Has the MEGA-MUSICAL become it’s own worst enemy? – GUEST BLOG

by Harper James

We’ve seen it a thousand times and it’s a trend that shows no sign of letting up…. Casting a celeb in the lead role with no prior training or experience. 

So what’s going on here? Why are producers and casting directors so quick to take the safe option? Sadly, it seems that the casting choices are not the only areas where producers are looking for a ‘safe-bet’.
As the cost of staging a musical continues to rise, often in some cases reaching tens of millions of pounds, producers are wary of backing unknown performers or even new composers, opting instead to centre a musical on the music of an already established band or artist. Financially, when the right show hits the mark, Broadway and the West End can yield an incredible turnover.  According to BBC News, The Lion King, with music by rock legend Elton John, is the highest grossing Broadway musical of all time having made a staggering $854 million (£536 million). But The Lion King has the powerhouse of Disney marketing behind it (plus $12,000,000 worth of mesmerising puppetry) and for every The Lion King there are many more flops. So, as producers and investors over the years have been stung by massive failures and financial losses a culture of playing it safe has emerged.  Costs have now escalated to the point where it is no longer financially viable for an individual investor to produce a show of their own choosing. Where it was once possible for a single producer to come up with a concept and create a piece from scratch according to their own vision, unfortunately that’s no longer a luxury anyone can afford.

‘What’s happened nowadays is you can’t have personal investors anymore because it’s too expensive, and so you have to have corporate investment. Or a lot of rich people. Nowadays, you look at the producers of a musical, there are sometimes more producers than there are people in the cast, because it takes that much money to put a show on.’ (Sondheim, 2005).

The impact of diluting the role of producer has had a knock-on effect not just for the business side of things but also creatively as boardrooms of money-men with little artistic interest seek merely to make as much money as possible. One of the many ways in which these new production teams and/or corporations try to sure up their investment is by employing a star name in the leading role. There is irrefutable evidence that having a well-known star at the top of the bill guarantees a certain amount of box office receipts even if they have little or no musical pedigree or aren’t particularly suited to the character they are playing. Increasingly however, a star name may not be enough to draw in the crowds. These days a show needs to have a technical talking point, some sort of grand theatrical gimmick (the falling chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera or the arrival of the helicopter in Miss Saigon).

The problem with all of this is that creates a kind of self-perpetuating financial bubble. As production costs continue to rise, so does the ticket price, which in turn makes people more wary about where they spend their hard earned cash leading the producers to employ even more elaborate theatrics and unqualified television stars. Of course there are always exceptions, Stomp chipped away at the cultural zeitgeist and has become a success around the world, and Jerry Springer: The Opera began life as a small studio experiment at the Battersea Arts Centre (though, again, it is based on an internationally famous T.V. show). However, these are examples of productions growing organically from small seed off the back of public support.

Essentially though, the formula is now well established and if you want to make a successful musical you basically need a star name, some borrowed hit songs, a big piece of moving scenery and despite for the most part met with a raft a critical scorn the producers of such shows are lucky in that contemporary audiences have been trained to prefer style over substance.  However, it is exactly this sort of low-risk producing policy that ‘permeates musical production across the UK—from the smallest fringe theatre to the National Theatre, and as a result the art form is stagnating—very little new work is produced and there is no incentive for British writers to embark on a musical theatre writing career or for those committed to the art form to try out new ideas within the genre.’ (Georgina Bexon, 2005).

It seems that, although the demand for original and challenging theatrical material is still as strong as ever, in the U.K. at least, producers are reluctant to put their money where their mouth is, preferring to settle for reworking’s of established popular songs or an adaptation of an already commercially successful film script, with someone off the telly standing centre stage.

by Harper James


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