To open this post, I cede the floor to Mary Magdalene, as imagined by Tim Rice for the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar:
I’ve been living to see you.
Dying to see you, but it shouldn’t be like this.
This was unexpected,
What do I do now?
Could we start again please?
I’ve been very hopeful, so far.
Now for the first time, I think we’re going wrong.
Hurry up and tell me,
This is just a dream.
Oh could we start again please?
I’m a firm believer that, for all their flaws, TV casting shows have so far produced net gains for the industry as a whole. They do come with their faults, of course, but on the whole they’ve combined enjoyable television with increased awareness of musical theatre to an audience that wouldn’t normally consider such things.
Or at least, that’s what I thought before Superstar. The whole show, which finishes tonight, seems to be setting itself up to fail, doing so many things that both prevent the programme from being as entertaining as it could be, and from it being taken as seriously in the industry as it could have done.
Now, for the first time*, I think TV casting is going wrong. Dear ITV, could we start again, please?
No? Oh, well, here’s what I’d change if we could.
* NB: I didn’t watch Grease is the Word.
1. Make it a weekly show
There’s something about the build-up to, and fallout from, a light entertainment elimination show that inherently suits a week-long gap between shows. From Strictly Come Dancing to Dancing on Ice, not to mention the BBC’s four previous Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, there’s an ability for the contestants to take any criticism and actually work on addressing any flaws or gaps in their skills. For the show itself, it generates far more press coverage, with each performer’s exit interviews being regurgitated as “news” stories by the tabloid press both in print and online. And that feeds into a buzz that builds excitement, making the final an event.
In contrast, Superstar’s daily format has meant that there’s been little to no time for the performers to address any constructive points the panel may have made; no time for the audience to digest the thoughts of each outgoing actor; and next to no buzz for the show itself.
That latter point isn’t solely down to scheduling, of course — but the show’s PR factor has undeniably been affected by the lack of breathing space between shows.
2. Make a big deal of the exit
When Superstar was announced, there were many jokes on Twitter about the manner of the departing wannabe Jesus’s exit. Would he be divested of his robe, like they did with the Josephs in Any Dream Will Do? Would he have to hand back a sequinned crown of thorns to Andrew Lloyd Webber, as the Dorothys did with their shoes in Over the Rainbow?
In the event, the exit fell flat. After making the ridiculous decision to start each live show with the eviction of the previous night’s loser, producers wisely switched as quickly as possible to making the eviction the finale of each show — although it meant that the voting format changed every night for the first few shows. But even then, the lack of a big production number makes each exit something of an anticlimax.
3. Make Andrew Lloyd Webber special
Given the subject matter, it’s probably wise that Superstar has cut down on the number of times he’s been referred to as “The Lord”. But sticking him behind an X Factor-style desk is a horrible clash between his very English eccentricities (bad jokes, non sequiturs and all) and a Cowell-like cross-Atlantic celebrity figure.
He’s already treated differently from the other judges: he alone gives them a pre sing-off “pep talk”, and he alone judges the sing-off. The set design should have reflected his role as the dotty granddad who holds all the power.
4. Hire a presenter who’s a little more at ease
I never saw Amanda Holden when she was in Shrek. However, one of the very first musical theatre productions I ever reviewed professionally (for a long-dead online publication) was the West End production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, in which she was competent but never looked comfortable. Her presenting performance in Superstar has reminded me very much of that.
I know Graham Norton’s not to everyone’s taste, but he never feels like reading an autocue is a chore, and also gives the impression that going off-script is always possible. Neither could, with the best will in the world, be said of Holden.
5. Assemble a panel with more experience
Getting the mix of judges for these sort of shows has always been a problem. The BBC started out with theatre producers (David Ian and Bill Kenwright — although they gained rebukes for the former as he was judged too close to the commercial theatre project being cast) and voice coach Zoe Tyler before bringing in performers for the jazz-hands factor. As the years went on, they regrettably went more for star name status rather than experience in giving instruction — although Over the Rainbow’s Sheila Hancock was a sheer delight in her undisguised disdain for some of the show’s more frivolous aspects.
With Superstar, it seems we’ve lost both experience and theatrical sparkle. True, Dawn French lightens the whole mood — although if it were a gay man making the sort of comments she gets away with, or a straight man judging young women, a lot of her humour would come across as just plain creepy (cf. Barry Humphries and the Nancys on I’d Do Anything). Melanie Chisholm started off as an astute observer in the pre-recorded opening stages, but her move into the live studio rounds has emasculated her — possibly because she’s realised she’ll be sharing a stage with whoever the public votes in. It’d be hard to lay into an actor’s performance one week, and then play Mary Magdelene to his Jesus the next.
