Over the Rainbow - the story behind the singing

This weekend I was on the set of BBC One's Over the Rainbow in Fountain Studios, Wembley. It's the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber-fronted search for new West End talent. The main hunt is for an actress to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, but for the first time this year the BBC is also involving the nation's pets with a search for Toto. I did momentarily consider entering our own Schnauzer, but considering the trouble he has mastering the simple command to "stay", I thought better of it!

Sometimes, when you work on the corporate side of the BBC, you can feel a bit far from the production teams, so it's good to get on set and see a live show in action every so often. That wasn't the reason I went along this weekend though - it was actually about the charitable work that is made possible by this series and other programmes like it.

On air, the series is about providing a platform for a handful of young people with talent, and off air that's an even bigger story. The BBC Performing Arts Fund is a charity of which I'm a Trustee, as well as line manager for the small team. The Fund helps aspiring music-makers and performers looking for a way to get ahead. The charity receives its revenue from the voting lines of BBC One entertainment programmes that seek to find new performing talent. In this case that's Over the Rainbow, but it has also included past series like Any Dream Will Do and it was originally set up around the Fame Academy series in 2003.

On Saturday I hosted a reception event around the show's live recording, offering guests including journalists and other arts charities the opportunity to see the show first hand and meet some of the previous winners. It was all about letting people know what's done with the revenue from these BBC phone lines and how it's helping support new talent.

I met several Performing Arts Fund bursary winners on Saturday. It was great to hear what a difference the money had made to their careers. One of the winners, Briony, graduated last summer and now has an agent and is auditioning for roles. Two of the other winners I met, who are both still studying, told me they need all the help they can get in this economic climate, so the award is a real benefit - both practically and also to help make their CVs stand out.

It's a significant moment for the Fund because just last month last we gave a round of grants that means we have now distributed over £3m in total (£3,017,332). The Fund has now supported 739 individuals and around 6,000 members of 98 choirs through a number of different schemes: the Education Bursary, Training in Musical Theatre, Instrument and Equipment Awards, Junior Instrument and Equipment Awards, Urban Music and Choral Ambition.

If you need any evidence of the impact of the Fund, you can look to the West End. Several winners of the Musical Theatre Award are currently starring in shows, including Dirty Dancing (Fra Fee), Mamma Mia (Nicola Hawkins and Nikki Bentley) and The Sound of Music UK Tour (Zoe Doano).

As the Over the Rainbow TV series is running, the BBC is also holding live events across the country offering audiences the chance to participate and enjoy singing and performance themselves. There will be 10 events in total, visiting locations from Glasgow to Cardiff to London to offer musical theatre masterclasses to an estimated 15,000 people. The events kicked off on 1 May at Leeds Town Hall. Anyone could apply for tickets via the Over the Rainbow website and those have now all been snapped up. However, if the show has given you the singing bug, you can still get some good tips from this downloadable singing guide (PDF).

The next event I'll be going along to with the Performing Arts Fund charity is in September. We'll be working with BBC Merseyside to host a performance opportunity for the Fund's north-west England based winners of the Choral Ambition scheme, which ran last autumn and is all about group singing and development. We hope to highlight the contribution that the BBC Performing Arts Fund is making to the voluntary arts sectors across the north-west. The performance will be at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool and the audience will be made up of members of the public, as well as guests and local press. It should be a good day and I look forward to reporting back on how it went.

Follow Dorothy and Toto's progress on Twitter and become a friend of the BBC Performing Arts Fund on Facebook.


Alec McGivan is Head of BBC Outreach

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