The Green Room: What’s the difference between actors in musicals and plays?

Many ‘straight’ actors feel daunted by the prospect of performing in a musical such as 42nd Street. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…


Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Adam Lovett, 45, has appeared in Oscar-winning films, on TV and in theatre at the RSC, National Theatre, and the West End


Peter Quince is a 71-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays and toured both nationally and internationally

Ros Clifford is 30. Currently a deputy stage manager, she has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays


Beryl Musical theatre performers are fitter and prettier.

Peter They are more disciplined than actors.

Beryl It’s a different type of discipline, though.

Vivian They have a harder time in the industry than ‘straight’ actors. It’s harder for them to get seen for plays – whereas it seems that actors can often move easily to MT.

Albert The greatest performances I’ve seen in musicals always come from actors who have had a list of straight play credits behind them.

Adam Non-MT actors also seem to have more TV and film work available to them, although there are of course actors who do both.

Jenny There is snobbery about performers in musicals being singers, not actors – I’ve been called that by directors, which is irritating. I act whether I’m singing or speaking or dancing.

Beryl There is more crossover now, I think.

Peter But there is still some snobbery. I worked with an MT performer in a Shakespeare. She was nervous and expected to be condescended to. She wasn’t.

Jon I did a Shakespeare play with an actor mainly known for MT in the lead, and a few people I talked to expressed surprise.

Beryl Years ago, that casting would have been unheard of, so there has been progress.

Albert We should celebrate the differences and acknowledge they are different skill sets. You don’t book a plumber to do your wiring.

Adam There are all kinds of musicals. Doing a character-driven musical piece at the Donmar Warehouse is different from a tour of Legally Blonde. There are crossover shows as well as crossover actors.

Peter I once heard the remark: “Actors ask questions. MT performers do what they’re told.” Actors have more freedom to vary their performances. Musicals are tightly directed.

Adam It may be a controversial observation, but I find many actors are introverts at heart – pure MT actors are much more extrovert.

Jon I’ve talked to MT actors about the ‘Kate Fleetwood effect’ – making your name as a classical actor and then suddenly turning up in a high-profile musical lead. ‘Oh, by the way, I can sing too.’

Adam Crossover envy exists in other areas of the profession too, but what’s most galling is when the person crossing over is good at it. Charlize Theron went from being a hugely successful model to trying her hand at acting, and discovered she was a brilliant actress, too.

Peter In a perfect world, everyone would do everything. But I can’t sing.

Vivian I know people who have struggled with agents and casting directors because they were known as MT and that was that. All of them are really talented actors, by the way.

Beryl Anyone should be allowed to do anything if they are good at it. Being cast as an MT performer in a play is much harder – it’s easy to dismiss ‘straight’ acting.

Peter An actress I knew who had only done MT did a straight play. She was really excited by how much discussion there was. Another friend who does both says the dressing-room conversations are very different. MT is very showbizzy, and straight theatre more varied.

Adam There is such discipline required to be an MT actor, such technical precision. I am in awe of the skill. I could busk my way through a musical under the ‘actor who can sing’ tag but the dancing would be beyond me.

Jenny Musical theatre is the most demanding and hardest of all the acting work people will do. Doing a play is like having a rest.

Beryl The last musical I did I found very unsatisfying in the end. I felt as if it could not shift or grow.

Ros With music and song becoming a bigger part of productions, there is a bigger call for actor-musicians, and actors who can sing.

Beryl I know young actor-musicians who never stop because they have so many skills to offer.

Ros Although I don’t know the figures, I find that score reading is a skill in greater demand within stage management.

Adam Acting is such an interesting skill. It’s a real craft, and yet someone can be brilliant at it on their first go. You can’t say that about playing the violin, for example.

Vivian You can be brilliant at it on the first go, but you need craft to replicate it eight times a week – for months.

Peter MT performers’ skills are much more measurable: can you hit top C?

Vivian The skill and craft and discipline of MT actors impresses me no end, but I can’t say I’ve ever been moved by a musical. I know that’s a controversial old stereotype. But that’s more about the genre than the performances.

Jenny The shared experience of being in a musical brings a cast together more. You feel like much more of a team. Perhaps it’s the shared interests and the familiarity you need to have with each other when you’re dancing and lifting and singing. Of course, I’m sure many actors would feel the same about doing Shakespeare. It’s just personal taste.

This article is part of The Stage special focus on musicals. Read more stories here