According to Wikipedia, Noel Coward is attributed with the following quotation: “The moment you have arrived in the profession is when you realise you don’t have to read ‘The Stage'”. Now there’s an incentive for aspiring actors. We can’t help feeling that ‘The Stage’, although representing the industry of theatre, tends to speak mainly for those who control it rather than the performers without whom it wouldn’t exist. This is nicely illustrated by Matthew Hemley’s article, ‘Living the Dream’, which purports to be a review of how the industry’s perception of the TV casting show has changed since 2006. He suggests that the debate about TV casting shows is over. Well, we have little doubt that there are many interested parties who would like the debate to be over.
Our letter to the Stage has been published. Here we want to explain in more detail just why this article has got us fuming.
The first piece of evidence of changing attitudes we are given is that when casting show ‘Superstar‘ was announced there was lots of ‘excited talk on twitter’ (although surely not as much as when Justin Beiber debuted his latest haircut). Well, we can’t comment on Twitter, but we noticed several negative comments on articles and news stories, pointing out the bad taste implications of choosing this show, and the cynicism of ITV. But what does Tim Rice, co-writer of the original think, we wonder? Surely if he’d expressed his objections, and threatened to veto the final casting choice, that would be worthy of a mention? Apparently not.
Positive comments included the statement that this was ‘another chance for talent not lucky enough to go to stage school to get a shot’. Let’s unpick that a little. How lucky are drama graduates feeling right now, knowing that after three years of hard work they are likely to lose out to an ‘unlucky’ person who never got to drama school? Watching some TV-friendly unknown get ten weeks of promotion and a guaranteed West End debut must really reinforce their faith in their chosen profession. In fact, many of these contestants have been to drama school, a fact which was initially downplayed. We explored this slippery issue in a previous post and we note that the publicity for ‘Superstar’ invites both professionals and amateurs to audition, so the chances are quite high that the winner will have been to stage school.
Most of the other positive comments come from people who have a vested interest in these shows. ‘Actor’ Ben Stock, who is quoted as a ‘perfect example’ of how views have changed is a little more than just an actor, as his personal website will attest. He is currently musical director for a show at the Finborough which stars Helena Blackman, one of the runners-up in ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria’ – it’s given a plug later in the article. Jodie Prenger, another performer who is hardly likely to be critical of casting shows since she owes her career to one, claims that the shows have “given a total rebirth to the whole industry”. Really, was musical theatre struggling that much? There were plenty of successful shows in the West End in 2005. But perhaps it is worth noting one prominent composer whose career was floundering. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Casting for ‘Sound of Music’ began just as ‘The Woman in White’, the latest in a long line of Lloyd Webber failed productions, closed. A total rebirth to the Andrew Lloyd Webber industry? Well, yes, indeed!
We then have the ridiculous notion that these shows ‘spawn talent’. Well, unless there is something extremely icky going on behind the scenes of these shows, the very best they can claim is that they spot talent. Which immediately raises the question, if the talent is out there, why do we need casting shows to find it? Our question is a less charitable one – if they really scoured the whole country to find these performers, why is the standard so low? Perhaps they should try scouring the drama schools, isn’t that what they are there for? We are then asked to believe that because many of the winners and runners-up have gone on to star in other shows, courtesy of producers such as Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Bill Kenwright, that this means that they are holding their own in the West End. We are often told of producers ‘nurturing the careers‘ of the young and talented. What this involves exactly we are not sure, but a major part of it is promotion. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. As Hemley points out in his article, having a TV casting show on your CV makes you a valuable marketing commodity.
Hemley goes on to suggest that there is something puzzling about the BBC’s decision not to do more shows. Well, the BBC is a public service broadcaster funded by the licence-fee payer. Whilst the first show could have been described as an experiment and to some extent educational, the moment it became clear that huge profits were made on the back of it, the shows should have stopped. Instead, for the second series ‘Any dream will do’ they allowed Lloyd Webber to benefit not only from owning the theatre which would house the new production, but to benefit from the royalties and exposure it would give him as composer of the work. The decision to stop is long overdue and the BBC should have made it with or without the help of criticism from the public.
Nothing has changed to make the original objections invalid; in fact objections are more valid than ever, as the pursuit of profit at the expense of quality continues. Although there are now more named stars in the West End, actors who have not had the benefit of being cast through a TV show tend to remain anonymous. Far from increasing audiences as the article claims (a claim we investigated ourselves in a previous post), audiences are now diminishing year on year. And these two audience members certainly do not feel that the continuing success of TV casting shows is something to celebrate.