Michael Williams: Creating Tiger Bay The Musical

November 13, 2017 by

How did Tiger Bay The Musical come about?

There has been a strong relationship between Wales Millennium Centre and Cape Town Opera since the Centre opened in 2004. Donald Gordon – the philanthropist businessman who gave the money to help open the theatre and after whom the main auditorium is named – is from South Africa and wanted to develop links between the two countries.

Over the years, Cape Town Opera has worked with Wales Millennium Centre to stage several shows in Cardiff. We have had Welsh performers come to South Africa.

As managing director of Cape Town Opera I have been to Cardiff on many occasions. I would walk around the Bay and look at the incredible buildings and wonder what went on in these places. I started to explore the streets, talking to people; and then I thought to myself, “This would be a good musical.” The generosity of people in Cardiff Bay in sharing their stories really inspired the show.


How much of Tiger Bay is based on fact and how much is fiction?

Tiger Bay is a work of fiction but is inspired by real experiences and the history of the area.

There are four elements to the story. The first is the people who came from all over the world to work here. We see this in the character of Themba, who has come from South Africa.

Secondly, there were lots of street kids. One of the characters is called Ianto, who is living in the docks and trying to avoid going into the HMS Havannah Reform School. The Havana actually existed.

Thirdly, many people from the South Wales Valleys came to Cardiff to find work in places such as Morgan’s department store. This is what inspired the character of Rowena.

Finally we have John Stuart, the third Marquess of Bute. He is the world’s richest man. In the show, he is grieving the death of his wife.

The characters are fictional but the context is real. We cover the labour dispute for example. There was a lot of unrest among the workers due to the sliding scale of pay, where the Bute Dock Company paid its workers according to the coal price. If it was high, you got your base line pay. If it was low, your salary was low. But when the coal was sky-high your salary didn’t go up. This lead to the start of the unions in south Wales.


What are the challenges of creating a new musical?

You need to create a new world. With Shrek you are in that fairytale world. With Les Mis you are right in the heart of Paris during the student revolution. Tiger Bay brings you right into the heart of Cardiff Bay at the turn of the 20th century.

Another challenge is not to be derivative. You have the ghosts of successful musicals sitting on your shoulder trying to force their way in but you have to be original.

You’ve also got to make every scene hit all those buttons. It has to be emotional. It has to be feel-good. It has to let you escape from your own reality for a short period of time.

The music has got to be carefully constructed to be the wand to whisk you away. Daf James, who has composed the music, has an incredible gift for melody. The music is modern but has a really Welsh feel.


How has Tiger Bay developed since it was first performed earlier this year in Cape Town?

We have cut some songs. We have written some new songs. We have trimmed some scenes. We have developed some of the characters – and even cut out one character. It had a standing ovation every night in Cape Town so there is a great deal of confidence among the cast and crew that the show works. But we have a new team and a new energy here in Cardiff.


You’re also a successful novelist. How do you approach the two different forms?

Writing a novel you have the liberty of length; a musical is all about respecting brevity. Writing a musical you collaborate with many people and artists to bring your work to life; publishing a novel, the words become set in stone and are permanent. And it’s wonderful to have both these different experiences when creating a text.


Tiger Bay the Musical is at Wales Millennium Centre from Monday 13 November – Saturday 25 November.  

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