Any Name Will Do?

In a matter of hours the tears, the tantrums and the ever controversial sing-off will be over for another year. This weekend marks the X Factor final and by Sunday night one successful contestant will be walking away in a fog of confetti with a record contract clutched proudly in hand. What then of the other finalists? If previous years are anything to go by then we should expect to see at least one rejected contestant treading the boards in Chicago or Les Miserables before the Christmas turkey has gone cold. But is it time for us to vote off stunt casting?

In recent years the practice of casting celebrities in West End musicals has become a matter of hot debate. Helienne Lindvall addresses the issue in the Guardian’s Theatre Blog this week, suggesting that it is ‘a gravy train that may soon run off the rails’. The reasons she cites for such a prediction are compromises of quality and a noticeable decline in the behaviour of audiences drawn in by starry names, treating an outing to the theatre in the same way they would a night in front of the television. Lindvall also bemoans the consequences for talented performers who are being passed over in favour of minor celebrities. Her opinion on the matter is unambiguous, but for me it is not quite so clear cut. 

There are of course some considerable downsides to filling major West End roles with celebrities. Merely by taking a quick glance at the casts of current West End musicals it becomes evident that experienced performers are being somewhat frozen out by ‘names’; Sheridan Smith in Legally Blonde, past X Factor contestant Lucie Jones in Les Miserables and Jon Lee soon to go into Jersey Boys, to name just a few. Meanwhile shows such as Chicago and Grease have long been known as ‘revolving doors’ for celebrities as Lindvall puts it, where it seems that a television appearance is a vital qualification for bagging a lead role. Clearly none of this is good news for the performers who have been grafting for years and are losing out.

What we have to remember, however, is the vital bums-on-seats factor. It cannot be denied that well known names reel in the public and shows ultimately rise and fall on the shoulders of the punters; there has been many an excellent show in the past that has had to close prematurely because it simply does not pull in a big enough audience. Celebrity casting is becoming something of a necessity for a new show starting out in the West End and although it is not ideal, bringing in a recognisable name is surely preferable to a show going under.

As for the downturn in audience etiquette, I am not entirely convinced that this is connected to the casting of celebrities. Although inevitably the inclusion of certain personalities in the cast will attract a different audience, the correlation between this and audience misbehaviour has been exaggerated. Unfortunately there always have been and always will be those who cannot stay quiet for a couple of hours, no matter whether a soap star is up on the stage or not.

The most significant factor that has been neglected in this argument, however, is the calibre of the performers themselves. Celebrity and talent, despite what the harbingers of despair may have us believe, are not mutually exclusive. Although I have not had the luck to personally see Sheridan Smith in Legally Blonde I have heard uniformly positive reviews of her performance and the critics seem to agree. When I saw Jon Lee in Les Miserables a few years ago he more than held his own and in the same musical this year I was impressed by Lucie Jones, who even made me warm to the usually ineffectual character of Cosette.

Another casting practice that has come in for a lot of criticism recently is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s series of television searches for the West End stars of tomorrow. Although they arguably steal the limelight from other performers, there is no doubt that talent flocks toward these shows and it is not necessary to win to make a mark on the West End. I saw the wonderful Daniel Boys twice in Avenue Q, bringing warmth, humour and charisma to the stage in a stand-out performance that would have been wasted in Joseph, while Rachel Tucker is an excellent Elphaba in Wicked. Samantha Barks, meanwhile, has improved vastly since she first charmed audiences on I’d Do Anything, delivering a breathtaking performance as Eponine in Les Mis.

Inevitably there will be some stunt casting that brings people to the stage who should never have strayed from the stalls – I will refrain from naming and shaming – but we should resist the temptation to tar everyone with the same brush. The casting process may be evolving, but the pool of talent has not drained. Despite the conveyor belt of excruciating auditions that X Factor presents to satisfy our warped fascination, there is no dearth of talent to be found on these reality shows. Approaching the theatre via an alternative route does not necessarily make such performers less qualified or deserving. We are, after all, the Big Brother generation, bred on reality and talent shows, and for many young people this is as valid an entry point as any.

In The Stage this week Mark Shenton’s blog asked who we might consider to be the stars of London’s musical theatre scene and looked for those waiting in the wings to fill their shoes. Will our next generation of musical stars be spawned by stage schools or television talent shows? The answer, I suspect, is both.

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