Andrew Lloyd Webber caused some consternation by declaring that there are ‘so few leading men’ during the semi-final of his casting show ‘Superstar’ a couple of weeks ago. Are leading men really an endangered species? And what is a ‘leading man’ anyway?
Before we go any further, let’s consider the context. Firstly, are we the only ones to notice the irony of the fact that he addressed these comments to Roger Wright, the man who was the first actor to play the lead in the West End version of ‘The Lion King’ and played the part for more than three years. This man’s face must have been plastered everywhere. And this the first problem we encounter when trying to talk about leading men. In the world of musical theatre, you can be famous and completely anonymous at the same time – your face might be on the poster, but your name probably won’t be. The trend towards anonymity in Musical Theatre is well documented (by us), with the ‘branding’ of global musicals popularised by Cameron Mackintosh, and the notion that the musical is more important than any individual performer. So is this just a perception? Does it matter that there are so many performers out there who are not ‘household names’? Of course, for Andrew Lloyd Webber, it is essential to keep promoting the perception of a dearth of talent, otherwise he would not have a reason to continue with his casting shows. For us, one of the most notable changes since the first TV casting shows has been the gradual abandonment of the ‘shop girl to star’ myth. Nobody is trying to pretend that the contestants in ‘Superstar’ have walked in off the street with no training or experience. Nevertheless, as illustrated by the exchange with Roger, Lloyd Webber has made it his mission to rebrand experienced and trained working actors as new discoveries. It’s telling that he insisted on calling his auditionees ‘boys’, despite the oldest among them being in their forties.
So is this just a case of perception? Whatsonstage.com responded by putting together a list of fifteen ‘leading men’. However, it seems to us that all they have done is take some performers who happen to be performing in leading roles in the West End. Fair enough – they are there to promote theatre and encourage ticket sales, so we hardly expect a hard-hitting critique from them. However, comments on that post point out that some of the fifteen are ‘solid performers’ rather than those with exceptional talent. Somehow we don’t feel this goes far enough. In its simplest form, it is a nonsense to talk about how many there are. Surely there are as many leading men as there are leading parts, and those parts are plentiful. But what about some measure of quality – how do we know that these performers can really carry a show, and deserve to be there?
Mark Shenton was quick to point out that he has only recently compiled his own list, and he seems to agree that there is a lack of ‘above the title’ leading men, with Michael Ball topping his list, and many of the performers he picks out are not exactly well-known to the public. However, even Shenton has coined a special new category of male performer – the triple threat of ‘great voice, acting and looks’, and this is where his list becomes a bit shaky, we would suggest. If so-called experts cannot compile a list without resorting to good looks as a definition, what hope is there? But if he is merely reflecting a wider trend helped along by TV casting shows, then it is not surprising that we often find ourselves disappointed in our male leads. Women have always had to put up with good looks being prioritised over talent. However, there is such an over-supply of female performers coming out of drama schools, that it is often possible to find female talent that ticks all the boxes. Male performers in Musical Theatre are not as plentiful, and if they going to have to conform to female standards of looks as well, we should hardly be surprised if there is a falling off in quality.
As if to back this point up, Oliver Tompsett, who recently wrote a fascinating post for ‘The Stage’, puts forward a good case for professionals auditioning on TV casting shows. But even he highlights other factors over talent. Those who audition publicly are courageous, he says. No argument there, but what has that got to do with making a good leading man? And he fully acknowledges that decisions will be made on personality as well as performance, but justifies that by saying that ‘it is those with the interesting personalities that deliver the best performances’, which seems a somewhat sweeping analysis. The requirement for performers to be ‘telegenic’ in order to break into a medium that has little to do with TV is bound to hamper the search for real stage talent – look at the terrible makeovers the contestants had to endure whilst appearing on Superstar, with Tim Prottey-Jones, the self-professed ‘four-eyed Jesus’, swiftly converted to contact lenses.
It is hardly surprising that so few men are well-known for being in Musical Theatre, and even fewer seem to want to stay there. It must be galling to work for years in the business to achieve perfection, only to be leap-frogged by less experienced performers who have been massively over-hyped. Talented as they are, the superlative praise given to the ‘Superstar’ finalists was ridiculously over the top. Add to this the growing acceptance of TV based auditions as a legitimate route for professional hopefuls, and a life in musical theatre must seem pretty unattractive. We’re not pretending that the traditional audition process is a barrel of laughs, but at least the people making the choice usually have some credibility. Could it be that male performers have more choices than female ones, and this results in more male talent moving away from Musical Theatre? John Barrowman is clearly finding that anything other than musical theatre is more rewarding. In fact, if he had not grown up in America, would he even have entered that field at all?
Of course there is another solution to the problem, one which we have touched on before – make better use of the women. There are plenty to go round.