Time was that the musical theatre used to create its own stars: think of Merman, Martin, Channing, Jerry Orbach and Robert Preston in the great age of musicals, or even more recently, the likes of Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, and (over here) Elaine Paige and Michael Ball, all of whom made their names in musicals and have mainly stuck with it (or rather, been stuck in it, never matching their theatrical success elsewhere).
Nowadays, of course, the theatre regularly (and increasingly) borrows stars that have been created first elsewhere, whether in TV and film (for example, Amanda Holden, recently announced to star in the London edition of Shrek, or Daniel Radcliffe, who we’ve watched grow up on film as Harry Potter, showed us just how much he’s grown up in every sense in Equus, and next year is doing How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on Broadway) or even boybands (think of Duncan James or Simon Webbe - the former previously in Legally Blonde, the latter currently in Sister Act, both alumni of Blue).
More recently, TV has been used to create stars for the theatre, with TV casting shows for The Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Grease, Oliver! and The Wizard of Oz; but the jury is still out on their long-term career building possibilities. Connie Fisher, the first of the bunch to be made a star, is yet to progress beyond The Sound of Music and is right now touring in a production of the show again. But can anyone even remember who won the Grease competition? That show, of course, is bigger than the stars and is still running, and is also now cannibalising subsequent reality TV casting calls to produce the current Sandy from a runner-up for Dorothy in Lauren Samuels.
Occasionally, of course, careers that begin in the theatre sometimes flourish elsewhere, then enabling those actors to return to the theatre with added star lustre: for example, Patrick Stewart, a long-term jobbing RSC actor before Star Trek made him globally famous, is now he is making up for lost time by returning to the theatre with a vengeance (and next month begins a run on Broadway in A Life in the Theatre, which he paradoxically partly abandoned); or John Barrowman, a leading man in musicals long before his TV fame, but thanks to Dr Who and Torchwood able to now be a box office draw as well. And of course Vanessa Redgrave (next month back on Broadway in Driving Miss Daisy) and Judi Dench both began in the theatre before becoming international names through film. Amongst a younger generation, many of the stars of TV’s cult show Glee have a prior Broadway stage pedigree, including Lea Michele, Matthew Morrison and Jonathan Groff (about to begin performances in Deathtrap in the West End).
But the age of the theatre to make its own stars for itself has largely passed - except for the Wicked factor, that is. Both Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, who originated the roles of Elphaba and Glinda in the original Broadway production of Wicked, had served a diligent Broadway apprenticeship long before it, of course - Menzel in the original company of Rent, Chenoweth in Steel Pier and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown — but it was Wicked that made them into star names. What’s intriguing is how that Broadway fame - usually limited to the ten or so blocks that comprise that fabled theatrical territory - has stretched right across the Atlantic and made them stars here, too. When Menzel recreated her Broadway turn as Elphaba in the show’s West End premiere four years ago, there were queues around the block and mass siege scenes at the stage door. Right now Chenoweth, though wildly miscast in the current Broadway revival of Promises, Promises, is helping to turn it into a hit, despite mixed reviews.
And even more incredibly, the phenomenon of Wicked doesn’t just extend to the original company, but has also helped make stars of take-overs. Menzel’s West End standby Kerry Ellis subsequently took over the role - then went to Broadway with it. Now she’s a musical theatre star in her own right (and is currently starring as Nancy in Oliver! at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane). Broadway take-overs, which have included Stephanie J Block and Megan Hilty (who would go on to headline 9 to 5 with Allison Janney), Eden Espinosa and Shoshana Bean, have also gone on to make names for themselves.
And again, it has translated transatlantically: last night Shoshana Bean made her London concert debut at the Ambassadors Theatre, and even she was surprised at the following she’s clearly acquired over here. She quipped that she told the young producing team behind it when they booked her into the Ambassadors, “don’t be mad if there are only 10 people there!” In the event, the place was packed, and there were lots of “pro’s” in, too - along the row from me, Scarlett Strallen was relaxing after a day’s rehearsal for the Donmar’s imminent Passion; behind me, were Con O’Neill and Caroline O’Connor.
But what exactly is the following based on? Some in the audience were clearly fans of her terrific debut solo album, largely comprising original songs she has co-written; but for the most part, I suspect, it’s also the youtube phenomenon. This brings a huge number of clips of her actually performing to people’s computers, including inevitable numbers from Wicked but also appearances she has made with such contemporary composers as Scott Alan and Jason Robert Brown whose work is also being widely disseminated thanks to the internet. It’s creating a whole need breed of stars, so maybe the theatre doesn’t have much to do with it after all.