped to get a part in the chorus. Instead she ended up becoming a leading lady.

It was to be the start of an association of more than 50 years - in Coral's own words 'more years than I wish to remember' - which would see her playing numerous top roles and rising through the ranks of the committee to become chairman.

But this September she is stepping down, meaning that the NNOS production of West Side Story, which opens at the Norwich Theatre Royal on Monday, January 26, will be the last she is involved in.

An accomplished singer at school, Coral was inspired to try out for a role when she saw a NNOS production of the White Horse Inn at the now demolished Hippodrome theatre in St Giles Street.

'It was in 1958, when I had first got married. I said to my husband 'you know, I would love to do something like this. Perhaps I could get into the chorus'. And I was asked to audition for the lead in Showboat, which I did, and I've never looked back,' she says.

And apart from a break when she lived in Lincoln, where coincidentally the first role she played was the lead in Showboat, she's been a member ever since, going on to join the committee in 1987, becoming secretary in 1989 and chair in 1992.

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Although Coral, who lives at Beccles, was the first of her family to show an interest in being on the stage, other members have since followed in her footsteps - her husband John and her daughter and grand-daughter who both dance.

'From nothing it's gone down the family,' she says. 'They discovered I could sing at school and I was told to join the choir, then I was told to have singing lessons. I was a good little girl - in those days I did what I was told.'

The NNOS dates back to 1925 ('That's well before my time I hasten to add,' says Coral) and with the exception of the war years and a couple of times when the theatre has been closed for refurbishment, it has staged a production every year, going from strength to strength.

The NNOS is well-known in Norfolk and beyond - its annual show at the Theatre Royal is a perennial highlight of the calendar. There are currently 80 members and the cast of West Side Story is 50-strong.

And it has been chosen as one of a handful of amateur companies in the country to be offered the rights to stage the Broadway and West End hit musicals the Producers, which will be its show in January next year.

But at the NNOS's last annual general meeting in September Coral decided it was time to step down.

'I suddenly made a decision. I saw all these young faces and decided that they needed a younger chair. I've been chair for 15 years and it's been challenging, fun and exciting,' she says.

Coral, who won't reveal her age ('I've got my bus pass, put it that way,' she says), says: 'There are three productions I'm especially proud of - Barnum, Jesus Christ Superstar and Titanic. For Barnum they had to learn all sorts of circus skills - rope climbing and trapeze work. It really was something to behold.'

Another highlight came in 2007 when 15 NNOS members were invited to take part in a star-studded charity production of Twelfth Night alongside Stephen Fry, Mel Smith and Matthew Kelly at Houghton Hall. She made her last stage appearance a year ago in Titanic. 'It's a marvellous show, a good company show because it covers all age ranges and there are no leads,' Coral says. 'I thought 'I'll have one more go', and I got a part in that. It really was my swan song.'

Coral paid tribute to the hard work that has gone into the productions over the years. 'We know that every show we do has got to be better than the last one. I've had a great team behind me all these years. They've given me their full support - and I'm sure whoever follows me will have their full support too.

'It's hard work for the cast - they come rushing to rehearsals for 7pm. But the society has gone from strength to strength. We've had great casts, great directors and musical directors. We are so lucky to have such a place to perform in - the Theatre Royal staff are so supportive.'

THE STORY BEHIND WEST SIDE STORY

This year's Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society production is West Side Story, directed by Jeremy Tustin. The musical is based on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Initially Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins collaborated to produce a musical version where the star-crossed lovers were a Jewish boy and an Italian Catholic girl.

The concept of West Side Story was shelved for six years and when it was revisited, Robbins concluded that the story held little social relevance.

To make the story more contemporary the characters became a Polish boy and a Puerto Rican girl and the musical was set in the midst of clashing street gangs on the West Side of New York

West Side Story was first performed in 1957 on Broadway. It was shown 732 times before going on tour. Prior to the first showing on Broadway it had been tried out in Washington DC where it received glowing feedback. But another pilot performance in Philadelphia attracted a mixed reaction.

The first performance on Broadway was not an instant success; critics were sceptical of this new creation. Audiences were unsure about the universal language which had been adopted to reach wider audiences and were dismayed that the story did not have the stereotypical happy ending. Despite these criticisms, the story remained incredibly realistic which was highlighted in the reviews.

West Side Story premiered in the UK on 1958 at The Manchester Opera House and has been performed thousands of times around the world.

t West Side Story is at Norwich Theatre Royal from Monday to Saturday, January 26-31. For ticket information phone 01603 630000 or book online at www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk