The Drama of Celebrity Casting
With the rise of celebrity castings across the West End comes with it a rise in celebrity let downs. In these tight economic times, Producers are latching onto the mass appeal of ‘star names’ to revive a fledgling show or to pull new audiences into the theatre. In many cases these stars are professional in every respect and provide a certain boost for the theatre industry, turning a middle of the road play into a popular phenomenon overnight. With this power comes great responsibility, as audience members then expect to see the star they have travelled or paid over the odds to see, and in cases where the celebrity becomes bigger than the show, this can lead to mass disappointment.
We have all been in the theatre minutes before curtain up and heard the pre-show announcement stating that ‘at this performance, the role of XXX will instead be played by YYY’. Even the most well behaved audience member can’t help hide their feelings by letting out a sigh or audible groan, which must add to the insecurities of the understudy or cover who then has to work twice as hard for the audience’s attentions. Not only do they have to live up to the role (at often little notice) they also have to live up to the actor they are replacing, making their job twice as difficult. For many audience goers it is the production that they have come to see and the newcomer is welcomed to the stage, and many current West End stars had their big break appearing as understudies. For others however who have paid over £250 for family tickets, they can be left feeling more than a little short changed.
Ten years ago this was less of a problem. Celebrity casting within the West End has only recently become such an issue, (although it can be traced back to the early 90s when heartthrob Jason Donovan donned the Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium…) as celebrities are now often bigger than the production itself, with everything from marketing to the rest of the cast being designed around the celebrity/ies so that it becomes nothing less than a star vehicle. Star names sell tickets, and those people who have paid (often inflated prices) to see their favourite celebrity in a role fully expect to get what has been promised to them. Problems then occur when stars are unable to deliver the gruelling 8 performance a week schedule, and inevitably it is the audience who are let down.
One of the earliest cases of this happening was back in 2001 with the National Theatre’s production of My Fair Lady which starred Eastenders’ star Martine McCutcheon as cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. After receiving rave reviews (and the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical) the celebrity’s health got the better of her and she failed to turn up to many of her scheduled performances. During the run at the Lyttleton Theatre she performed on 63 occasions, with her first cover Alexandra Jay performing 64 times, and second cover Kerry Ellis a further 5 times, giving the TV star an attendance rate of a mere 48%. When the production transferred to the West End, she cut her contract short, leaving producer Cameron Mackintosh furious, saying she just “wasn’t up to the role”. The show had the biggest advance ticket sales of the time, aided by the celebrity who withdrew 5 months early, leaving many fans disappointed.
Cut to 2011 and at the same theatre TV star Amanda Holden disappointed hundreds of fans when she withdrew from ‘Shrek the Musical’ early, missing many performances and reducing her scheduled performances from 8 shows a week to only 6. ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ fans who had booked to see the show specifically because of Holden’s role as Princess Fiona were left angry and upset, with many having spent close to £500 on tickets, travel and accommodation.
“We understand these celebrities have lives outside of their work” says one disgruntled fan, “but if they have committed to performing and people have paid money to see them perform then they really should be there…it just isn’t fair”
In recent years this problem has been exacerbated by the publicity surrounding the celebrity even before the curtain has gone up. TV reality searches led by industry professionals such as Andrew Lloyd Webber have added to the pressure of selling a show on the back of a single name, as the public have chosen their preferred Maria/Joseph/Nancy/Dorothy (and soon to be Jesus) they then expect to see them on stage leading the production.
This week fans of the musical Blood Brothers have taken to message boards and twitter to share their complaints after it was announced that Marti Pellow would leave the West End company of the long running musical for two weeks to perform in Sunderland due to “unforeseen circumstances”. The Wet Wet Wet star has attracted hundreds of people to the show to see him in the role of Narrator, and now many fans have been let down by his shock departure.
Over at the Adelphi Theatre where the National Theatre’s hit comedy ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ is currently playing to sell out houses, audience members were once again left angry as star James Cordon’s holiday dates were not fully available before booking opened. Due to previous commitments the Gavin and Stacey star was scheduled to not perform on selected dates, leaving many fans once again disappointed, despite the talents of understudy Owain Arthur more than making up for Cordon’s absence.
What can you do then to protect yourself against this affecting you or your ticket purchase? One of the easiest things to do is always check cast information BEFORE you book your tickets to see if any holiday dates have been published. When a show announces a cast they should publish scheduled holiday information. If this is released after you booked your tickets then you are within your rights to ask to change your reservation at no extra cost – always check with your original place of purchase if you are unsure. If you arrive at the theatre and see that your favourite performer will not be at your performance you can also usually claim a refund from the Box Office or request tickets for an alternative date. Please note, you can only exchange tickets before the show has started, and not in the interval. Make sure you check the performance board in the theatre foyer or ask an usher before the performance starts.
A new way to insure your ticket purchase, not just against performers cancelling at last notice but also against disruption caused by travel or weather is to upgrade to what is known as a ‘flexi-ticket’. For an additional £2.50 per ticket you are given the freedom to exchange your ticket up to three days before the event for either another ticket or for used as credit for a different show within the next 12 months. This option is also perfect when buying tickets as a gift, to ensure the recipient can attend and hasn’t already seen the show. Although this shouldn’t be a problem, unfortunately the rise of celebrity casting has made it more of one. Actors who trained in their discipline go into the job knowing how to look after themselves and commit to an 8 show a week schedule. Many celebrities have been more than successful during runs, for example Matt Lucas in Les Miserables, or most recently Daniel Radcliffe who starred in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on Broadway for almost a year, only missing shows which were demanded by Warner Brothers to promote the final Harry Potter film. (Which incidentally were cancelled by WB buying out the theatre for the requested time). It seems to be a matter of mentality – some celebrities accept the responsibility to their fans, their colleagues and the production, whereas others see it as a stepping stone to greater things. Like it or not, celebrity casting is here to stay – just make sure you know your rights and purchase a ‘flexi-ticket’ to protect your experience.