West End bleak?

December 7, 2010

An odd, but fascinating column from The Stage’s Mark Shenton today, on the current titans of the West End, and what he sees as possible lack of a ‘new generation’ of  musical theatre stars. Shenton shows his distinct taste very honestly, listing Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Angela Lansbury as shining beacons of Broadway, and pondering our dearth of high-class British equivalents. Firstly, as part of the new generation of theatregoers, these vintage ladies are just not my style. I grew up listening to the likes of the Les Mis original cast, and LuPone and her ilk have a certain camp, self-indulgent tone to their voices that just feels dated now. There is a new rawness in musical theatre, and this should be celebrated. Those warbling wonders were perfect for the original Chicago line-ups (Chita Rivera), and now for classic material like A Little Night Music (Peters and Lansbury), but I don’t think we need new versions of them, especially not in the West End. That is one part of musical theatre history, this is another.

Unfortunately, a large part of this new era is its ‘stunt casting’ (much bemoaned on WEG, so apologies) – producers’ seemingly compulsory casting of at least one ‘face’ from reality TV, soaps or the charts to bring in a wider range of punters. I wish I could say these are all multi-talented folk who simply started off in a less desirable medium, but I have sat through too many shows with one weedy weak link with insufficient breath control and high-school acting (*Jonas*). Sorry, must have slipped while typing there. Apart from anything else, celebrity status is just distracting; you want to be affected by that character, not by how Gareth Gates is playing them. So in this sense I’d say this is a bleak moment for musical theatre talent. The trained, the dedicated and the naturally spine-tingling are being edged out by people for whom fame was  more important than the work they chose. Snobbish perhaps, but WEG’s theatre experience has definitely gone downhill in the past five years or so (although it isn’t entirely new; I remember going as a very small person to see Jason Donovan as Joseph.)

Kerry Ellis

Frequently-smiley, rock'n'rolling Kerry Ellis

When Jason Robert Brown came to London for a two-night gig, it spoke volumes that he hadn’t invited any West End talent to sing his brilliant material. Having said that, if I were asked to cast a JRB-worthy line-up, I’m not entirely sure who I’d pick either. However, I disagree that there are no exciting talents treading our boards; Shenton suggests Kerry Ellis is “carefully positioning herself as” a leading lady, but I would say she’s already there. This smacks of individual dislike, as no one who has seen Ellis sing can deny she is luminous, nuanced and spectacular in range – all leading lady qualities. Anyone remember the sinking feeling when this year’s Over the Rainbow introduced five top ‘leading lady’ mentors, including Tamzin Outhwaite (who later performed incredibly flatly on the show) and Melanie C? Only Ruthie Henshall and Ellis (the new Henshall, really) were really worthy of that title. Sheridan Smith is a tough one; I’ve always admired her as an actress, she is a great TV personality, and she has brought a fresh charm to our Legally Blonde. But her singing is just not up to it, for me. Incidentally, Smith’s understudy Amy Lennox is tremendously talented, but without the Two Pints of Lager and Gavin and Stacey background, it would seem her resume was not starry enough. Let’s not forget that Kerry Ellis first gained admiration as the oft-sickly Martine McCutcheon‘s reliable understudy in My Fair Lady, and some of the best Elphabas I have seen in Wicked were first or second covers (Cassidy Janson and Ashleigh Gray were both stunning.) So we do have leading lady potential in the West End – it’s just not being used enough.

West End Live 2010

The inimitable Julie Atherton

After reading Shenton’s column, I sat and tried to think of those West End Stars who have truly impressed me over the past few years. Julie Atherton, who he has the decency to credit, is someone whose wit, intelligence and power vocals make her a unique presence in our theatre landscape; not to mention her choice of new writing and smaller projects in recent years. John Owen-Jones was probably my favourite performance of the year in the Les Miserables 25th Anniversary tour, played with such fervour and sung with such emotion that it made a well-worn role seem new. Of the reality show darlings, I think Samantha Barks has (excuse the brand) the elusive X factor they all profess to seek, and in terms of leading men Oliver Tompsett has always had that extra charisma, although he is only really associated with Fiyero at this point. Katie Rowley Jones really shone in Sister Act, giving even powerhouse Patina Miller a run for her money. Gemma Sutton, who I saw in the Oklahoma tour this year, also has real potential with her subtle acting and songbird soprano. But while I can list those who I’ve enjoyed in the past few years, I agree that only a handful have been goosebump-inducing. Come on WestEnders; up your game for 2011.


3 Responses to “West End bleak?”

  1. Abby Says:

    Interesting post, I agree that there are some great leading ladies out there not being used enough. I’m undecided on the use of a ‘famous face’ while I do think sometimes they’re usurping a more talented west end performer, I do think sometimes it pays off. Personally, I loved Sheridan Smith, not just for the personality and energy she brings to the role but I also loved her singing. And it is sometimes necessary to do the famous face for ticket sales as (whilst some of us were listening to the Legally Blonde soundtrack months before it came to the UK 😉 ) you do need to pull in some people to see the show that aren’t necessarily big theatre lovers who will know all the west end names.I don’t know if Legally Blonde would have done as well without Sheridan and I think its more of a shame if a good show has to close (like Sister Act)than to pop a famous face in to attract a wider audience. However there’s definetly a line (the line looks a lot like Denise Van Outen to me) and some are completely lacking in talent which is a different matter. I too love Julie Atherton and Ashleigh Gray though not personally a fan of Samantha Barks. I do think shows like Over the Rainbow are good for serving the purpose of bringing a wider audience to the shows but still finding some fresh unknown talent.

  2. Jemma Robinson Says:

    Interesting piece, but I think you do a disservice to some of the famous names on stage. Sheridan Smith was great in Legally Blonde, out-shining the other famous names, in particular Duncan James, while Gareth Gates turned out to be much more convincing than any of the non-famous Mariuses I’ve seen in recent years. As far as I’m concerned, both would merit the parts if they weren’t famous and deserve the praise they’ve earned from most critics. It would be a shame not to cast talented people “off the telly” just because some people can’t get beyond that. Sheridon isn’t the strongest of singers, but she’s strong enough and her comic acting makes up for that. Perhaps the performance isn’t your cup of tea, but that happens with non-famous casting too.

    However, I agree that casting the likes of Nick Jonas was an abomination, and no amount of ticket sales can justify allowing that level of performance on the West End stage to paying customers, never mind permanently recorded to DVD.

  3. Catherine Says:

    I found this an interesting read and I agree with most of the people you have singled out; Julie Atherton and John Owen Jones in particular are two of my favourite West End performers right now. I think that another signal to West End performers to up their game was the arrival of the amazing Broadway cast of Hair in London earlier this year. I wouldn’t want to put down British talent, but that American cast were truly outstanding and there are lots of West End shows that could take a leaf out of their book.

    When it comes down to the much debated practice of stunt casting I think that there are both pros and cons. It seems extremely unfair to the experienced and hard working performers who are losing out and it can backfire when someone is cast for fame over talent, but there are some impressive performers who have made it onto the West End stage through the television route. I’ve recently written a blog post about this question of celebrity casting, so you might be interested to see where I stand on the issue: http://lovetheatre21.blogspot.com/2010/12/any-name-will-do.html

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