Familiarity breeds contempt: Is the West End playing a dangerous game?

All too often recently, I’ve heard the word ‘familiarity’ used in conjunction with musical theatre. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that; it does project the image of intimacy and fondness after all, and that can’t be a bad thing right? Have you ever heard the saying, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ though? The meaning behind it broadly translates as that if you know someone/something well and  experience them/it a lot, it can lead to the loss of respect. This rings true of the current West End scene a little too well.

Familiarity has bred an environment where we are over-run with film-to-stage adaptations, jukebox musicals, and revivals of tried-and-tested shows, and in which an over-reliance on celebrity names to sell a show is becoming an all-too common occurrence. We’re told that audiences today need a familiar story or a familiar face to make them want to pay a visit to the West End, and while it is certainly true that there are many people out there who will go to the theatre because a favourite actor is starring in a show or to see another version of a popular film they like, there are also many die-hard theatre-goers who are fed up with seeing this happen again and again and again, and are desperate for new, original work and to see the West End placing a little more faith in its home-grown talent.

I recently read an interview with theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh in The Sunday Telegraph in which he discussed what he finds important in his musical projects, saying it was the material which attracted him to any project and that he wouldn’t take on a show if ‘I don’t like the characters and the story.’ This attestation that it begins with the story is right on the money, in my opinion. Making it into the West End is a huge achievement for any musical as competition is fierce and availability so scarce, but a production should earn its place there on its own merit, and nothing else. As the hub of theatre activity in the UK, the West End should offer theatre-goers a variety of shows, including jukebox musicals and film adaptations; they have an audience, there is a demand… they deserve a place. They just don’t deserve the majority of them. These type of shows are part of a popularity contest, created because a lot of people really liked the music or the film that inspired them. Some have gone on to do extraordinarily well, while others… have not. The problem with jukebox musicals is that they are built to fit around the relevant back catalogue; the songs form the core of the show, not the story, and the show in its entirety generally suffers because of that. The problem with film-to-stage musicals is that they generally tend to be too close to the films they’re adapted from, just with the addition of a few songs. Once the novelty has worn off and most people satisfied their curiosity, it’s easier – and cheaper – to stay at home with the CD/film. Perhaps they could learn from such long-lasting musicals as Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, both of which were adapted from books but are not carbon copies. The books serve as inspiration, with both shows taking certain elements from the author’s original story to create one which feels entirely new in musical form.

I’ve also seen many, many different articles on the issue of stunt casting which, for those who may not have heard the term, refers to the practice of casting well-known names to draw in audiences. Once, Shrek and Chicago are a few examples of shows that have cast big name stars, and okay, we can’t really blame producers for doing it. They need bums in seats for their show to be a success, and if having a famous face or two on the stage sells tickets, then well, that’s just peachy for them. The trouble begins when the celebrity cast member becomes bigger than the show itself. If the marketing for a musical is based around the ‘star of the show’ and not the show itself, it becomes nothing more than a star vehicle that may bring in audiences, but they’ll be audiences who come for the name-actor and not the show. There is nothing right about that, and ultimately, it doesn’t benefit anyone as often the shows can’t survive long past the star’s departure. The casting of celebrities does not ensure the longevity of a musical by any means, it is the quality of the production which will carry it through the years and see it overcome any bumps in the road. I saw a fan post today about a long-running West End show in which the author bemoaned the weakness of the current cast. She may be right, she may be wrong, but regardless, it wouldn’t even dent the show’s popularity with theatre-goers. It’s such a perfect creation of musical genius that it has stood the test of time on its own merits, and while a few celebrity names have appeared on the cast list over the years, the show doesn’t need them to keep its popularity up and audiences coming in.

‘Stunt casting’ also carries the knock-on effect of hindering the rise of the next generation of stage stars. On several occasions, I’ve seen understudies stepping up to take on the role played by the guest-starring celebrity in their absence and do a much better job than they ever could. All the big names in musical theatre worked as understudies early in their career, and the rising stars of today need people to trust in their talent and get behind them instead of being pushed aside in favour of a famous face. How will they ever get to the top otherwise?

The crux of the issue is that there is an over-reliance on familiarity and way too much importance placed on its value. Do audiences really need to have some prior connection to a show’s story or lead actor/actress to be able to enjoy it? I answer this with a resounding “no.” What audiences need to do is broaden their minds and be more open to new experiences. The West End should be taking a few more risks when it comes to new, original work. Unknown doesn’t have to mean unsuccessful. An out-of-town trial run before a West End opening would give a show the opportunity to see if anything isn’t working and make any necessary changes, giving it more chance of West End success as it will turn up there in the best possible shape, and hopefully, with plenty of buzz surrounding its arrival. I feel a new musical like Stephen Ward would have benefited from such a move – even the name of Andrew Lloyd Webber couldn’t save that show, in a far cry from the good ol’ years in which the attachment of such names as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice and Cameron Mackintosh practically guaranteed success.

Familiarity isn’t some magic word that is the answer to all problems, and shouldn’t be used as such. There are of course instances in which a celebrity casting is a well-chosen move and a much-loved film proves to be a perfect source of inspiration for a stage adaptation, but at the end of the day, the focus should always be on quality material and a quality cast. If the West End continues to chase familiarity, it may well evolve into nothing more than a tourist hotspot that panders to fleeting popularity, and where’s the respect in that?

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Thursday 26th March 2015

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