Still, she does shine compared to Jason Donovan — who seems to want to take the John Barrowman/John Partridge role of the West End experienced leading man, but lacks either the experience of the former or the showmanship of either.
6. Make it less obvious when you’re trying to steer the audience
Every series, the producers have favoured some performers over others. I’ve never held to the belief that they have “decided” who they want to win, more that the people behind the TV show are keen on maintaining a balanced mix of contestants for as long as possible.
One of the ways they achieve this is to reduce individuals, with all their myriad strengths and flaws, to one single attribute. Rachel in I’d Do Anything was “bossy”, or “driven”, for example; Seamus in Any Dream Will Do was conceited. And, in this series, it seems to have been decided early on that Nathan would be “arrogant Jesus”.
The attempts to portray him in this light were particularly noticeable as every other performer’s VT and judges’ comments were broadly constructive. Nathan’s, however, were relentlessly negative. One can quite understand why he might have felt the need to drum up support on Twitter. Several of the other contestants have too: maybe not quite so brazenly, but certainly at a level that makes Lloyd Webber’s outburst on Monday’s show — where he angrily laid into Nathan with no small amount of ferocity — seem like there was an ulterior motive.
Which brings me to:
7. Give contestants social media training
Andrew’s outburst in Nathan’s direction over his use (or misuse) of Twitter may, or may not, have been uncalled for. On Twitter itself as that show went out on Monday, opinions were divided.
Whatever the situation, I do think that calling one performer out like that on national television ended up making nobody look good. It may have contributed to Nathan leaving that night, or it may not have done. In a way, that’s immaterial: what it indicates is that the contestants either weren’t briefed on how they should and shouldn’t converse on social media, that they were briefed but only in basics, or that the production team hadn’t really thought about how to deal with people who exceed what they’re told to do.
The competitors do seem to have been given some indication that they mustn’t tweet the whole voting numbers, but I’d be surprised if the guidance has gone much beyond that. These days, that’s not enough. Contestants who go through to live shows should receive basic media training in advance — but in the past, that has been limited to managed situations where interviews are conducted with a PR in the room. Social media’s benefits come from the direct, unmediated interaction between personality and audience — and so, people who find themselves in the public eye need to be aware of the pitfalls.
Modern performer contracts are starting to include social media clauses. That’s not to say any foolish tweeting should be treated as a breach of contract in the first instance, more it’s an indication of how seriously it’s being taken. TV shows need to be aware too — and, if a performer starts acting on Twitter in a way that could damage the reputation of both performer and TV show, that should be handled privately rather than on screen.
8. Make up your mind what you’re casting for
Are we looking for a rock singer who doesn’t have to act too much — or a new West End-calibre leading man? The panel seem to change their minds from sentence to sentence.
Either way, Lloyd Webber’s comments last night about the paucity of leading men unfairly denigrated those who are currently working, I feel — although I’m sure that wasn’t his intent. I do think there are fewer men with “above the title” pull than there are women, but there are ways to say that without putting down existing performers.
9. Give the performers songs with a bit more range
I’m fed up with trained musical theatre performers having to wring out every last drop of emotion and nuance from anodyne pop and rock songs - and then have their over-emoting praised as “acting”.
I’m not one of those that says every number has to be from the musical theatre genre — but songs that give trained performers a chance to be more than just singers would be great. There’s more to Jesus in JCS than just being able to reach the high notes in Gethsemane — let’s see these supposed triple threats stretched in all three areas.
10. Promote musical theatre more
Having guest performers on stage during Superstar is no bad thing. But wouldn’t it be so much better if they each had been from current West End shows? There has been much concern about whether the West End could cope with an expected drop in demand over the Olympics season — concern kicked off by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber, who predicted a “bloodbath”.
While this bizarre, daily pre-Olympics schedule for Superstar has done the programme no favours, it could at the very least have given Lloyd Webber and the ITV Studios team the opportunity to showcase an entertainment medium that could really do with the help over the next few weeks.
I still like casting shows. I’ll still be watching tonight. For me, though, Superstar should come to represent the nadir. If any future shows are commissioned they should strive to be better, and to recognise that they don’t need to deny their musical theatre heritage to be entertaining.