News reporting about the West End seems to veer between two extremes – SOLT boasting about how profits are going up and up, and general panic about shows closing. The announcement of the closure of Betty Blue Eyes was greeted by the Evening Standard with the headline ‘West End in shock as rave reviews and Kylie fail to save musical’s bacon.’ Yet as Terri Paddock of whatsonstage.com points out in the same article closures are not necessarily a bad thing. In the case of the Novello, Betty’s departure will herald the arrival of The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s ‘Crazy for You’, a show which surely deserves a bit more exposure (and a bit less exposure to the weather!)
Yet it seems very difficult to escape the assumption that when it comes to runs, the longer the better. News that several long-running musicals are booking over a year ahead to accommodate the Olympics can only be good, can’t it? It’s only natural for producers and investors to want a successful show to run for as long as possible. But is this really the best thing for everyone concerned?
Here are five reasons why long runs are ultimately killing theatre:
The art of dilution (or the dilution of Art)
Keeping up standards for years and years can be a challenge. Ruthie Henshall spoke about her return to the production of Chicago which she had opened ten years previously, a show which has indulged in some notorious celebrity casting over the years. Not one to mince her words, she told of her surprise that all the dancing seemed to have disappeared over the years, to accommodate a string of non-dancing performers. It’s an insidious process, too, as most audiences are unlikely to make a return visit to compare.
And what about Yasmina Reza’s play ‘Art’? It opened with Albert Finney, Tom Courtney and Ken Stott. This production made a feature of frequent cast changes, using ‘names’ for short stints of 12 weeks over a period of six years. The final cast? Three actors from the league of gentlemen, who according to the Independent did not quite reach the heights of their predecessors. There are never going be enough Albert Finneys and Tom Courtneys.
The Show is the star
This oft-repeated mantra is used to justify demoting talented lead performers ‘below the title’, and making them as interchangeable and dispensable as possible. Yet producers will often cite reviews and awards won by performers (most outrageously in the recent case of South Pacific) to sell a show. Of course, if a long run is anticipated it makes sense to downplay stars who may need to be replaced, not to mention the ‘franchising’ of productions where new casts will be needed.
But could a show such as Les Miserables have succeeded as well as it did without the talents of the original cast? Let’s not forget that ‘Bring Him Home’ was written for Colm Wilkinson’s exceptional voice. The endless discussion on forums for long-running shows, comparing favourite Valjeans, or Phantoms, and complaints about understudies, show that not all people think that the show is the star. People may have more than one favourite and even relish the chance to see a new interpretation from an understudy, but they do care who the performers are.
Mummified theatre: preservation at any price
Once a production has opened successfully there is very little incentive to change anything about it. It’s no coincidence that the current slogan for Les Miserables is ‘Twenty Five Years Young’. The aim is to recapture the experience of the opening night forever, but doing this involves stifling any new creativity under the guise of maintaining ‘quality control’. You only need to see a few youtube clips from Phantom of the Opera to see how closely choreographed the performances are, and Patti LuPone has attested in her autobiography to the tendency for producers to expect performers to copy their predecessors in shows such as Evita and Les Miserables. LuPone notably refused to go to Broadway with Les Miserables because she couldn’t see the point of ‘recreating’ her performance as Fantine.
No more revivals
A long-running show cannot be ‘revived’. It has to close first. Interestingly, Peter Brook, talking about theatrical tradition, uses the image of a phoenix which must be constantly brought back to life. After five years, he says, a production is out of date. Imagine what would have happened if the original productions of Sunset Boulevard, or La Cage Aux Folles had never closed – we would have been denied revivals such as Craig Revel Horwood’s stripped down, multi-tasking, version of Sunset Boulevard, or the Menier’s wonderfully seedy ‘La Cage Aux Folles’. Created for tiny venues, both did in fact end up with West End transfers.
Theatre of Dreams – we’ll only build it if we know they’ll come
Which brings us back to Betty Blue Eyes. Why should anyone be shocked at a show running for six months, unless the expectation was for ‘another smash-hit musical’ (to quote the Times). Unfortunately audiences did not agree with that particular critic. Once it becomes the norm for shows have a long run, producers try to find the elements that will earn them another hit, and focus on these instead of on producing a quality show. Why anyone would think that using Kylie Minogue to voice an animatronic pig (and then only during the curtain call) would somehow guarantee a sure-fire hit seems a mystery to us. But for a mass market a simple message is important. Cute pig. And if you get some nice publicity shots of Kylie Minogue in there, all the better. The problem is that Alan Bennett’s story isn’t really about a pig. It’s about people, in all their complexity. But that’s hard to get onto a poster, or make a logo out of.
A West End full of shows that run for 25 years? A producers dream, or a theatregoer’s nightmare? You decide.