Are musical theatre actors shut out of plays?

Melissa Potts and Cleve September in Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts’ production of Curtains at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, London, in 2014. Photo: Jane Hobson
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If you want to stay employed in this capricious industry, you need as many skills as you can get. It’s a mantra often trotted out and if it were as simple as that, then every performer would train in musical theatre in order to be ‘triple threat’ and trebly skilled. Unfortunately, the issues are anything but simple.

“I find that acting courses give a much more detailed training in the techniques of emotional connection, voice work, diction and Shakespeare,” says actor-musician Sam Lupton, who graduated in acting from Manchester School of  Theatre in 2011 and has since played Boq in Wicked in the West End. He has also toured nationally in Avenue Q and Little Shop of Horrors among many other jobs and until April 29 is appearing in Spring and Port Wine at Oldham Coliseum. “The musical theatre courses I have heard about and taught on seem to regard acting as the extra – the least important – skill of the three,” he adds.

Geoff Colman, head of acting at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, disagrees. “I think the distinction between acting and musical theatre courses is often wrongly marked out into different territories,” he says. “Both involve a human inhabiting a story. In that sense, there is no difference and the training should have exactly the same acting rigour and acting content.”

Few would argue with that, but it isn’t, according to Lupton and others, what actually always happens on the ground.

“Many musical theatre students and professionals I have talked to have never heard of Sanford Meisner, the creator of one of the most popular acting techniques in America. They rarely have full understanding of Stanislavski techniques and most still don’t feel confident in front of a camera,” observes Lupton.

He goes further: “Many musical theatre students get only a ‘smattering’ in acting – a general short course in the basics. I think students who are paying through the nose for a three-year course deserve better.”

Katharine Moraz, who graduated from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts’ musical theatre course in 2010, regrets not having had more acting training, although she has worked extensively in musical theatre and recalls enjoying her training. “We did a term on Shakespeare, studied classical texts and had a term of acting for camera, but looking back I realise that it was very much an introduction to acting – like a foundation course.”

Lupton talks of “an obvious snobbery in the industry” that affects people who train in musical theatre but also want to nail straight acting roles. “Only when actor training on musical theatre courses is as comprehensive as it is for straight acting courses will we get rid of this stigma,” he says.

Moraz has detected prejudice in the workplace, too. “Since graduating and working in the industry, trying to keep getting regular and varied work, I have to say that I have found a stigma attached to musical theatre training that sometimes makes it hard to get into the audition room,” she says, adding that she has studied Meisner technique and done short courses in camera work since graduating.

She continues: “I know people who have trained in acting, worked in musicals and found the transition easy. Going from plays to musicals seems smooth, but from musicals to plays is a much rockier road.”

Agent Josh Rochford of Simon and How insists that, for him, training doesn’t make any difference. “If they’re right for the role I’ll submit them anyway,” he says, pointing out that experience counts for a lot. He adds that if he’d seen a musical theatre-trained client in a straight acting role doing well, that would probably be enough.

On the other hand, he admits to observing among casting directors the sort of prejudice Lupton and Moraz find so frustrating. “They tend not to call musical theatre actors in for straight roles unless they’ve seen their work themselves,” he comments. “I’ve even had them ask me: ‘What did X train in musical theatre for if she wants to work in straight theatre?’ ”

It probably gets easier as the CV builds up. As in many aspects of this industry, and in life in general, the more demonstrable experience you have, the more seriously you will be taken.

So what’s the best advice for a young person choosing his or her training path? “It’s a personal thing, obviously,” says Lupton. “If you are a genuine triple threat then a musical theatre course would be perfect. You can hone your skills in all three of your talents.” Lupton himself, though, argues that he is a weak dancer and that three years on a musical theatre course would not have changed that. “So I consider myself lucky to have ended up on an acting course where I could focus my energy on acting. And I continued singing outside drama school.”

Nonetheless, as Colman observes: “The great musical theatre performers of our age are actors. Musical theatre in this country is being taught very well – the days of actors in one room and singers in another are thankfully over. Everything – the song, the dance, the speech – must have character at its centre. If it is just about hitting the high notes or dancing without conviction, then the very art form itself, musical theatre, will become varnished and synthetic.”

Actors such as Imelda Staunton spring to mind. Last year she was wowing audiences in Gypsy at London’s Savoy Theatre with her acting, singing and dancing. Now she is back in the West End getting rave reviews for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and no one ever describes her as a musical theatre or straight actor. She is simply a performer par excellence. Or take Arts Educational Schools London musical theatre graduate Summer Strallen, who played Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2006, along with the all-singing, all-dancing Maisie in The Boy Friend a week or two later.

So it can be done. Meanwhile, there seems to be a clear case for drama schools to pay closer attention to the quality of their actor training in musical theatre courses than some of them seem to. At the same time, we have to find ways of breaking down the preconception that a musical theatre graduate is automatically unfit for an acting role. If you can deliver the goods then it shouldn’t matter what form your training took.