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Stunt Casting in the West End: Good or Bad for Business?

The tweets were flying yesterday morning as the new December cast for Wicked were announced. Taking over from Louise Dearman as Glinda is Gina Beck, currently in The Belle’s Stratagem at the Southwark Playhouse; the talented soprano has previously been in Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. Joining her in Wicked will be Lillie Flynn as Nessarose, Christopher Howell as Doctor Dillamond and Adam Pettigrew as Boq, with Desmond Barrit returning to the role of the Wizard. Last night, it also emerged that Love Never Dies’ Kieran Brown would also be entering the show in the ensemble.

There was one more cast announcement that caused quite the controversy and that was former Busted member and ‘I’m A Celebrity’ contestant Matt Wills joining the show in the role of Fiyero. For many people, this was warmly received as good news but on the other side, the ‘stunt casting’ phrase was being furiously thrown around.

Casting celebrities in lead roles of West End musicals is becoming more and more of a common occurrence and it seems that a lot of people are becoming fed up with it. ‘Stunt casting’ is obviously something of a current gripe with fans and indeed, those who work within the industry – so let’s take a look at the issue in closer proximity shall we?

When Shrek opened, it had the name of Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden behind it and now that she is leaving in October due to her pregnancy, Girl’s Aloud band member Kimberley Walsh is stepping into that big, green fat suit. The first castings announced for Rock of Ages were that of TV presenter Justin Lee Collins and former X-Factor contestant Shayne Ward. Performers from reality TV shows have been popping up all over the place for a while now; with Brenda Edwards in We Will Rock You, Gareth Gates and Lucie Jones in Les Miserables…the list goes on. It’s getting to the point where almost every show in the West End has a famous face attached to it.

Maybe that’s what it takes in this current climate? Someone commented to me recently that, although Lend Me A Tenor was a musical that was very well received and had a brilliant cast, none of them were ‘big names’ as it were and it needed names to succeed. This belief that a show can’t survive on its own merit anymore is one that makes me feel very sad indeed. It’s also insulting to the performers who spent years training at drama schools and honing their craft, only to find that unless they’ve been on TV or in a pop group, their talents and effort are all in vain.

Of course, not all shows do need a ‘big name’ to be successful; the ever-popular Les Miserables has lasted 25 years on just its own merit. Yet, it too can hold its hand up and admit to the practice of ‘stunt casting’. The last few months, comic Matt Lucas and opera singer Alfie Boe have been playing the roles of Thernadier and Valjean, following on from their appearances in the Les Miserables 25th Anniversary concert. Their joining the West End cast at the Queens was met with enthusiasm and aplomb – perhaps because Les Mis didn’t need to cast them to sell ticket; it was already doing that. They were only contracted for a short run (Lucas’ ended last week) and it was more of a thank you to the fans than anything else.

Part of the problem with casting celebrities in West End shows is the fact that they aren’t trained in musical theatre and as a result, find their voice unable to handle performing eight shows a week. Everyone gets ill, of course, but it seems to be a more regular event with these celebrity names as the strain on their voice becomes too much for them.

With someone like Alfie Boe; he may not be a musical theatre performer but he does have the voice to support his being cast. Others, unfortunately…don’t.

To return to the Les Mis O2 concert; it was a huge event that brought in many, many great singers to be a part of it: Ramin Karimloo, Lea Salonga, Norm Lewis…and then there was Nick Jonas. Jonas is one third of The Jonas Brothers, an American boy band. A teen idol for millions of girls worldwide, his casting was genius in terms of the interest it would stir up and the arrival of the brand new younger audience his presence in the concert would bring in. For the people who watched the concert to celebrate twenty five years of Les Mis however, it was a train wreck performance. I’m sure he is a lovely person, but vocally, he just couldn’t match his fellow performers. With so many strong, powerful voices on the stage, Jonas’ sounded weak and strained as he gasped his way through each number. For me, it was the only let-down of the whole concert and it must be said, I have been known to mute the DVD during his songs – I know for a fact I’m not alone there…

I’m not attempting to launch a personal attack here, but Jonas serves up the perfect example of what ‘stunt casting’ can do to a show. The recent announcement that he is to take over from Daniel Radcliffe in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying was not met too kindly (except by those teenage girls), but time will tell how well he treads the boards of Broadway.
Those who were defending Matt Willis’ casting in Wicked were quick to mention the fact that he did attend a drama school (Sylvia Young) and has appeared in the West End production of Flashdance as well as the national tour of Footloose. I hold no pre-judgements and will wait to see his performance myself; I don’t think the backlash against Willis was against him per say, but the growing reliance of celebrity casting. It used to be something special, something that happened every now and then as a ‘treat’ for fans. Now, it seems the first question asked when opening a musical is, “Which celebrity shall we cast in it?”

The plus side of the argument is the undeniable fact that celebrities sell seats. Whatever you think of the issue itself, it does bring people in to the theatre, including those who may have never seen a West End show before and develop a love of it because of that one experience. Also, we’re living in a time when a lot of shows are closing due to poor ticket sales. When a show closes every cast member is put out of work, so if the presence of one celebrity can help to sell those tickets and keep the show open, isn’t that a good thing?

Taking the opposing argument however, it is not healthy for the West End to rely on celebrities to sell its shows. It’s an unbelievable pressure to put on their shoulders for one thing, but it also offers no faith in the production or the rest of its cast. Audience members who come to see a particular celebrity – often travelling long distances – are regularly left disappointed and angry when they arrive at the theatre to find that person is not performing; a regular occurrence which sparked a sackful of complaint letters to The Stage, as you may recall. It also takes opportunities away from theatre performers who are actually trained in musical theatre. I know so many people in the industry who are struggling to find work and it boggles the mind because they are unbelievable talented! Times are hard though and work is short, and having to compete against famous faces for roles doesn’t make it any easier because lets face it, if you’re an investor or producer of a show and you have the chance to cast a celebrity, of course you’re going to because it practically guarantees you money in your pocket.

The issue of ‘stunt casting’ is not one that is going to disappear anytime soon and it’s certainly not going to be settled by me here. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is entitled to it; I personally would like to see ‘stunt casting’ end, except for those rare occasions. There is a sea of talent out there just waiting to be given a chance – I think it’s high time we trusted in our own and gave it to them.

By Julie Robinson

15th September 2011

Author

  • MissJulie

    Julie is a theatre enthusiast, and is particularly keen on new writing. She writes articles each week for our website including a popular weekly ‘In Profile’ which features actors and actresses that are not in lead roles and are often in the Ensemble.

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