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Why musical theatre doesn’t mean failure

Every year around this time, I find myself forced to endure a never-ending stream of talk about The X-Factor from those around me. I no longer watch the show as I’ve grown tired of the phoney mechanisms of the X-Factor machine – as far as I’m concerned it plays its audience for fools, giving them the illusion of control when, in reality, Simon Cowell is steering that ship in exactly the direction he wants to go. The show still has its fans, but it also has itself somewhat of a reputation now for producing winners with a limited shelf life. They enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame, release an album and are then subsequently forgotten when the next crop of contestants appear on the following year’s show. There are a few who have gone on to carve out a successful career in the music industry, but these are the ones who didn’t win and were able to make their way without being managed and moulded into what the show wanted them to be, such as JLS. The only X-Factor winner who has had lasting success is Leona Lewis.

You may disagree with my pessimistic view of what The X-Factor has become, but I am not alone in my thinking. I came across the following quote regarding this year’s winner, James Arthur, in comedian Frankie Boyle’s column for The Sun:

“James can now enjoy what being an X-Factor winner means. Constant Twitter abuse, one failed album and a brief part in a s**t West End musical.”

Boyle’s entire article was satirising the power of reality talent shows like The X-Factor, and for the most part he was right on the money. What caught my eye in the quote I just reproduced was his mention of the West End musical. While Boyle was, well – taking the piss; he nevertheless hit upon a bone of contention for me. “A brief part in a s**t West End musical”… really? Boyle reiterated what many people out there think; that artists who are ultimately rejected by the music industry settle for the ‘second-best’ option of musical theatre instead.

I’ve written before on how much I’m irked by this kind of thinking. Why is musical theatre seen as being less? I hold the men and women of the stage in far higher regard than your dime-a-dozen pop star. When you compare someone who can simultaneously sing, dance and act in nightly performances, to someone who mimes along in a ‘live’ one-off performance, you realise that there actually is no comparison. Being a pop star may bring you a wider range of fame and wealth, but it by no means makes for a better quality entertainer. There are plenty of X-Factor contestants who have flopped out of the charts, and there are also plenty who chose to take the musical theatre route and have done exceedingly well for themselves because of that choice.

Lucie Jones was a popular X-Factor contestant who was supported by an outraged public when the judges controversially voted to send her home over twin act Jedward. She subsequently joined the company of Les Miserables in the role of ‘Cosette’ and went on to appear in the musical’s 25th anniversary concert at the O2 Arena. Since then she has been involved in further musical theatre projects, including the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival production of The Prodigals, and recently announced that she will be playing ‘Meat’ in the 10th anniversary world arena tour of We Will Rock You.

Brenda Edwards came fourth in the second series of The X-Factor and has since become a West End favourite. She followed up her time on the show with the role of ‘Mama Morton’ in Chicago’ and was then invited to join a West End production of Carmen in the role that was specifically created for her: ‘Pearl’. After touring the UK with We Will Rock You as the ‘Killer Queen, she reprised the role in the West End musical and can currently still be seen there. She will also perform the role in the UK leg of the musical’s world arena tour next year.

Cassie Compton was a contestant in the original series of The X-Factor and the last female standing. Now a respected West End actress, best known for her roles as ‘Eponine’ in Les Miserables and ‘Nessarose’ in Wicked, she made her first West End appearance at just 10 years old in Whistle Down The Wind.  She has also appeared in Dirty Dancing, Little Women, Diamond and new musical Monkee Business.

These are just a few examples of contestants who have left The X-Factor and become stars in their own right in the musical theatre world. They haven’t settled for the West End stage, they perform there because they have a love of it. West End actors may not receive the same recognition recording artists, but they certainly have a loyal fan base nonetheless and they earn that loyalty through hard work and talent. There’s nothing to be ashamed of with that. Still, musical theatre is perceived as a derogatory term. 2009 X-Factor winner Joe McElderry was criticised early on for being ‘too musical theatre’ – since when is that a bad thing? More and more people are turning to the West End stage – not through necessity or desperation, but simply because they want to. Shayne Ward was well-received as ‘Stacee Jaxx’ in the original London cast of Rock of Ages, while Will Young is getting decent reviews too in his current role as ‘Emcee’ in Cabaret. Gareth Gates has gained considerable experience in the industry, playing the title role in Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat, ‘Marius’ in the touring production of Les Miserables and ‘Eddie’ in new musical Loserville. And it’s not only reality TV stars who have trodden down this route either. The West End is littered with the memories of TV presenters, radio presenters, soap stars, A-list actors and more who have performed in its theatres.

Musical theatre can be a far more rewarding and prosperous career choice than the popular ideal of ‘famous pop star’. The X-Factor’s contestants shouldn’t be dismissed as failures for taking a role in the West End. The show is more of a learning curve than a springboard to fame and fortune and each contestant should be allowed to use the experience to follow whichever path they desire.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 18th December 2012


  • 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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