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The Green Room: Is there snobbery in the business towards musical theatre?

They think she’s got it: Dominic West, Carly Bawden and Anthony Calf in My Fair Lady at Crucible Theatre, Sheffield in 2012. West is best known for ‘straight’ drama, but is there a snootiness towards musical theatre actors? Photo: Tristram Kenton They think she’s got it: Dominic West, Carly Bawden and Anthony Calf in My Fair Lady at Crucible Theatre, Sheffield in 2012. West is best known for ‘straight’ drama, but is there a snootiness towards musical theatre actors? 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

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

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

Peter Quince, 72, works in theatre and television

John Pepper is 31 and for the past 10 years has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National Theatre and in radio, television and film

Velma Lee is a 32-year-old actor, comic and improvisor

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

Albert Of course there is. We even use musical theatre as a euphemism for sexual preference.

John I think there is without a doubt.

Peter Definitely.

Jenny I think there is definitely ignorance – people in the industry who genuinely believe musicals are just about singing and dancing.

Beryl I think it has always been seen as lower-brow, even though the cast members have all auditioned 85 times and worked their tits off. And it’s so popular with audiences.

Jenny When Equity made a distinction between “performers in musical theatre” and “actors in plays” it really touched a nerve.

Peter ome people object to being called a performer as opposed to actor. I don’t mind. Performer covers us all on Sstage: singers, dancers, actors.

Albert It’s certainly physically demanding, but is it less intellectually demanding than so-called ‘straight theatre’?

Jon I guess it depends how we’re defining “intellectually demanding”.

Jenny People automatically associate straight theatre with Shakespeare, Ibsen and academia. They think of musicals and the first thing that comes to mind is tap dancing and sequins. It’s not generally known that a lot of musicals are intellectually demanding too.

Peter I’m ashamed of how hard MT performers work compared with most actors – taking classes all the time and that kind of thing.

Beryl Have you ever had to learn loads of dances and harmonies as well as text?

Albert I like being a turn. Actors are ‘la-dis’ (from ‘la-di-da’) and performers are ‘turns’. I was told I’m a la-di with the heart of a turn.

Beryl Better than a warm prop!

Peter A Spotlight job advertised recently said that MT people need not apply.

Jon That was astonishing. It was taken down pretty damn quick.

John I must have missed that…

JonThose who had “trained” in MT were asked not to apply – so you could have spent the intervening 20 years at the Royal Shakespeare Company and still been disqualified.

Jenny That was appalling. And rightly taken down by Spotlight.

Beryl Ridiculous!

John I know that the musical theatre world can also be hugely intimidating if you haven’t had MT training. Going to a musical theatre audition and being surrounded by people with armfuls of rep is unnerving.

Albert We are now as revered around the world for our prowess in musical theatre as we are for our theatre work. There shouldn’t really be a difference in attitudes to people who work in either sector.

Jenny Love that, Albert!

Peter I worked in Shakespeare with someone who had mainly done musical theatre and was convinced we’d look down on them. We didn’t.

Velma I think it’s a prejudice across the board, not just within the industry. I’m constantly having to remind people of all the musicals they actually love when they automatically say, “Oh, I hate musicals.”

Jenny Yes, Velma!

Jon Every couple of months some clever broadsheet journo does his (it’s always a man) ‘comedy’ column about hating musicals. Hamilton has brought on a rash of them.

John I like to ignore anyone who says they don’t like musicals. They’re clearly not broadminded enough to explore.

Jenny It’s a real difficulty when you work in a musical and audition for a straight play. There is so much snobbery that I automatically feel ‘less than’ and the nerves are huge.

Velma Why is that? Maybe because of the tourist-fodder conception of musicals? I definitely think that snobbery is there, just as comedies are not as valued as tragedies. Uplifting and positive equals fluff in many people’s eyes.

Jenny Joe Public has no idea of the scope of musicals.

Peter It’s partly a reaction against those who are obsessive about musicals.

Beryl I was on the other side of it as a usually ‘straight’ actor in a musical. They let me know!

Jon Yes. I do both and often don’t feel totally at home in either: too much of a turn for a straight play, too much of a la-di for a musical.

Beryl Surely all performers should grasp how hard everyone works?

Peter Some of us just can’t sing!

John I think there can also be snobbery within musical theatre.

Jon I absent-mindedly turned up at the half for one performance of a musical – forgot about the warm-up – and everyone was like, ‘Ooh, look who does plays and turns up at the half.’

Beryl Oh dear.

Velma As a non-musical performer, I am in awe but also can feel a bit left out of the MT chat. It feels like a different world.

Peter There’s also snobbery within musical theatre where repertory is concerned – ‘Sondheim good, Lloyd Webber bad’.

Albert I bet those in Follies at the National think they are rather above those in Wicked.

Jenny Sometimes within musicals themselves there can be snobbery towards MT performers. I’ve heard of recent musicals at places renowned for plays that actively seek straight actors who can sing, and close the door to casting actors with a CV full of musical theatre.

Jon Yep, that definitely happens. I was up for something recently and was told, “We’re only seeing actors for this, it’s a small part but we don’t want to give it to an ensemble boy.”

Peter The word ‘boy’ says a lot.

Jenny It’s so prejudiced. We can’t win.

Beryl I know a lot of MT performers who are very defensive about it.

Jenny I’m one of them, Beryl!

John I sometimes think it would be brilliant to sit in a West End musical for a couple of years and earn a good weekly wage.

If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email greenroom@thestage.co.uk

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