Let’s talk celebrity casting! The good, the bad and the ugly…
In a piece last year, Whats On Stage argued that celebrity casting often sells audiences short, what do you think?
Why are “Celebrities” Cast in Shows on Stage?
My personal opinion is that the answer to this initial question is relatively easy and obvious. As with any form of advertising, having a celebrity or well-known face on the product will help to sell it. It works with selling all kinds of products and it works in selling shows too. By having a big-name for the producers to market the show on, this attracts wide audiences, growing attention and revenue.
As explained by the above contributor perfectly, shows need to make money and attract audiences. Shows most need of attracting audiences are newly opening shows, such as Natasha Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 in comparison to some “big-name” shows such as Les Miserables or Wicked, necessitating the casting of Josh Groban in the production.
This may explain why the likes of Miranda Hart, Sarah Harding, Freddie Flintoff and Matt Willis have graced our stages in London. Do they really belong there? Theatre fans and those wishing to enjoy a high-quality show with professionally trained actors would say no, whilst fans of the stars and those making money from the ticket sales would say yes.
Discrepancies arrive, however, when we look at celebrities who also have been trained or have backgrounds in singing. Amber Davies, for example, has recently been cast in Dolly Parton’s 9-5 at the Savoy Theatre. Broadway star Idina Menzel warned of this back in 2011, where she stated that casting theatre productions with reality TV show stars is not the best way to go about it – even if it does sell tickets. In defense of Amber Davies, however, she is not just a reality star who won ITV’s “Love Island” back in 2017, she was also professionally trained at Urdang Theatre School.
In addition, we’ve also had many names from X-Factor enter the musical scene, with Rhydian Roberts starring in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Matt Terry playing Alex the Lion in Madagascar the Musical and Joe McElderry starring in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for multiple years now.
While these “names” are talented in some respect, the main reason they are cast is simply to attract audiences of all kinds and get tickets sold. Show business.
What are the Advantages of Celebrity Casting?
Giving Smaller Shows a Chance
Without a big marketing strategy or a big-name to use to their advantage, new shows may struggle to keep up with the likes of Les Miserables – a show most people have heard of and needs little advertising. Using a big name to attract people to smaller shows gives these smaller shows a chance.
Supporting the Whole Theatre Community
As well as giving smaller shows a chance to compete with bigger shows, seeing these smaller shows supports small theatres and actors with less experience. This allows the theatre community as a whole to grow, rather than just supporting the ever-growing big names.
Keeping Shows open
In addition, some celebrities are often cast if shows are struggling, hoping to keep these shows open. Before it announced that Strictly Ballroom: The Musical was closing, it was announced that Matt Cardle would be taking over the role of Wally from Will Young. This may be because producers thought Matt Cardle may bring in a younger or different audience than Will Young did. However, attempts failed as the show still announced its closure – but it’s a possible theory that that was an attempt to keep it open.
Word of Mouth
Often, celebrities are just cast in the initial stages of a show because after this word spreads of this amazing new show and then even without the celebrity in the main role, the show is able to survive.
Introducing New People to Theatre
Using the above example of Amber Davies, if you were her number 1 fan and saw she was in the show, you’d probably try to get tickets. Maybe from there you find a new love for theatre. We’ve all had a theatre experience that made us love the industry so why can’t that be a celebrity introducing us to it?
What are the Disadvantages of Celebrity Casting?
If the Celebrities Aren’t Good Enough
One of the most famous examples of this, which was all over the news at the time, was the casting of Sarah Harding as the leading role of Molly in Ghost the Musical. Now, this one I can speak from personal experience as I was at the opening night of the production at the New Wimbledon Theatre. I don’t know who cast her and if they ever heard her sing but from the first note, I knew it wasn’t going to go down well. Actually, from the moment I heard the casting decision I knew it wasn’t going to go down well. Harding received so much backlash on social media:
I’m sure the producers of the show cast Harding to boost sales but I would assume it had the opposite effect and people were more put-off than attracted to the show.
Talented but Can’t Keep Up?
Maybe stars are talented enough and bring in enough seats but simply can’t keep up with the demand of an 8-show week. Amanda Holden, when starring in Shrek the Musical had to pull out early as she often wasn’t able to make all of the performances. One contributor also shared the same opinion:
It Doesn’t Give Other Actors a Chance
If celebrities are the only ones being cast in big names in shows, when does this give the chance for all the other talented actors to break their way into the spotlight? Sure, not all actors can be the star, but by only casting big-names, this severely limits their chances, and limits the chances for producers and casting teams to find the next big stars.
We Should Focus on the Whole Cast, Not Just One Cast Member
Although I have personally been guilty of seeing shows for one starring lead (James McAvoy in The Ruling Class and Samantha Barks in City of Angels), this takes the attention away from the show as a whole and causes audiences to only focus on the star. I was also lucky enough to catch Rowan Atkinson in Oliver! and Imelda Staunton in Gypsy, and on both occasions, the audience applauded when the stars entered. It broke attention from the rest of the show and disregarded the rest of the cast who had been performing for at least half an hour before the stars appeared. It broke the fourth wall, in a way, and I couldn’t help get slightly excited whenever Imelda Staunton may have been looking in my direction, causing me to lose focus in the show and only think of Professor Umbridge in front of me (Harry Potter reference, sorry not sorry).
A Lack of Theatre Etiquette
Issues can arrive when people just come to see one star. One main problem can be that audiences can be annoyed or disappointed if they end up with the understudy for the role rather than the big-name lead. This can lead to rudeness to actors rather than appreciating understudies and a lack of enjoyment of the whole show.
This can also extend to the stage door. If people buy a ticket to a show to see a star, they may think this ticket entitles them to a meet-and-greet at the stage door afterward. Those in the theatre community know that stage door is a privilege and not a right – if performers stop it’s because they want to, not because they have to, whereas non-theatre goers who have only come to see a “star” may not know this. It can also cause chaos at the stage door. When I went to see The King and I (review here), the stage door was CHAOS with fans for Ken Watanabe! I was shoved, stood on and pushed from my spot in order for fans to approach him. Not something I’d want to experience again.
What about “Big Names” in Theatre?
The list of big name actors who also appear on stage with high levels of talent is quite large, including the likes of James McAvoy, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gambon, Kit Harrington and so many more. There are even sites where you can find specific shows to see these talented stars live, one piece arguing that it adds a touch of something special to seeing a show.
There is also a huge community now of big-name theatre stars such as Carrie Hope Fletcher, Beverly Knight, Ramin Karimloo, Samantha Barks, Alfie Boe, Killian Donnelly and so many more, who are sort of “celebrities” in the theatre industry.
The casting of either of these groups of people (celebrities who have experience on stage and big names in theatre) works in the same way as the casting of “big name celebrities” because these names will still attract audiences to seats.
This casting comes with its advantages and disadvantages too, however. The advantages
are that the musical theatre community can be very attracted to these stars because they are aware of both their statuses/wanting to see them live and their talent. Theatre-goers know their favourites, know the level talent and will be enticed by this. The disadvantage, however, is that this casting often doesn’t open itself up to wider communities outside the theatre. Your average Joe is unlikely to have heard of Charlie Stemp who is soon to be starring in Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward Theatre, but ask them if they want to see Miranda Hart in a show, and they will more likely be on the same page as you.
Ultimately, celebrity casting comes with its risks that both producers and fans hope pay off. No audience member wants their show or their evening ruined by a celebrity who can’t sing, and no theatre producer wants empty seats. Occasionally celebrity casting just has to be done: sometimes it’s for the better and at other times it’s for the worst. Either way, it usually keeps the theatre industry going and surely that’s positive?