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As surprises go, receiving a special award from Musical Theatre legend, Michael Ball, in front of 12,000 people at the AO Arena, Manchester during the National Lottery’s Big Night of Musicals is definitely up there! The BBC1 broadcast reached millions, giving my 23-year-long campaign for equal opportunities in the Arts for people with learning disabilities a public exposure I could only dream of. It was also the climax of an incredible 4 months for The Music Man Project, following our top 10 Christmas single, a concert tour of San Diego and a standing ovation by the King at the Royal Albert Hall.

Big Night of Musicals was a moving and dramatic spectacle of sight and sound, hosted brilliantly by the multi-talented Jason Manford – and my famous Music Man Project Global Ambassadors loved every minute.

When we travelled up to Manchester all I knew was that our charity would feature in a video about the good causes supported by the National Lottery. A visit from a camera crew a few weeks earlier had captured rehearsal footage for our forthcoming Royal Albert Hall concert. We gave interviews about our service and described the difference Lottery Funding had made to our students. Or that is what I thought it was about!

When the moment came, I was so surprised to see Michael that I didn’t even notice the house band playing my own music. As soon as my students saw him, they forgot about me and went straight to Michael for a hug! Daniel, our resident drummer, told him he was the best singer ever. It was a beautiful moment, described as TV gold across social media. Jason Manford said it was one of his favourite moments in a 25-year career.

The National Lottery’s Big Night of Musicals – Surprise for David Stanley

Unsurprisingly the Music Man Project students stole the show in Manchester, despite not singing or playing a note! Their presence, their energy and their joy were as infectious as ever. In fact, I struggled to keep them from bursting on to the stage and treating everyone to the latest Music Man Project hit!

Michael Ball was the perfect choice to present my award. My earliest memory of musicals was when my late Uncle Ray played his beloved original cast recording of Les Misérables. As a young teenager I was transfixed by Michael’s lyrical and moving recording of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. Uncle Ray strained over the sound of his top-of-the-range 90’s Hi-Fi system to proudly inform me he’d already seen Les Mis 25 times! He was known by the cast because of his regular visits to the stage door. Uncle Ray passed away long before I had any success with The Music Man Project, but it’s wonderful to think that he first introduced me to Michael all those years ago. Musicals and Military Bands were two of Ray’s greatest loves. Perhaps he had more of an influence than I previously thought. I went on to present my original musicals at the London Palladium and Royal Albert Hall, and we now have a national partnership with the Royal Marines!

There are many ways to help charities, most obviously financially, but two decades of working in this sector taught me that access to opportunity is just as important. The Music Man Project overcomes barriers to opportunity in Arts and Culture but there is still a long way to go to reach the heights of the Paralympic movement in Sport. Equality in the 21st Century is far more than ramps to buildings, accessible toilets and even equal employment. It is providing once-forgotten societies with the platform to shine on their own terms and in their own right.

I’m so grateful to the National Lottery. They didn’t just help The Music Man Project launch over 10 years ago with local charity, Southend Mencap; they didn’t just support The Music Man Project UK Charity reach vulnerable people trapped at home during the dreaded lock-downs; they also provided two life-changing opportunities for millions of people to see my students in a different light: as capable musicians. Who can forget their appearance on the National Lottery’s 25th Birthday TV advert “3 is the magic number”.

The National Lottery 25th Birthday Advert – Your numbers make amazing happen!

Just like the TV advert, the team behind the Big Night of Musicals treated my musicians with utmost respect and professionalism, from researchers and technical crew to producers, directors and promoters. This is not always the case of course. As Disability and Access Ambassador for Arts and Culture I encounter the opposite, making it impossible for my students with learning disabilities to reach their potential.

Our appearance on Big Night of Musicals was yet another tremendous experience for The Music Man Project. We returned to Southend at 4.30am tired but full of excitement about what the future will bring following our latest Prime Time TV appearance – our return performance at the Royal Albert Hall, a concert performance on Broadway and our very own headquarters in the City of Southend!

With some help, we can make the amazing happen!

The Music Man Project’s Big Instrument Giveaway – COVID Response (2020)




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