The importance of star power when it comes to promoting theatre

It’s been said many times before that there is no ‘secret formula’ to creating a play or musical that will be a sure-fire hit in the West End. There are a variety of factors that contribute to the success or failure of a show, (the material, the staging, the score, etc), and promotion is one aspect which certainly plays an important role. You’ve seen show posters in tube/train stations right…and on the sides of buses and taxis? You’ve seen adverts in newspapers, websites providing all the relevant information to the production (synopsis, cast, creatives, tickets links, etc), promotional accounts on social networking sites, and flyers? There are a million ways to get a West End show the attention it needs to sell, and therefore succeed, but the most effective method is, of course, television, which has the ability to reach the widest audience. Unfortunately, the theatre industry isn’t given the same status as the film/TV and music industries, and subsequently, doesn’t benefit from the promotional power of television as much as they do.

That’s not to say that straight theatre and musical theatre doesn’t have a presence on TV, because of course it does. I’ve seen the odd trailer for a musical crop up during the adverts, or a show’s cast performing on, say, a morning programme or as part of the line-up for a big event such as The Royal Variety Performance – there just always seems to be some angle attached.

I offer an example of this. Every now and then, an actor/actress will appear on a talk show and proceed to promote the play or musical they’re about to star in. Yes, star, because every time, with almost no exception, the actor/actress in question is already a star in some other area of entertainment. It would seem that a West End show only earns the right to be promoted on TV through the star power of its cast, elevated to such a position by the pop singer, reality star or film star performing in the production.

It was stage and screen actor Stephen Mangan’s recent appearance as a guest on Alan Carr: Chatty Man that got me to thinking about this. Mangan is a well-known name in theatre circles of course, having played lead roles in such shows as The Norman Conquests (Old Vic, West End & Circle in the Square, Broadway) and Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense (Duke of York’s Theatre, West End), but is far more widely known for his TV and film roles, which includes his breakthrough performance in the title role of Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, as well as Guy Secretan in Channel 4’s Green Wing and the voice of Postman Pat in Postman Pat: The Movie. His appearance on Chatty Man was largely dominated by talk of his TV role as Sean Lincoln in the hit British/American comedy, Episodes, which also features Tamsin Greig and former Friends star Matt LeBlanc. It was only towards the end of the interview that mention was made of his current stage role in the play Rules For Living, which is running at the National until 8th July 2015. He did also take the chance to promote Sky Arts’ upcoming TV adaption of the Joe Penhill play, Birthdays, in which he reprises the role he first played on stage at the Royal Court in 2012. The role is, of course, that of Ed, a 30-something pregnant man about to give birth. Mangan has previously said that he considers himself a stage actor first and foremost, so it’s kind of ironic that his TV career can, in all probability, claim the credit for his being invited on the show, and therefore, able to talk about his stage career.

I don’t mean that to sound demeaning in any way, let me just say. Stage actors/actresses wholeheartedly deserve to be able to promote themselves and their projects on an equal standing  with those who work in film, TV and music, and on the merit of their stage work alone. It’s a sad fact though that those who work in theatre are not given the same recognition; I’ve written before on the so-called ‘stigma’ of being a musical theatre performer, a subject which West End leading man Michael Xavier has also spoken out about with claims that a snobbery towards musical theatre performers exists, pigeon-holing them in that one area and preventing them from expanding into others. A West End star doesn’t carry the same weight as a pop star, TV star or film star…so promotion of a play or musical on television only seems to occur when a celebrity (outside of the theatre industry) is involved in the production.

I’ve seen it again, and again, and again. I watched Trafalgar Studios’ recent production of The Ruling Class being promoted on The Jonathan Ross Show, by the show’s star, James McAvoy, who is of course best known for his film roles in The Last King of Scotland, Atonement, Wanted, and most notably, the X-Men franchise, in which he plays a young Professor Charles Xavier. Or how about when Daniel Radcliffe was interviewed by Jonathan Ross about his performance in the stage play Equus… which followed the release of the eighth and final Harry Potter film… which he starred in as Harry Potter. On the musical side of the theatre industry, it’s exactly the same. Shrek The Musical benefitted from the cast performing on Britain’s Got Talent, which is watched by millions of viewers. I’m sure the fact that BGT judge Amanda Holden was one of the cast, starring in the West End production as Princess Fiona, had nothing to do with that though…. More recently, I saw Gemma Arterton talk to Graham Norton on his BBC2 show about her first stage role in Made in Dagenham. Arterton rose to prominence through her film roles in St Trinian’s, the James Bond film Quantum of Solace, Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and many more.

The point I make is that how often do you see a play or musical promoted by a cast member who is exclusively a stage performer, without that reliance of being known for their music or film/TV career? Has Killian Donnelly appeared on Chatty Man to promote Memphis The Musical? No. Is Simon Russell Beale, one of the greatest stage actors of this generation, likely to be invited onto The Jonathan Ross Show to talk about his upcoming role in Donmar Warehouse’s production of the play Temple? I wouldn’t hold your breath.

The West End is a multi-million pound industry that attracts people from all over the world. We have some of the best musicals and plays in the world, and the UK theatre industry should be appreciated to the full value of its worth. Shows should receive the promotion they deserve, all the time, and not just when it’s a famous face that’s fronting the show.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Thursday 30th April 2015

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