We commented recently in a post about previews that the wrong people seem to be in charge of theatre, and in a recent episode of the highly entertaining Channel 4 series The Sound of Musicals we saw a perfect example of what we meant. The scene is the Chichester Festival Theatre, the production is ‘Barnum’. Producer Cameron Mackintosh is seen ‘helping’ director Timothy Sheader at the dress rehearsal of the show by generally swearing the shouting and saying it’s all wrong. By his own admission he claims to have an unerring sense of ‘what doesn’t work’, whilst being unable to find the solutions. This is exactly the kind of hysteria you don’t need just before a show opens, we would imagine. And how ironic seeing Mackintosh pulling rank over Sheader, whose highly successful ‘Crazy for You’ came into the Novello Theatre just as Mackintosh’s ‘Betty Blue Eyes’ was leaving prematurely.
What particularly struck us, though, was the nature of the anxieties on show. Almost all of it was to do with trying to make the show fit a formula rather than find a creative solution. He proclaims at one point “It isn’t the way to do a production number”, and his disappointment about the reviews is very specific, ie that they didn’t declare lead actor Christopher Fitzgerald “a star is born which is the kind of thing I wanted them to say”. Next thing we know, Brian Conley is being lined up for a touring version and Fitzgerald is off home, appearing to accept his fate with charming self-deprecation. Over the thirty years or more since from Barnum’s premiere, circus has evolved at an amazing pace, both in quality, style and popularity with the franchising of the Circe Du Soleil shows. Watching an actor walk a tightrope while singing is probably no longer impressive to most audiences. Perhaps Mackintosh clinging too tightly to an old formula was the problem.
Hot on the heels of the programme comes the announcement of the casting for the West End reanimation (sorry, revival) of Cameron Mackintosh’s Miss Saigon. ‘The heat is on’ declares the home page, and so it is. With record-breaking advance box office sales, the pressure is on to deliver, and once again, Mackintosh has a template in mind. With the casting of Kim he is clearly looking for the Lea Salonga factor – 1) 17 years old, 2) Philippino heritage and, 3) ‘unknown’. After making a big fuss of holding auditions in Manila, a last minute round of auditions in New York yielded up Eva Maria Noblezada, a high school student with no professional experience. ‘She will be our new Lea’, declares Mackintosh. Don’t you mean ‘our new Kim?’ The only problem being that whilst Lea Salonga may not have been a household name in the UK, she already had ten years of professional experience in her home country as a performer in musicals on stage and film, not to mention hosting her own TV show. Eva Maria Noblezada, on the other hand, while satisfying the first two criteria, is an untried talent. In fact we are told that she will do four performances a week so that she can continue her studies, with two alternates fronting the other four performances. Who are these two young women whom 50% of audiences will see? Anonymous of course, in the grand tradition of mega-musicals. It is almost as though the X-factor and TV casting show culture are so ingrained that an element of them is now seen as a vital ingredient for success. No disrespect but why on earth should the paying public care if Ms Noblezada finishes her studies or not? She is on the professional stage now. Mackintosh may try to mitigate all this by going on about how ‘natural’ she is, but the simple fact is that you don’t need a seventeen year old. To paraphrase Sir Laurence Olivier ‘why don’t you get someone who can act seventeen?’ But she is cast not just as Kim, but as the ‘character’ of the ‘new discovery’.
The eight minute introductory video meet the cast on the official site says it all when it comes to priorities. But the piece de resistance of Mackintosh’s inability to change his mindset in the face of criticism must be his comments on the casting of the ‘Engineer’. Jonathan Pryce played this East Asian character on the West End with full yellowface prosthetics, and there was a huge controversy when the show went to Broadway. Demanding that Pryce play the part, he threatened to pull the show, and in a bizarre compromise, Pryce played the part without prosthetics. In the video, Mackintosh insists that Pryce was one of the great reasons for the success of the original show and that because of his fantastic performance, they were subsequently able to find Asian performers to play the role. You’d think he was talking about the thirties, not the eighties. Jon Jon Briones, who will be playing the Engineer is the ‘Perfect Asian Actor’. Yes, Cameron, we get it, and eventually you won’t feel the need to say ‘Asian’. But don’t expect praise for doing what you should have done all along.
In his 2004 essay, Dan Rebellato gives a convincing analysis of the phenomenon of the globalisation of theatre, or McTheatre as he calls it, comparing the success of McDonalds with the success of mega-musicals, illustrating how surprisingly easily the techniques and methods which made McDonalds a global force can be applied to theatre. He highlights the tendency to obsess over ‘quantity’ over quality, and sure enough, the publicity for the new Miss Saigon declares that it has been running for ‘twenty five years’ in ‘300 cities’, 28 countries, and 15 languages. The irony is that the original intention behind franchising these musicals was quality control. But what starts out as quality control ends up as consistency control, stifling creativity in the process.
We can hardly blame Cameron Mackintosh for his ‘hands on’ approach. He would scarcely be human if he hadn’t started to believe that he has some kind of Midas touch which must not be denied to any budding theatrical production he is involved in. People never seem to stop referring to his ‘success’ in theatre, meaning ‘commercial’ success, meaning making money out of theatre. But even in the commercial theatre there is a director striving to make a product worth selling – a process which requires creativity, not productivity. And judging by what we’ve seen, this is a process Mackintosh needs to keep his hands firmly off.
Update 01.12.13: We have the names of the other two Kims: Tanya Manalang, and Julia Abueva. According to Broadway World they will be ‘covering’ rather than alternating the role. We’re not even sure what this means but they are still not named on the official website, even though they will be performing the lead role 50% of the time.