There is something oddly touching about Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ move to ITV for his latest casting show Superstar. It’s as though he’s found his spiritual home. What a relief it must be not to have to pretend that there is anything educational or edifying about these programmes. And how appropriate that it should be sponsored by Littlewoods, a company that specialises in selling to people who don’t want to leave the comfort of their own home (not an obvious theatregoing demographic). The emphasis is clearly on pure entertainment, although judging by the ratings, the public don’t seem to be finding it very entertaining either. If this show turns out to be the kiss of Judas to future casting shows, it seems it is more likely to be through sheer boredom rather than any offence or outrage caused by the subject matter (we mean Christianity of course, not Musical Theatre).
Not that it would be for lack of trying. Everyone on the show is doing everything they can to be as tasteless as possible, beyond the wildest fears (we suspect) of Tim Rice. We wouldn’t be surprised if a team of writers has been employed to come up with as many dreadful puns as possible. Our prize for being simultaneously lame and tacky must go to the description of one the contestants, the bearded and clearly adult Jeff as the ‘baby Jesus’ (he’s the youngest – geddit?) leading Lloyd Webber to exclaim at one point that ‘the baby has come out of the manger’. It’s hard to be offended by this stuff. It’s just a shame the contestants haven’t been allowed some suitable comebacks. Perhaps Jonathan Ansell, accused of abandoning his fans, could have proclaimed ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. Or how about ‘I can’t turn water into wine, but I can turn beer into urine’. Or perhaps one of them could have jumped down and overturned the judges tables. And who will be the first contestant to deny the Lord three times? ‘Hey, didn’t I see you getting crucified on Superstar last night?’ – ‘Nope, that wasn’t me, you must be mistaken’.
If it was just a bit of schoolboy fun, we’d be quite happy to see Andrew enjoying himself with it, especially if it keeps him away from interfering with proper musical theatre, but at the end of the day this is still a real casting process. Some commentators this time round have noticed the high number of ‘professionals’ involved and see this as some kind of validation. A piece in the Radio Times about previous ‘losers’ interviews a few – they may differ about whether TV casting is good or bad but they all seem accept it as a fact of life. Our only hope is that audiences begin tire of consuming the same old loaves and fishes and move on to something else, and then casting directors can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with their jobs the old-fashioned way.
As the show progresses, we see a repeat of the traditional drama where Lloyd Webber rails against the tyranny of the public vote. Like a toddler with a huge slice of cake in front of him, we witness his desperate struggle to work out how he can eat it and still have it. First, two of his favourites end up in the bottom two. His outrage is palpable, and he re-writes the format of the show just so we know what a terrible crisis this is. It’s as if he is suffering from some kind of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, where Dr Jekyll, his personality almost completely subsumed, wakes up in horror to find what his alter-ego has done, before disappearing again.
On Friday’s live show he made a heartfelt plea to viewers not to vote for their favourite, because if you cast the wrong person in the role it could wreck their career. Well, the Lord really does seem to think he’s God. Quite apart from the fact that a TV based format which gets the participants to sing endless pop songs pretty much makes it impossible for anyone to ‘cast the right person’, a point often ignored by those who take issue with the public voting, he seems to forget that he doesn’t control the theatre industry. Once performers get TV exposure and build up a fanbase, they don’t need him. Despite his cringeworthy attempts to play Professor Higgins to loser Niall’s Eliza Doolittle, ‘suggesting’ he might make a good Marius or Raoul, he is not the only show in town. And as we have started to realise, the West End is becoming increasingly irrelevant (partly due to these shows we would suggest). And let us not forget that this is the man who cast Russell Grant in the ‘Wizard of Oz’, and whose preferred method of casting is to invite a friend round for a sing-song round the piano. Worrying about getting the ‘right’ Jesus now would be a bit like Pontius Pilate complaining about the price of Easter eggs.
There is one consolation for the losers though: popular as he was, when it really counted, Jesus too lost the public vote. And who remembers Barabbas now?
Update 23.8.12: And as if on cue, we hear that two of the finalists (but not those from the top three) have been lined up to ‘understudy’ the parts of Jesus and Judas.