Composer Stuart Brayson talks to Viv Hardwick about his ambitious NE musical King Pit

MINING and musicals are still a rare mix, in spite of Geordie Lee Hall’s award-winning Billy Elliot. Now, North-East-born Stuart Brayson is on a multi-million-pound quest to stage a musical tribute to the former Stormont Main Colliery, Gateshead, using its nickname of King Pit.

“I worked on a lot of shows over the past ten to 14 years and this is one of many I’ve been working on, but it is going back to my roots and I was trying to do something about where I come from. It seemed the right thing to do.

“My grandfather worked in the pits, but my dad was born in Springwell (Tyne and Wear) and went on to join the Army. The place my grandfather worked was known as King Pit and it was literally around the corner from where I was born in Wrekenton, so it made sense bizarrely. Not that I knew a lot about it when I started work on the show. I was just fascinated with the period and I love titles and if a title resonates with me then I’m off on a roll writing songs,” says Brayson.

“It must have been lodged in my subconscious because when I talked to my dad I thought I’d made up the name King Pit and didn’t know it existed. Then I found out all the things were meant to be and where I’m from.”

The pit no longer exists, along with most of UK’s mining industry, and the former rock band singer/guitarist felt it was important to mark the passing of the region’s heavy industry for the next generation.

“Youngsters don’t know all about it and it’s incredible that less than a 100 years ago we would all have been involved in the coal industry in some way and it dictated the way our lives went. Even though you want to go forward, you have to look back to go forward because it’s important. It’s also a great backdrop for a dramatic piece of work.”

His initial draft for King Pit featured two friends who parted company when “a woman got in between them... as it always does”. One stays poor and a working class union man while the rejected suitor goes on to run the colliery and loses that spark of humanity.

“It’s about the community and strikes and a colliery disaster. It’s a kind of Geordie Les Mis (Les Miserables) in some ways, but I think my show has a bit more edge and grit. I keep saying King Pit is sexy and people say, ‘How can the mining industry be sexy?’ and I say, ‘Well they still had sex and got on with things’. This is because I like to write musicals that are realistic and I prefer songs with dialogue rather than sung-through shows,” says Brayson who is launching some of the songs from King Pit at a world preview at Sage Gateshead on Tuesday, February 3, with guest artists like South Shields’ X Factor winner Joe McElderry and West End performers like Siobhan Dillon (who has appeared in Ghost and Cabaret).

“Joe is helping us with a few songs to preview the musical in the second half with the first half featuring From Here to Eternity (a musical Brayson co-wrote with Sir Tim Rice). I’m dying to here Joe sing my songs because I haven’t heard him do them yet,” says Brayson, who is hoping that the Gateshead show will raise funds for King Pit.

“I want to bring it to the North-East and put in on properly,” he says.

He originally met Sir Tim Rice through the creation of a band called Pop.

Last year, the pair earned headlines when they created a musical version of the James Jones book From Here to Eternity, which is best-known for the classic 1953 movie starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. The show may launch on Broadway next year.

“Originally, I’d done everything but it was great thing when Tim agreed to do the lyrics because he does them pretty well and it worked brilliantly,” he says.

Brayson says he’s learned a lot from working with Sir Tim, particularly on ensuring that the size of casts and backing bands or musicians is affordable. “And if you have a large cast, you have to keep finding things for them all to do,” he jokes.

The eye-watering cost of sinking money into King Pit is revealed when Brayson reckons that a show like this “doesn’t get out of bed without three to four or even £5m. I think sometimes the secret is like Orson Welles did with a lot of his projects, and that is to make them look expensive, but actually, if you’re clever it doesn’t take as much as you think. But musicals are blooming expensive and people want to see something that looks like it is lavish”.

Brayson is gambling on the belief that London will come to the North-East.

“I might be naive, but why can’t London come to us? Why can’t the rest of the world come to Newcastle? The West End is great, but there is so much competition down there that a lot of the shows take the same root and don’t try anything different. It would be fantastic to have the premier and a good run in Newcastle. That’s what I would love, but I think a musical about the coal industry could be successful anywhere,” says the musical creator, who is aiming to give King Pit a ten-strong main cast and an ensemble.

“From Here to Eternity took me from here to eternity put on. At one stage I thought it was going to take a fortnight, but it was ten years later until it happened,” he adds.

Brayson is aiming to take eight years less with King Pit and have a musical up and running by 2016.

“I want to use a colliery band and a rock band because I want to retain the traditional feel of the music of the period and the place,” says the man, who admits he’d never seen the inside of Sage Gateshead until the February booking was confirmed.

“I thought I was going to get the little room, but we’ve got the big one (Hall One) and I thought ‘Let’s go for it’.”

Discussing his inspiration for staging shows, Brayson says: “I’m a guy who grew up with rock 'n' roll and pop bands and continued that with musicals. I don’t really understand this terminology feelgood musical because the most important thing for a musical to do is feel something. The problem is that a lot of musicals don’t make you feel anything, so it’s hopefully after a rollercoaster of emotions you do feelgood, but it’s not a happy-clappy thing,” he says.

Brayson promises an upbeat ending in a realistic fashion with a lot of Geordie humour because people from the region like to crack jokes and get on with things.

  • An Evening with Stuart Brayson and Friends, Sage Gateshead, Tuesday, February 3. Box Office: 0191-443-4661 or        Parties of eight can buy half-price tickets if they quote Noda 50 when booking