If you are in the West End, it doesn’t take long to see that there’s a marked difference between the way Musicals and ‘straight’ plays are promoted. If you want to know who is in a play you only have to look up – the main stars will be prominently displayed in lights. When it comes of Musicals, it’s a very different story. You have to work quite hard to find out who is starring in ‘Les Miserables’ or ‘Phantom of the Opera’. The websites will tell you if you do a bit of digging and if you can get inside the theatre, there’ll be a board with that night’s cast displayed. But outside all you’ll see is the logo and the names of the Producer and Director. This is quite deliberate and a reflection of the ever-growing ‘Franchise’ approach to Musicals – it’s the logo that sells it.
This is all very well, but when you need stars to sell a show, it presents a problem. Take the 25th Anniversary concert which took place in October 2010 at the O2 Arena in London. This should have been the perfect opportunity to creat a truly stellar cast for one night only. Except that in Musical Theatre, many of the great talents are virtually unknown. The 10th anniversary concert became known as the ‘Dream cast’, combining members of the original cast with outstanding performers such as Philip Quast and Michael Maguire who had shined in subsequent productions. With such a fantastic line up after ten years, you would expect the 25th year celebration to be amazing – think of all the people who had been involved in all the various productions in that time, not to mention other Musical Theatre stars who would jump at the chance to be involved. Except that Musical Theatre talent and ‘stardom’ are not the same any more.
For the O2 production, many of the ‘names’ were stars from other genres.
Firstly, opera. OK, so Alfie Boe as Valjean can clearly sing. Some will say he’s a good choice because he’s a ‘proper’ singer. His operatic roots were clearly visible throughout, and he sang the role without the subtlety and naturalism that is the hallmark of Musical Theatre. Maybe he will learn to change his style in time if he really does want a career in Musicals, but it seems deeply sad that this was the choice when so many other people have sung the role in productions all over the world. Of course, none of them are household names. John Owen-Jones has sung the role to great acclaim for many years on both sides of the atlantic, yet he remains a well-kept secret for most.
Secondly, comedy. Again, clearly Matt Lucas is a star in his chosen profession. Ironically he would probably have done better in a staged production where he could have gone to town with all the ‘business’ during the Inn-keeper’s song. But he is not a singer.
Thirdly, boy band. Nick Jonas did do a brief stint in the West End production of Les Mis, and we are told that he launched is professional career playing Gavroche in the Broadway production. But the bottom line is that he is famous for being in a band and that is why he was cast as Marius.
Fourthly, Frankenstein stars. Sorry if this is a bit harsh, if anyone has a kinder suggestion for what we can call this phenomenon let us know. There have always been talent shows, but the recent ‘casting shows’ from the BBC, ie, ‘How Do you Solve a Problem Like Maria?’, ‘Any Dream Will Do’, ‘I’d Do Anything’ and ‘Over the Rainbow’ are doing something subtlely different. They are not just about finding talent – after the roaring success of the first show, Andrew Lloyd Webber must have realised that the massive amount of TV coverage given to his contestants (not just the winner) was creating instant stars, far more famous than performers who had been slogging away in the business for years. Samantha Barks and Katie Hall are not devoid of talent, but they are in this cast on the strength of their TV fame.
There is one person in this cast who could be thought of as a genuine star famous for Musical Theatre, and that is Lea Salonga. We’re sure it’s no coincidence that she has worked extensively in the US, where we hear that audiences are less tolerant of casting shows.
So, let’s do some dreaming and come up with the perfect 25th Anniversary cast – suggestions on a postcard please….