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My life in musical theatre

Nick Sanders

Proper musical training is not just for the three years or so you’re at university, it’s for life.

From an early age Nick Sanders trained as a classical musician, the euphonium his instrument of choice, keeping his hand in with a variety of extracurricular projects. But he remained in his day job as a commercial director in the airline industry, before returning to university to study, and then teach, music full-time. Debuting with Godspell, he has now produced over 80 musicals.

But Nick’s enduring passion for music, and a burgeoning interest in musical theatre, possibly sparked by listening to the soundtrack to Oklahoma with his parents, was always playing in the background. With his then partner also involved in amateur theatre, he inevitably had one ear turned towards what was happening on the scene.

And one beautiful morning, things started to go his way. A Manchester-based am-dram company needed a Musical Director. Nick didn’t need a second invitation to return to his first love, and twelve years later he finally brought the curtain down on his corporate life, returning to university to study for a Master’s in Musical Performance: “Leaving my life behind as a Commercial Director was the best career move ever.”

The first show he directed was Stephen Schwartz’s 1971 musical Godspell, largely based on the Gospel of Matthew. With his classical, rather than musical theatre, training, he gladly admits it wasn’t all plain sailing:

It was my first time in front of a cast and company, getting them to engage in two-hour rehearsals. Very much like teaching, it can be a lonely place at times.

Nick embraced the challenge, though, and he found himself in harmony with the life of the musician. The high notes of his showreel include taking his trusty euphonium around the world with the world-famous Besses o’ th’ Barn Brass Band, appearing on radio and TV broadcasts, and playing in pretty much every major venue and music festival in the UK. He also played the Cambridge Folk Festival with his own band, Loose Chippings.

But it’s the social and emotional dividends from musically directing over 84 – yes, 84 – musicals that he treasures the most:

The hundreds of thousands of people I’ve entertained, and most importantly, the lifelong friendships I’ve made through my music making.

An image of a sheet of music on top of a piano.

And now he’s chosen to pass on some of that invaluable experience to actual students of the performing arts, aka the next generation:

“Becoming a lecturer in 2008 has given me the opportunity to shape many students lives. The importance of having students who can express themselves creatively is without a doubt, their collective success in becoming multi-skilled performers, entrepreneurs, teachers, is why I teach.”

Citing The Book of Mormon, co-created by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as the best musical of the last decade, he’s also following his own academic research path, as “a passionate advocate for new writing”. And students will benefit, in the shape of a planned festival or conference, “a page-to-stage concept, giving composers and librettists an outlet for their work to be workshopped and heard. It’s a great opportunity to bring in industry experts to advise and inform our students on current industry practice and trends.”

An image of a theatre auditorium.

He’s also enthusiastic about where students take their skills, leading on graduate employment for performing arts at the University, but also – because it’s a jungle out there, kids – the value they put on those skills:

Musical Theatre training offers our students so many transferable skills. Our students are excellent communicators, and the employability module centres on students developing portfolio careers so if students don’t go on to professional careers in musical theatre it definitely cannot be looked upon as failure.

He would cite himself as a perfect example of how to value abilities that are useful in almost any social circumstance and to have patience – he’s now in sight of a century of productions.

An image of the production "The Book of Mormon" being performed.

But, perhaps most importantly, Nick understands how vital it is to keep flexing those skills, even – especially – in an industry that has been hit harder than most in recent times.

Because people love – need – to be entertained, provoked, transported, and we need our creative and talented young people now more than ever.

Nick’s recommend reading: Musical Theatre History by John Kenrick is the foundation for all academic study of Musical Theatre. “It’s my go-to book”

 A poster for the show "Oklahoma"

The first musical I remember

My parent’s album of the original production of Oklahoma. This was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s first musical. It opened in New York in 1943, running for an unprecedented 2,212 performances.

The first musical I saw live

Paint Your Wagon by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, opening on Broadway in 1951. It was also made into a film starring Clint Eastwood

 A poster for the show "Rogders and Hammerstein's Carousel"

The first musical I knew all the words to

None, as I am a Music Man.

The song/musical that makes me cry

“If I loved You” – Carousel (1945). Another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which also featured “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

A poster for the show "Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific"

The show that made me want to musically direct

South Pacific, a wonderful score that I can’t wait to put together.

The musical I wish I’d written

West Side Story, but I’m not a genius like Leonard Bernstein.

A poster for the show "West side story"


The best screen version of a musical

West Side Story.

The worst musical I’ve seen

Camelot – sumptuous score, poor libretto.

 A poster for the musical "Avenue Q"

The last musical I saw

Avenue Q. The show opened in 2003, and features humans and puppets.

The character in a musical that students should aspire to play

If offered an opportunity….any

A poster for the show "Parade".

The musical everyone should see

Parade (1998) by Jason Robert Brown/Hal Prince, a dramatisation of the trial, imprisonment, and lynching of a Jewish American in the early 20th century.

The best musical of the last 10 years

The Book of Mormon (2011), a comedy written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, with Robert Lopez, co-creator of Avenue Q.

The song from a musical I’d like played at my funeral

“Heaven on my mind” – Jesus Christ Superstar.

May 6, 2022