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The Sound of Musicals: Spectacle and child-stars in West End theatre

Scene from Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryMusical Theatre doesn’t have a big presence on television, but performances and interviews from individual stage stars/casts, participation in Children in Need fundraising events and, most notably, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s talent search shows, have all helped to create to raise the West End’s profile with the general public by making them more aware of what it’s all about. This week, Musical Theatre made another TV appearance courtesy of a new three-part documentary series that Channel 4 has commissioned. The Sound of Musicals, a behind-the-scenes look at some of the biggest musicals currently running in the West End, premiered on the TV channel on Tuesday (12th November) with an opening episode which showed viewers what the ups and downs of staging of a new musical. The recent musical adaption of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory was the focus for this episode, featuring interviews with director Sam Mendes and other members of the creative team and offering an insight into the whole backstage process which usually remains hidden from theatre-goers’ eyes.

Amidst the whirl of rehearsals, castings, set-building and technical difficulties that viewers glimpsed, I would say that this particular episode based itself around two main focal points; the first being the issue of spectacle. I’ve been part of many a discussion about the necessity of spectacle in a West End show and The Sound of Musicals appeared to come down firmly on the side of ‘Yes’.  Charlie and The Chocolate Factory has some of the largest and most expensive sets ever, and spectacle is a big part of the production. Willy Wonka’s glass elevator is the grand finale to the show, gliding out over the audience in a moment of pure spectacle. The prop was compared to the chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera and the helicopter in Miss Saigon with the view that audience members expect a big moment like this or special FX nowadays when they pay to see a show. To be honest, this is something I would have to disagree with. The West End is all about variety, with a show to suit every taste and mood. Yes, sometimes a big budget show filled with ‘wow’ moments is exactly what is wanted, but other times, simplicity and understatement can be just as desirable. The best example of this is Once The Musical, which is the absolute opposite of spectacle and doesn’t suffer one bit for that. It was an instant hit on Broadway, and since it transferred over here earlier this year, it has come to be widely regarded as one of the best shows in the West End. There is just one constant set which relies on the cast moving props around the stage for scene changes. There is no orchestra either; instead the cast accompany themselves musically onstage with a score which has a folksy, acoustic feel to it rather than big, belting numbers. It is so different from your typical musical but it works, and less is more is definitely applicable in this instance. The main reason is because the show has so much heart to it – never underestimate the importance of heart over spectacle. Charlie and The Chocolate Factory was inevitably compared to the West End’s other Roald Dahl-adapted musical, Matilda, by the critics in their reviews, and reading them, the general consensus seems to be that Charlie and The Chocolate Factory doesn’t quite measure up to its Roald Dahl-counterpart as, while it was praised as a wonderful display of spectacle, it lacked the same heart that Matilda possesses.

Spectacle is all very well and good in a show, but it can actually end up being more trouble that its worth. Technical difficulties have caused many a West End show to be stopped during a performance, with the revolving stage of Les Miserables being one such culprit. Every performer I know has a story of something going wrong on stage and not working as it should…as I’m sure many audience members can attest to. ‘Unforeseen problems in the delivery of a piece of stage engineering by a contractor’ led to previews of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory being delayed by five days, and anyone who watched The Sound of Musicals on Tuesday will see how much trouble the glass elevator produced. When there is such a heavy reliance on technical props, etc. in a show, the breakdown of just one can cause untold disruption – spectacle may help to sell tickets, but audience members will hardly be happy when that same spectacle stops the show.

As I mentioned earlier though, this wasn’t the only issue I noticed repeatedly cropping up during the course of the programme. There was also a lot of focus put on the show’s child stars. There are 17 child actors in the cast of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory altogether, with the main character of Charlie Bucket being alternated between four different boys. It’s not the first musical to feature children in principal roles: Matilda, of course, is a show with a large child cast, as is Oliver! The Victoria Palace’s Billy Elliot also places a young boy in the starring role. All of these shows and more have proven that children can be wonderful additions to a musical production, but they also come attached with more than the normal issues that are found in a show’s cast. In The Sound of Musicals, we saw one of the Augustus Gloop’s ousted from the show during rehearsals when his voice started to break, for example. There is so much more to think about when dealing with child actors – their schooling for instance. They also have strictly limited working hours, and when their living location makes travelling to and from London impossible, the production team must also set them up in residence away from home. Another example would be the characters of Gavroche and Young Cosette in Les Miserables, which are accompanied by a height limit on the children who play them.

The biggest issue to think about when dealing with child actors though is the pressure that performing on a West End stage puts on them. Leading a musical in the West End is a nerve-wracking experience for any grown performer, but in a show like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, it is the children who are charged with carrying it – a weight which must feel even heavier upon their smaller shoulders. We’ve all seen how child stars in Hollywood can be affected by the pressure of fame, and while the West End stage is a much less toxic environment for a child, it still comes with its own pressures which could possible have a profoundly damaging effect on a child. A negative review’s impact on a child in comparison to an adult could lead to far weightier consequences. One of the child actors playing Charlie had no previous experience in the West End, and going from the small audience of a school production to performing in front of thousands of people is a huge step up. If a child can’t handle that kind of pressure, it affects not only him but the show itself.

The Sound of Musicals offered a fascinating look at what goes into the opening of a musical in the West End and provided much food for thought; particularly in regard to these two issues. With another two episodes still to come in the series, it’ll be interesting to see what other discussions it may stir up.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Thursday 14th November 2013