It’s probably fair to say that we are not exactly the target audience for the Stage 100 list, a list of ‘movers and shakers’ in the theatre world published annually by ‘The Stage’ since 1997. We’ve never been great fans of awards as it is, and this list seems to combine the worst aspects of awards and ‘rich lists’, whilst saying nothing very much about theatre itself, except that it seems to be dominated by a small minority of people with a disproportionate amount of power. Why is this something to celebrate?
The most annoying thing about this list is that it purports to be somehow all-inclusive – the front cover proclaims that it will cover ‘actors, directors, producers, playwrights, composers, designers and theatre owners.’ And so it does, with separate categories for each – there is something for everyone in the list. The ‘top twenty’ however, are always in a class of their own. There are creative people amongst them, but to get to the top of the list, there has to be something more. This year, for example, annual turnover in £s is listed alongside their theatrical ‘credentials’, and whilst the editorial is quick to point out that this has not been a deciding factor, the clear message of the list is that being really good at your job is not enough if you are in the business. You have to wield power, whether it is through owning theatres, being at the head of a massive publicly funded organisation or having an ’empire’ of some kind. The list is just sleight of hand. All theatre is here, we are told. But people who are there on their creative merits are firmly at the bottom of the power pyramid. Bizarrely, though, despite this apparent fascination with the rich and powerful, the list does nothing to really explore the nature of power and influence in theatre today. Take Cameron Mackintosh’s entry. Are we really to believe that he is number four in the list on the strength of long running mega-musicals Les Miserables and Phantom, and semi-flop Barnum, backed up by a forthcoming revival of Ms Saigon? Would he be there if all the candidates achievements were presented anonymously to the judges? Sounds to us like a self-fulfilling prophesy with a bit of wish-fulfillment thrown in.
Which brings us to our next big gripe. The childish over-excitement that seems to overcome reporters when they tell us all about the way that ATG is taking over theatre in the UK, via their takeover by Providence Equity. Deputy editor Alistair Smith described the deal as
‘a game-changer’ and ‘the biggest theatre transaction that has ever taken place in the UK market. It was the theatrical equivalent of Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea in 2003. With Providence’s backing, ATG will have access to a war chest that puts it on a completely different footing to any other player in the UK market. In terms of financial clout, they are now streets ahead of the competition.’
‘Access to a war chest’, indeed. And who exactly are the waging war on? This form of empire building is based on the concept of the scaleability of standardised theatre and the elimination of competitors. If they achieve their aim there won’t be a Stage 100 – it’ll be the Stage 1. We already have ‘McTheatre‘ franchises leading to complaints that the West End is becoming a cultural desert. They may be significant when measured in pounds, but how disproportionate is this significance compared to any contribution that these behemoths have made to theatre artistically? Why anyone who cares about theatre would see its domination by large corporations as a positive development is a mystery to us. We love Les Miserables as much as the next person, but for every mega musical there are literally hundreds of creative projects which will never attract the interest of large-scale investors, and are often better off for it.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, third in the list this year, is another very good example of the self-perpetuating nature of these power lists. A talented composer with some fantastic gems in his back-catalogue, vast riches, a portfolio of theatres, and no recent hits. At least he hasn’t done any casting shows this year. However, his attitude to musicals is also telling. He declared recently that he ‘can’t afford to do many more musicals’. What? Multi-millionaire composer and theatre owner Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the few names who can open cold in the West End? As the Telegraph puts it ‘Stephen Ward cost £2.5 million to stage, putting it at the modest end of the West End scale.’ We find it particularly ironic that the growing popularity of the bijousical, those small scale productions of classic musicals, seems to have completely passed him by. Yet it was Craig Revel-Horwood’s actor-musician revival of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ in the tiny Watermill theatre, later transferred to the West End, that led to some critics declaring Lloyd Webber’s former flop a masterpiece which has finally been done justice to. And this year the opportunity to have his musical ‘Titanic‘ at the Southwark playhouse was greeted with delight by composer Maury Yeston, who declared the fringe production superior to the overblown Broadway production which lost so much money.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the list is the faint praise with which it damns those further down the rankings. Adam Spreadbury-Maher, originator of ‘Operaupclose’, is described as ‘perhaps a surprise entrant into this list’, in amongst the ‘London’ category. We were more surprised it has taken him so long to appear on it. Making a success of small-scale opera in the tiny King’s Head with no public money is surely a feat to be celebrated. But his appearance in the list this year is for his new initiative at the Hope Theatre which guarantees all employees a minimum wage. We’re glad this has been recognised, and we also hope he may have started a small revolution, but hidden way down the list, with no headlines, it’s pretty clear what the priorities of ‘The Stage’ are. And considering they claim to be the mouthpiece of the industry that is a very sad reflection indeed.