Lessons to learn from X-Factor musical’s flop

Victoria Elliott (Jordy), Nigel Harmen (Simon) and Ashley Knight (Louis) in I Can't Sing. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Victoria Elliott (Jordy), Nigel Harmen (Simon) and Ashley Knight (Louis) in I Can't Sing. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
by -

This week's closure of I Can't Sing, the X-Factor musical, makes it one of the biggest failures in West End history.

As the most anticipated new musical of the season, its rapid demise will also certainly shake up some corners of the West End and commercial theatre industry. The shock of its departure stems from the outward perception that, with considerable profile and money behind it, even with mixed reviews it could survive.

Here was a potential audience from a massive national demographic comprising the several million who watch the X Factor TV show on a Saturday night. On paper, this sounds like box office gold where, even if a small percentage of them came to see the show, it could enjoy a decent run. Add into that mix the comedy talent of much-loved family favourite comedian Harry Hill as the show’s co-writer, alongside Sean Foley who has fast become theatre’s "go-to director" for comedy in recent years as well as two talented and respected industry leads in Nigel Harman and Cynthia Erivo and, crucially, Simon Cowell himself as a producer then this sounds like a dream mix - a virtual ‘no-brainer’ as one colleague who had seen the workshop described it to me.

Simon Cowell is a master at product and branding placement, as his television shows have demonstrated. This has been reflected in the highly visible advertising campaign the show has run for many months before its opening that has included television appearances on the Royal Variety Performance and various other major TV shows.

It is one of the longest marketing campaigns I have seen for a West End musical in recent years, and had been highly visible from the immediate announcement of its West End premiere, suggesting there was a lot of money behind I Can't Sing. This makes its fast closure all the more unexpected because little has been reported on the show doing poor business, seemingly exemplified by the lack of discount tickets.

Even on the day the show was announced for closure (and had obviously struggled with ticket sales), the TKTS booth in Leicester Square did not offer any discount on performances. On Saturday April 26, the same day as the closure was reported on The Stage website, I received a text from Orange with a week-long flash sale offer for I Can't Sing but to date it is the first discount offer I had received for the production.

This is a surprise as, more than any other recent musical, this is a word-of-mouth show and yet the drive just to get audiences in and talking about it seems not to have happened.

In stark contrast, a musical such as The Book of Mormon utilized this tool with free first previews and made a deliberate move to reach both a young and new audience which has continued since its very first performance. It would now seem I Can't Sing entirely misjudged its marketing strategy spending all its money on advance advertising but held little production running reserve to handle the fall-out if press reviews were bad and with no strategy for this situation. It is also reflected by the subsequent discounts offers that seem randomly thrown together in an attempt to try and do too little, too late. The very fact the show is closing so quickly without even an attempt to get to school summer holidays (where there would seem a potentially strong attendance), highlights this further suggesting it has been produced from a zealous over-confidence.

That attitude is not dissimilar to the one shown towards the short-lived Viva Forever!, the Spice Girls’ musical last year. Although I Can't Sing is a much better show, it has had an even shorter run despite more favourable reviews.

The tragedy of I Can't Sing's West End failure is that here was an original large-scale new musical with popular names attached and major media coverage that was not adapted from any movie or recording artist’s back catalogue. Despite all that, for it to then close so quickly one has to consider just how bad sales must have been with no belief they would improve.

This is especially significant when you consider that here was a musical potentially offering the biggest global franchise since Andrew Lloyd Webber. Its failure will also make producers and investors already smarting from the recent failure of Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward yet more nervous of going down the original musical path, and in some respects could be seen to be a critical nail in the coffin for the future of the new British musical in the West End.

I Can't Sing also illustrates something that I have long believed – the audience who watch the televised X Factor or many other reality competitions, are not ticket buyers. They enjoy voting for the contestant at home but that does not translate into ticket sales or necessarily them even subsequently developing a long-term interest in the artist or their work.

This can perhaps be further reflected in The X Factor’s own recent and less successful post-TV concert tours or the short-lived recording careers of many of its contestants. The X Factor, like I Can't Sing, regularly creates "flashes in the pan" as opposed to long-lasting, durable careers. Simon Cowell has also previously expressed his disdain of musical singing that makes this project feel a vanity-driven exercise which he comes to with a limited understanding of the theatre industry, discovering it cannot be manipulated in the same way as a TV audience.

The subsequent fast closure of the show might also suggest this was an experiment for him or even, in relation to his rival Simon Fuller whom through the Spice Girls held some association with Viva Forever!, it was a case of "Anything you can do, I can do better".

When I Can't Sing did not achieve the anticipated reviews, then, like many of his own X Factor contestants, it possibly saw Cowell quickly lose interest. Meanwhile, his co-producers, the experienced Stage Entertainment, is also currently producing the musical Rocky on Broadway whose recent opening failed to land the anticipated knock-out punch or Tony best musical nomination and is therefore facing a more challenging run.

I Can't Sing proves there is no such thing as a "no brainer" in theatre but its failure will leave people debating how this could have happened for a show that outwardly appeared to be an obvious success story.

11 Comments

  1. This misjudgement so reminds me of a similarly based disastrous mistake I made while at EMI, thinking that the 20,000,000 people who watched Darling Buds of May on TV every week would rush and buy the perfectly acceptable soundtrack that went with it. Wrong, and I will refrain from saying how much I persuaded EMI to pay for the privilege!

