Over on his daily theatre blog, Mark Shenton lays into ITV’s new theatre reality casting show, Superstar:
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?
Over the last five-and-a-bit years on this blog, I’ve reviewed most of the BBC’s output in this genre, from Any Dream Will Do onwards. And while I’m not going to be writing weekly reports for The Stage this time round, I’m still going to be watching every episode.
There is much wrong with the format, as I’ve repeatedly noted over the years. On the basis of Superstar’s first two episodes, which aired on successive nights last weekend, those largely remain: the audition process and boot camp stages, both of which could be entertaining to the general public as well as instructional to those who want to learn both what to do and (more importantly) what not to do in the audition room, are ridiculously shortened in the hurry to get to live shows and revenue-generating premium rate phone voting (the BBC’s phone votes raised money for the Corporation’s Performing Arts Fund - what ITV does with its cash has yet to be determined).
In previous series, the live shows have tended to shy away from musical theatre numbers in favour of songs from the pop and rock oeuvres. From what I’ve seen, Superstar will continue this trend - arguably, though, in this case, for the better, as Jesus Christ Superstar’s music is itself written in that style: it’s more Judas Priest than Jule Styne. But even when I was despairing that not enough show tunes were gracing BBC1 Saturday night telly, the truly great young performers on the shows were demonstrating that they could produce inspired audition performances regardless. Watch Lee Mead’s first performance of The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black on Any Dream Will Do without the hairs on your neck quivering, and you don’t have a heart. (On the other hand, this weekend’s Superstar audition saw what was almost certainly the first primetime mention of Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns, a song cycle which was new to me until recently, and almost certainly new to the majority of ITV1’s audience).
Yes, these shows like their participants to have a ‘story’. I’ve heard anecdotal tales of performers who didn’t get through to even the televised sections of the auditions because their backstory wasn’t telegenic enough (although in at least one case, having heard them sing, maybe that excuse was just letting them down gently). And the programme makers certainly shy away from letting anybody know when one potential star has training and others don’t - hence why Connie Fisher was always described as being “plucked from a job in telesales” (the sort of job that many unemployed actors take on to feed themselves between auditions) and, a year later, Daniel Boys was described as a “concrete administrator”.
Superstar, again, shows no sign of stopping this insidious habit of grabbing actors’ lights and shoving them under the nearest bushel. This weekend, we were introduced to Jonathan Williams, who was described as a “barman” - presumably because someone whose last onstage job was “alternate Jean Valjean in Les Miserables” would be a little too successful for your typical Saturday night sob story.
These shows have always attracted professional performers, or at the very least professionally trained ones. I think Over the Rainbow may have had the fewest, but that was in no small part down to the age of the performers taking part: many of them went straight from that show into auditioning for drama school. But what is noticeable about Superstar is the number of actors who, by any standards, have had quite a bit of West End success already. As well as Williams and Jonathan Ansell, whose scheduling conflict with another musical he had already been cast in (directed, as it turns out, by the West End’s original Jesus, Paul Nicholas) was the focus of much of the weekend’s drama, ‘current’ hopefuls include Alex Gaumond, who originated the role of Emmett in Legally Blonde the Musical at the Savoy, Roger Wright, the original Adult Simba in The Lion King at the Lyceum, and Oliver Tompsett, the second best thing (after the wonderful Jodie Jacobs) in the original cast of Rock of Ages.
Tompsett has been all but invisible on the TV show up to now: whether that changes in next weekend’s show remains to be seen. But his comments online have, for me, been enlightening. In a Facebook post which he then shared with followers of his @Ozziology Twitter account by means of a very lo-res screen grab, he said:
In the real world of auditioning, sometimes people get overlooked & sometimes others get given an opportunity to shine. This process is no different. …
…What I love about the “TV searches” is that it gives the raw talent of the industry that don’t necessarily have the luxury of an agent or professional training behind the the chance to muscle it out on a level playing field with this like myself lucky enough to have both.
One might ask why one of our best-known young leading men has chosen to participate in this TV casting route. I think one answer lies in how Rock of Ages’ marketing campaign worked: the names used to sell the show were former X Factor winner Shayne Ward, and TV presenter and comedian Justin Lee Collins. Both were, I think, good in their roles, but they were very much supporting characters on stage. But theirs were the names that would connect with a wider audience.
And this is the key thing: I go to far, far much less theatre than Mark Shenton, and I know the names of many of the West End performers taking part. But he, and I, and the thousands of Twitter followers we have between us whose opinions on Superstar are many and varied, are the exceptions. For the vast majority of the British public, especially those living outside of easy reach of London’s vibrant West End and fringe theatre scene, every single face on Superstar is new to them. In that respect, it truly is a level playing field. (And, it should be noted, ITV1 tends to have a wider audience outside London and the Home Counties, where the BBC dominates).
I do hope that all of the men taking part in Superstar can use it as a springboard to enhance their own career. Because these shows have never been wholly about the winner of the lead role: as Mark points out in his blog, one of the biggest ‘winners’ in career terms has been Samantha Barks, who will shortly be seen in Cameron Mackintosh’s film production of Les Miserables. But that relationship with Mackintosh started on I’d Do Anything. Mackintosh, Lloyd Webber and Bill Kenwright have all mentored several performers who they first encountered on their respective series. That’s no bad thing - and it’s not all that different to how they work(ed) outside the TV casting bubble either. Just last night, I saw songwriters Stiles and Drewe perform at the Landor Theatre as part of cabaret evening If It Only Even Runs a Minute, and heard them recount how their own relationship with Cameron Mackintosh started when they won the Vivian Ellis prize, which he helped to judge. That’s a partnership that has stood them in good stead, leading to spending time with Steven Spielberg (on an abortive attempt to turn Just So into an animated musical), creating the additional songs for the stage version of Mary Poppins to the recent Betty Blue Eyes, and doubtless beyond.
So while there are plenty of things wrong with the format, at the same time it’s that very format which has enabled musical theatre to once again be the cornerstone of the Saturday evening primetime schedule, seen by millions of people who wouldn’t normally dream of setting foot in the West End. Yes, a TV casting show could eschew the public vote, spend weeks observing the minutiae of the casting, audition, rehearsal and performance process and be altogether a more honest account of what life as a performer is like. But there’s no way such a show would get a mainstream Saturday night telly commission. Whether it would get picked up by BBC2, BBC4 or Sky Arts, I couldn’t say - but rather than create a new generation of fans of musical theatre, it’d end up being watched by existing aficionados.
Railing against the pernicious effects of television on theatre and theatre audiences is nothing new, of course: The Stage’s report of the switching on of the BBC’s Alexandra Palace transmitter in 1936 contained many of the same concerns which thrive today. Maybe we should look at this differently. Rather than expending huge amounts of energy bemoaning - or indeed supporting - a TV series, how much better it would be if we clubbed together and came up with ways to get the audiences inspired by a talent show on telly to see as much, and as wide a range of, great musical theatre as possible.
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