American or British? Discussing accents on the stage

Just before Christmas my mum came to visit me, and while she was here, we decided to listen to the original London cast recording of ELF The Musical. My mum shares my love of theatre, and as this was one show we wouldn’t be seeing, we thought we’d have a listen to the score at least and get an idea of what we were missing.

Not much it seems.

Unfortunately, we were left rather underwhelmed by it. Perhaps the songs needed to be seen performed as part of the show to appreciate them, but every one was decidedly unmemorable to me and it was an effort to stay with it through to the last track. It’s somewhat ironic that a show about rediscovering the spirit of Christmas did such a good job of trying to destroy mine!

My mum’s main issue with the musical wasn’t the songs themselves per say, but rather the American accents used by the cast. She’s been a fan of Ben Forster since Jesus Christ Superstar, but didn’t feel like ELF did his voice justice, and that the American twang in his performance here hindered his usual vocal abilities.

I’ve been thinking a lot about accents in musical theatre since then. The thing is though, the more I think about it, the more it becomes clear there is just no law and order to accents on the stage.

ELF is not an original British musical. It began in the US and played on Broadway long before it came to the West End. Other Broadway musicals which have transferred here, such as Rock of Ages, have also retained their American roots in the move and feature a British cast performing with American accents. Many people could draw from that a natural assumption that a musical made in the US is American by nature, and remains so no matter even if it is produced in the UK, right? Wrong.

Wicked is a Broadway musical by origin. It premiered at Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre in 2003 and didn’t come to the West End til three years later, by which time it was firmly established in the US. The London production continues to play at the Apollo Victoria to this day and is still one of the most popular musicals in the West End – oh, and the cast here use British accents in their performances.

We all know how much fans like to opine on musical theatre matters, and the argument of whether Wicked is better with American or British accents has been running for years, and will likely run for many more too. There’s no clear answer to this debate of course, it’s nothing more than a matter of personal preference. The question isn’t which accent is better, but whether it serves a purpose to have the same show performed with two different accents.

Originality is a big (and important) part of the theatre industry. An accent change may not seem like much, but the London production of Wicked has very much become its own creature, separate from the Broadway production, because of this. Wicked in the West End is now our Wicked, and I think that’s really important when it comes to shows moving back and forth across the pond. What’s the point in producing carbon copies of shows? If American theatre-goers travel to the West End and just see the same shows here that they’ve already seen on Broadway, then really, what was the point of coming at all? And vice versa.

Not all British shows should remain British and all American shows should remain American; that’s a very black and white view of the whole topic. ELF is based on an American film and set in New York, while Rock of Ages is set in LA. It wouldn’t have made sense for the London casts to speak with a British accent when the stories are set in US locations. Could the stories have been relocated to British locations for a London production? Yes. Should they have? Well, that’s a whole other matter for debate. And it’s not just about American musicals coming to London. Matilda retained its British roots rather than become Americanised when it transferred to Broadway, and Kinky Boots, which of course played on Broadway before coming to the West End, remained true to the original 2005 film by keeping the story set in the UK with accompanying British accents.

Not all musicals pay such close attention to their environment however. Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera are the two longest-running musical in the West End, and more than that, are also two of the most globally successful musicals in musical theatre history. Both famously set in France, neither is performed with the use of French accents however (with the exception of Madame Giry in Phantom, usually). The lack of French accents hasn’t impacted on their success in any way of course, and in fact, the use of them probably would have been more detrimental than beneficial to the shows. Are you starting to see the confusion that comes with looking at accents on the stage?

Wicked is perhaps easier to work out as it’s set in the fictional Land of Oz, and as such, is not bound to any accent. It’s purely down to a matter of choice. One sticking point with some fans in regards to Wicked however is the double-standard displayed on opposite sides of the Atlantic. When Wicked opened in the West End, it was with Broadway’s original Elphaba, Idina Menzel. For any who don’t remember, she performed the role in her own American accent. She was succeeded by Kerry Ellis, who went on to play Elphaba in the Broadway production of Wicked. She however, did not perform the role in her own British accent there.

Another popular former-Elphaba, Rachel Tucker, is currently leading the Broadway production as the green-skinned witch, and yes, in an American accent. So why the double-standard? Of course, the stage actress is actually from Northern Ireland, so to be fair, she was actually putting on a fake accent for the role in both versions of Wicked.

We could go on to look at many more musicals, but it seems there are no set rules in regards to when and where a particular accent should be used, and as such, no right or wrong answers to the question. In trying to make any sort of sense out of the whole matter of accents on the stage, all you’re likely to end up with is a headache!

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Tuesday 19th January 2016