Casting in musicals has become a controversial matter that never fails to garner the interest and opinions of the theatre fans. Everyone has their favourite (and not so favourite) performers and everyone has a certain idea of who is and isn’t right for certain roles. Beyond that though, there is the added complication of whether a particular individual is ‘qualified’ to the satisfaction of the fans. By that, I mean the issue of casting celebrity names in West End shows over trained musical theatre performers.
Now, I’m someone who’d certainly raise my hand in objection if a well-known star is cast because of the level of fame they possess, and not the level of talent. While that has been known to happen from time to time (ahem), there are other celebrities who have taken on a musical theatre role and proven that they are more than equipped to handle it. Indeed, what many people forget is that a lot of singers and TV/film actors attended performing arts schools and actually got their start on the stage.
So why is it then, that there is such a glaring difference in the way people look at stage and screen actors?
As it stands, an actor typically known for their stage roles who begins to transcend into TV and/or film acting is considered as having taken a step up in their career. It is only if they start to become recognised by this audience that they have become ‘real’ stars, even if they’d been named as a West End star beforehand. On the opposite end of the spectrum though, a film/TV who takes on a role in a West End musical is considered as having taken a step down in their career. Talk of them having fallen on hard times begins to circulate, as the only possible reason they would do such a thing is for the money! Right?
A lot of people look down on musical theatre with the snobbish attitude that it is a lower form of entertainment, one that is somehow less deserving of being respected in the same way TV and film mediums are. I was once told a story about a well-known actor being overheard on a train complaining about the musical he was currently appearing in, and the fact that he’d had to do it, proving that even those who’ve done musicals have this same snobbish attitude. Some, not all, of course. Famous actors starring in plays in the West End is fine though, there’s no such judgement passed on them. Seriously, what is going on here?
I cannot understand why anyone would look down on musical theatre performers, as honestly, they have got to be the most talented bunch of people in the whole of the entertainment industry. Outside of musical theatre, you have those known for being great actors, or great singers, or great dancers. In a West End musical though, there are countless individuals who are equally great at all three. These ‘triple threat’ performers are the epitome of talent, so why someone who can sing, dance and act at the same time, at the same level of expertise, receives less respect and recognition that someone who is skilled in just one of these areas is simply beyond my comprehension. Perhaps some people can’t see past the singing and dancing to find the actor that is there, the actor that has to be there if they are to become a success on the stage. There are some amazing performers on the West End stage, but even the best singers and dancers have to be actors above all else when it comes to musical theatre as that is the solid foundation they must draw upon when delivering a song or performing a dance.
This attitude towards musical theatre performers unfortunately exists within the theatre industry too, it seems. West End star, Michael Xavier, spoke out a few years ago against the ‘snobbery’ about musical theatre, claiming that musical theatre performers are missing out on roles in plays because producers doubt their acting ability:
“There is a snobbery about musical theatre – still – and a sense that if you are in musicals you probably trained at a musical theatre school, and that you therefore focused on dancing and singing and you can’t act.”
Some do manage to squeeze through the cracks and make it through the ‘glass ceiling’ that prevents musical theatre performers from branching out into other areas, but that barrier needs to be removed completely and their talents recognised, appreciated, and fully utilised. I don’t know if that will ever really happen however. Snobbery is everywhere in the entertainment industry, reaching into every corner of every medium. Film stars are the ‘kings of the castle’, superior to TV actors, who in turn, look down on soap stars – don’t even get me started on those who do TV adverts. Even amongst musical theatre performers, there is a kind of snobbery from the trained towards the untrained. A lot of people resented the winners of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV casting contests for taking the short cut to the stage.
Personally, I think individuals should be judged on the talent they possess, not whether they come from musicals, or TV, or films…it doesn’t matter. Any career is built on the ability to do the job in question, so as long as they have the required skills, there’s no reason a musical theatre performer can’t be a straight actor, or a straight actor a musical theatre performer. It’s unjust that someone should be subjected to prejudice because of their background, and the future shouldn’t be defined by the past.
By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25
Tuesday 17th February 2015