Celebrity Casting In Musicals: Yay or Nay?

Who out of you used to watch Smash? The US television series seemed to be a dream come true for fans of the theatre as it followed an ensemble of characters through the creation of a new Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Okay, it wasn’t always an entirely accurate representation of the theatre industry and it ultimately failed to live up to the hype following its pilot episode, (it was cancelled after 2 seasons) but Smash was great in regards of shining a spotlight on the world of theatre and creating buzz about it. Playwright Theresa Rebeck created the show, which featured songs by the award-winning composing team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) and included performances from a host of stage stars in both the main cast and through guest appearances, such as with Megan Hilty, Will Chase, Bernadette Peters, Jeremy Jordan and Krysta Anne Rodriguez.

I’d started to watch Smash when it first aired but didn’t have the time to keep up with it, so I recently went back and watched both seasons back to back. There are many topics for discussion to be found in the show, but one thing which caught my eye was its attitude towards celebrity casting.

Casting a famous name in musicals has always been a point of contention with those both in and out of the industry. The reason behind it is obvious: celebrity equals ticket sales. The problem people seem to have with it though is that more often than not, celebrity wins out over actual talent and performers who are actually stage trained are overlooked in favour of a well-known (sellable) name. In Smash, celebrity casting was addressed twice: first when movie star Rebecca Duvall (played by Uma Thurman) was cast as Marilyn Monroe in new musical Bombshell, and second, when comedy actor Terry Falls (played by Sean Hayes) takes on the lead role in Liaisons. In real life, both Thurman and Hayes have previous stage experience, but the characters they portray in Smash are stereotypical high-maintenance celebrities who are both making their Broadway debuts and are both completely ill-equipped to handle it. Rebecca Duvall is brought in as the star that Bombshell apparently needs to get to the stage (even though the musical has an established writing team and director behind it) and very early on it is made clear that her singing has been vastly over-rated by her management. What follows in subsequent episodes in plenty of diva-like behaviour and the creative team forced to change the show to meet her demands and cover her limited vocal abilities. In the second season, Terry Falls headlines a production of Liaisons while unaware that it is a drama and causes major tensions in the cast with his comedy capers which result in turning the show into a joke. Of course, the director can’t do his job and, you know, actually direct his star actor because of the fact that he’s famous. Even when one of the cast finally snaps and tells him some home truths, his attempts at straight acting see him become totally neurotic after coming off his meds and he quits the production after falling out of a swing on opening night.

The casting of TV and film stars in musical roles wasn’t portrayed in the most favourable light in Smash, and it hasn’t always a popular choice in the UK theatre industry either. I’ve seen plenty of musicals which feature celebrity names, and as a rule, I’ve been left less than impressed by them. That’s not to say that it’s true of everyone however.

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to this business and that can be both a wonderful and a terrible thing. The ‘stunt casting’ debate began again recently when it was announced that singer Ronan Keating is to join the cast of Once in the role of Guy. Theatre-goers immediately took to their computers to air their views on the casting decision with, predictably, some all for it and some against. A frequent argument that breaks out when news of a celebrity taking to the stage is heard is whether or not they can actually sing. Well Ronan Keating has had a very successful singing career as both a member of Boyzone and as a solo artist, so it can’t be disputed that he has the voice to take on a musical theatre role. Whether it holds up to the stress of nightly performances remains to be seen. Musical theatre is about acting ability just as much as it is about vocal ability though, and in that sense, he has yet to prove himself as this is his first West End appearance.

Pre-judgement is an ugly beast and it’s always best to wait until someone is actually up there on that stage performing before making a decision on whether someone is ‘good or bad’. Personally, I think he’ll do alright in the show, but whether it actually needs a celebrity name attached to it is another matter. I adored Once when I went to see it last year and it is one of the best musicals in the West End in my opinion. What I found so endearing about it is the beauty of its simplicity. The show is placed firmly in the hands of the cast, who accompany themselves musically and carry the show purely with their performances. The sets are minimal, there is no reliance on special effects or video screens or big ensemble dance numbers…just like the story thread that runs through it, Once The Musical is just about the love of the music. That simplicity is the heart of the show and the addition of celebrity casting could overshadow what is so good about it… Every show in the West End needs a selling point, and while celebrities are fantastic at putting bums in seats, I don’t think that Once really needs it. The odd famous face here and there won’t hurt of course, but I wouldn’t want to see the show buying into this belief that a musical needs celebrities in the cast to succeed.

Ultimately, it has to come down to talent. Too many shows these days are casting well-known names precisely because of that name and it is a dangerous route to go too far down. My rule is that if someone has the talent to take on musical theatre then they deserve their place on the stage, whether they come from a theatrical background or not. It’s when people are cast purely on the basis of their celebrity status to sell tickets that it becomes an issue. The West End is full of highly skilled singers, dancers and actors who have worked hard to get to where they are, and to be pushed aside in favour of someone who is less talented but more famous is a kick in the teeth to musical theatre performers everywhere. If a big screen actor can sing and dance to the same high standard then they’re more than welcome in the West End, otherwise, their presence benefits no-one in the long run – not even the box office.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Tuesday 10th June 2014

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