So another reality TV casting round for a live theatrical show is upon us, in which the public are being handed the power to choose the lead for a major role for a forthcoming live production — in this case, one that is already on sale and with the added security of big names already on board, in the case of Tim Minchin, Melanie C and, er, Chris Moyles.
Actually, the latter is symptomatic of the desperate chase for a ‘story’ above direct casting considerations: let’s have a celebrity at all costs and never mind the talent. Moyles may, of course, have been hiding his light under a (Gary) Bushel(l) all this time and may be a stunning actor; but what about all the real, full-time actors out there who’d kill to play Herod?
In the last London revival of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyceum, back in 1996, the role was memorably played by the brilliant Nick Holder (whom my colleague Ian Shuttleworth wittily described in his FT review “suggests an inflatable Richard O’Brien”).
The TV casting shows are partly about ‘manfacturing’ celebrity, too; making someone famous for fifteen minutes so the public buy tickets to see them. In this case, they’re making them famous for fifteen (or so) shows: while Lloyd Webber said on Saturday’s opening show, “This is the biggest prize I’ve been able to offer”, an arena tour that was initially announced for an 11-night run is hardly the equivalent of a proper West End run. (Those 11 nights, of course, are being added to — depending on demand that may spring from the TV broadcasts).
But the TV shows also do something else more insidious: they hand the ultimate casting control to the court of public opinion. While there have been the usual round of the hopefuls and the hopeless in the pre-selection auditions, the choice of the final contestants has, at least, been in the hands of Andrew Lloyd Webber (who, as composer of the show, has final casting approval anyway), his professional casting director David Grindrod and the celebrity judges that have been enlisted, including Jason Donovan and Mel C.
Dawn French is also joining them for the live shows; and though I’m not quite sure what exactly Dawn’s credentials are for judging musical theatre — though Jennifer Saunders will no doubt soon be in casting herself for the debut musical she has written, Viva Forever — both Donovan and Mel C know whereof they speak: Donovan has done musicals from Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sweeney Todd and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Mel C was once a wonderful Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers.
But if Jason wasn’t judging the show, might he have been tempted to actually join the auditioning hopefuls to be in it? While there have certainly been the usual singing builders and shop assistant/models amongst the auditionees, it’s been striking this time around just how many already established professionals have joined their number; not to mention Jonathan Ansell, who himself first emerged through a previous TV contest when G4, the pop-opera boyband he formed while he was still at Guildhall School of Drama, came second on the X-Factor in 2004 and went on to reach number one in the album charts with their first release and headlines at the Royal Albert Hall.
But lately he’s been chasing a musical theatre dream again, and earlier this year starred in a musical version of A Tale of Two Cities that played briefly at the Charing Cross Theatre. This gave rise, however, to a scheduling conflict over Superstar, and one that created a brief sense of made-for-TV drama: although the run of that show has long finished now, the auditioning process for Superstar and the residential “boot camp” that was part of it clashed directly with when he should have been onstage at the Charing Cross Theatre. “You can’t do that to people who’ve bought tickets in your name because you’ve got a better offer”, Mr Donovan told Mr Ansell.
In the event, Ansell was actually released from A Tale of Two Cities that week and covered by Anthony Hansen; that’s (the) business. But it was also striking to see several other familiar faces amongst the auditionees this year, amongst them, Roger Wright (the original West End Simba in The Lion King and Alex Gaumond (who has starred in both We Will Rock You and Legally Blonde the Musical).
It’s certainly depressing that established talent feels it’s necessary to submit themselves to the indignity of a public popularity contest. Where will this pandering to public taste end? It’s arguable that the best person for the job isn’t necessarily the one the public chooses; and also, of course, that the biggest talent may not be the winner, either. Its possible that Samantha Barks, who came third in the Oliver! contest, is destined for bigger stardom now than anyone on the reality TV shows so far, as she plays Eponine in the film of Les Miserables; but lest anyone think she’s earned that role because of reality TV, she’s in fact been serving serving her dues in Cameron Mackintosh shows, from playing Eponine in the West End, then at the 02 Arena anniversary concert, and finally playing Nancy when the current UK tour of Oliver! kicked off last year.
Andrew Lloyd Webber has often stated that reality TV contests enable people to come forward that he wouldn’t have seen in any other way; but though he might have done well to have avoided Thriller - Live, a quick visit to the Lyric would have introduced him to Roger Wright long before this TV contest. And if he genuinely wanted to see out new emerging talent the traditional way, he could do worse than visit a place like the Union Theatre in Southwark, where my socks are regularly blown off by talent I’ve not seen before. Right now, for instance, there’s an amazing 21-year-old performer Louis Maskell, starring in The Fix. If I can find them, why can’t Andrew, or at least his casting director? Simple answer: because it wouldn’t make good television. And prime time TV casting shows are basically extended commercials for the productions.
There are still some spaces left on The Stage Events’ How to master your musical theatre audition half-day course, hosted by producer and casting director Danielle Tarento on Tuesday, July 17. For more details and to book your place, visit thestage.co.uk/events