  2. I would accuse both Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller from stealing the only good idea they have ever had from me. What Simon Cowell suggests was a “Vodka and lime experience” to create the multi million pound idea which has taken the shape of Idol’s, BGT and X factor are all the same variations of my show in Majorca. I have found it a struggle to promote this and wish some help. Can you help? My tale involves the following from 1996 till 2000 Alcudia, Majorca;
    Simon Cowell, Sinitta and nephews, Simon Fuller, Jon Lee, EMI, Budweiser. I have been unwell for many years and am only now strong enough to expose the farse.

  3. Viva Forever lasted almost 4 times as long and people seem to forgot that it done extremely well in the previews (all the previews were sold out unlike ICS, who haven’t had a single sold out performance to date). As a matter of fact VF is actually the most successful musical (which isn’t based on a movie or a Westend transfer) of the last 3 years.

  4. I’m not entirely sure this show was aimed at the Xfactor TV audience. In fact it was always a little unclear just who it was aimed at.
    I think the rather superb ‘Our House’ suffered from the same lack of marketing focus a few years back. Madness fans expecting a show about Madness themselves were left disappointed and those who may well have enjoyed the show didn’t go as they thought it was going to be a show about Madness!
    Can you aim a show at 10million Xfactor fans that pokes fun at that very programme?
    Either way… The venue was always way too big for what at it’s best was a kitch, cult kind of thing… Taboo at the London Paladium? I think not.

  5. The Sun was offering thousands of free tickets to I Can’t Sing for anyone who signed up to their Sun+ App. This was before the show opened. That reeks of desperation if you ask me.

    There was no way I would have gone near this show with a barge poll. I can’t stand Simon Cowell or The X Factor. I don’t find Harry Hill in the slightest bit funny. The only saving grace was the brilliant Cynthia Erivo but she alone wasn’t enough for me to waste money seeing the show.

  6. Surely, if one thing defines Saturday night ITV audiences, it is that they don’t go out and, if one thing defines London’s theatregoers, it is that they turn their noses up at low brow popular culture. I fall into the latter category, going to a London theatre at least once a week, and I know dozens of others who go to the theatre regularly; none of us would have contemplated going near “I Can’t Sing”. Oddly, having read the best of the reviews, it was not “X Factor” that continued to put me off, it was the ghastly Harry Hill. Just personsl taste, but it seems that an awful lot of people found something to dislike in the ingredients of this show.

  7. As well as the issues cited in your piece, surely it also had the same problem as ‘Betty Blue Eyes’ – a terrible title and a dire poster campaign! Which tourist, knowing nothing about the X Factor, would wander into the Palladium on the strength of that poster? Which X-Factor fan would wander in, too (they removed the phrase ‘the X Factor musical’ from the poster after a few months). They just couldn’t win. And the title was too silly – a musical called ‘I Can’t Sing’?! Mainly, though, I think people are just sick of Simon Cowell and The X-Factor. If they’d launched it five years ago, it might have been a hit.

  8. Thanks for all these great and insightful comments coming in. Neil; you make a really interesting observation about the title. My question is if Simon Cowell on realising the show was going badly ahead of its opening and with the obvious low ticket sales removed the “X Factor” line from the title to protect his brand? I think had it stayed on the poster it would have at least held resonance with some potential audience – otherwise nobody knows what it’s about. I agree with your point about the poster which was re-designed and confusing and also the fact that theatre is all in the timing.  However in terms of title I think we need to consider that a musical with a title such as CATS could be considered just as unbankable as it was in 1981 ahead of opening with low ticket sales, and that was also without any Saturday night TV profile behind it. In relation to DS comments; I understand your point but think its maybe too generalised to dismiss an entire Saturday night audience from going to the theatre? As I said in my column even if a small percentage of those who watch The X Factor or its similar spin-off shows did buy a ticket for I CAN’T SING this would have surely given the show a longer life span than just over the two months it has played. However I do not think that just because it’s a popular show on TV this then immediately equates into ticket sales. This is not a musical necessarily aimed at international tourists but the large domestic UK audience which also visits London. As such such for the occasional theatre goer and families coming to London and wanting to see a show I would still have expected them to be booking in advance on its populist recognition and thus connect with both the title and “brand Cowell”  in the first instance irrespective of if the show was any good. This should have at least provided some strength  in decent advance sales (especially from groups). In regard to PD’s comment, I agree with the remarks you make about OUR HOUSE the Madness musical which fell down a great gap that could never find its target audience. However In theory I CAN’T SING is still a more populist brand reflected alone by those visible media names involved with it. I am not sure if the audience booking in the first instance would get it is a send up of themselves and just be drawn to the title. Equally how seriously can we really take the TV show in anycase – a lot of these contestants seem to appear on it deliberately as something of a send up and the British public enjoys laughing along with this. I think the show could have gone two ways the; the cult musical in a small off-west end or fringe setting as you suggest, or in the large commercial way that it chose to do. Based on those names involved and the viewing figures of the TV show the large theatre is not therefore to be an unexpected choice in the initial evaluation of the project, and it therefore must have been considered as a show sustainable for a large house. The surprise was that irrespective of the actual production and despite a visible marketing and media profile nobody wanted to go and see it. This reflects further how the days of advance booking for musicals which may once have sold out months ahead and before anyone had even heard a bar of music has changed and possibly irrevocably. Have audiences therefore become more discerning or is it just that booking habits in todays new media world has changed? 

  9. Simon Cowell, is VERY UNPOPULAR. He HAD NO intention of creating a star on X factor, because this nasty little man wanted to be the star. Simon Cowell is really hated by the British public, but a TV audience is a captured one. People stop watching X rubbish years ago, but Simon Cowell control ITV. THE SHOW FLOPPED BECAUSE PEOPLE HATE X rubbish and Simon Cowell.

Leave a reply