The reality TV castings of West End musicals, from The Sound of Music that started it to Joseph, Grease and Oliver! that followed it, have in fact all been won by aspiring, professionally-trained actors - so that the TV castings have, in the end, merely served as another channel for them to be discovered by, and more importantly, publicised by, creating a sense of public ownership in the making of their stardom that has in turn propelled each of those productions to commercial success.
But now the true amateurs are having their day, too. Last May, 14-year-old George Sampson won the second series of Britain’s Got Talent, and by August was making his West End debut when he went into the cast of Into the Hoods, then playing the Novello. As I blogged at the time, I drove past the theatre one night and saw mob scenes at the stage door.
Now another Britain’s Got Talent phenomenon has been born, with the return of the series last weekend that saw Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old unemployed single woman from Scotland, living out her dream to perform in front of a live audience - and if they initially sneered, they ended up cheering. (Tanya Gold has written a fantastic article in today’s Guardian that dissects the audience’s reaction,showing that Britain’s Got Malice).
She admits in the pre-performance interview to never having been married, or even kissed (“but it’s not an advert”), and tells the judges that her dream is “to be a professional singer” and be as successful as Elaine Paige.
She may well be on her way now. As of this 10am morning, the youtube clip of her performance has been viewed over 11.3m times; and amongst the fans, the Times has reported that Demi Moore’s husband posted a Twitter link to it saying, “This just made my night”, to which Moore then replied, “You saw it made me teary!” That story in The Times has also already garnered over 160 reader comments.
But the best bit, from a theatrical point of view, is that it has had an immediate commercial result, since the song that Boyle sang - “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables (which she endearingly mispronounced) - has now shot to the top of the iTunes UK download chart for vocal songs, putting Patti LuPone’s performance from the original London cast recording back in pole position (while Ruthie Henshall’s recording of the same song from the 10th anniversary concert is in 5th place).
No wonder Cameron Mackintosh’s office issued a press release yesterday afternoon trumpeting this success, with Cameron himself declaring, “Just like the judges and audience I was gob-smacked by the emotional powerhouse performance of Susan Boyle’s show stopping rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ Vocally it is one of the best versions of the song I’ve ever heard. Touching, thrilling and uplifting. I do hope she gets to sing it for the Queen”.
I coincidentally spent a couple of hours interviewing Cameron last night, and I already suggested her for Madame Thernadier! Cameron replied that he’d rather see her as Birdwoman in Mary Poppins, except that the show isn’t touring at the moment! The Times has already reported that Simon Cowell is “organising a record deal for her”, and that “bookmakers say she is the favourite to win the ITV talent show.”
Just as performing clearly isn’t the sole right or prerogative of the professional, nor is writing about it - and I got home from meeting Cameron to find that a leading theatrical website has launched a major recruitment drive to source what it calls a “team of theatregoer reporters”, seeking to find broadcast reporters and editors, video and audio content providers, reviewers of books, CDs and DVDs, new bloggers, gossipmongers, and other deputy editors and regional contributors. All terrific stuff — but the catch is that “all of the above positions are unpaid”.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I once worked - on a salaried basis - for the same site. On the one hand, this is a site that has long set itself up as a voice for theatregoers - but now it is planning to become dominated by the voices, in every sense, of theatregoers, too.
It’s one way of generating content for free, and since people expect to receive it for free, it may be the only way to do so. But on the other hand, it drives yet another nail in the coffin for professional arts journalism. I circulated it to some colleagues, and amongst the replies I have already received, one wrote to say, “So funny, I just logged on and saw this and thought, we might as well all give up. Which, having seen Calendar Girls last night, I am tempted to do. If swill like that is what playgoers want, let them have it, but keep me away from it.” Another comments, “Yes, I saw that. I guess the floodgates are now well and truly opened. In a nation saturated with useless arts graduates in a recession, it makes perfect business sense. As a model for journalism, criticism or the wider economy, it’s a disaster. I give Fleet Street criticism as we know it three more years.”
The writing, I suppose, is literally on the wall - and we may be going to the wall with it. But what happens when other industries start to follow this lead? How far away can it be when theatre producers start using unpaid actors to populate their productions, too, whose performances will be reported on and reviewed only by unpaid critics?