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Living the dream

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As Andrew Lloyd Webber prepares for his fifth television collaboration to find a musical theatre star, Matthew Hemley asks how the industry’s perception of the genre has evolved over the years

Back in 2006, when the BBC launched its first ever theatre talent search show, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, professional performers wasted no time in vocalising their complaints about the format.

Many, some of whom had worked for years to earn their place in a West End show, couldn’t come to terms with the idea of a complete unknown being launched to the top of a show’s billing thanks to an Andrew Lloyd Webber casting programme.

Indeed, Equity labelled the show “demeaning”, with the union telling Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group that an audition should be the only way to choose a performer.

A year later, after the second of these shows – Any Dream Will Do – hit our screens, musical supervisor Gareth Valentine joined the critics. Valentine, who has worked on West End shows such as Wicked and Chicago, accused Lloyd Webber of being “self-serving”. This was followed by Kevin Spacey, Old Vic artistic director, attacking the BBC for promoting West End musicals by Lloyd Webber at the expense of other British theatre.

Spacey and Valentine’s opinions might not have changed too much (if they have, neither have said so) but look at the situation today from a performers’ perspective and the picture appears somewhat different. Could it be, then, that these programmes have now become an accepted part of the West End landscape?

This year, ITV is working with Lloyd Webber on his fifth such show – this time with Superstar, aimed, as you might imagine, at finding a lead for a new arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. And when it was announced, there was plenty of excited talk on Twitter about how yet another show will give someone the chance to be a star in a major new production.

When The Stage asked for feedback on such shows on Twitter, the responses were mixed, but by no means as vehement as you might imagine. Had the same question been asked in 2006, it would be safe to assume the responses would have been stronger. So what did people have to say?

One wrote: “As an actor, I would never go through such a long call back process. The finished product is never that good.”

Another, who seems to be part of the Spacey/Valentine camp, said: “I do wish he [Lloyd Webber] wouldn’t. What about casting a fantastic pro actor? Superstar is much more than just cash in Andrew’s pocket.”

However, others were more positive. One performer said: “Personally I am quite pleased at another chance for talent not lucky enough to go stage school to get a shot.”

Actor Ben Stock seems to be a perfect example of how feeling towards these shows have changed over the years within the profession. He told The Stage: “I was dead against these searches in the beginning but no-one can possibly deny the profile that they have given the industry. We now have musical theatre stars again and the general public are aware of and interested in the theatre again.”

Indeed Stock is not alone in his view that the programmes have been good for the industry. As you might expect, those who have been involved with the programmes over the years will only tell you how good they have been in getting audiences to come to the theatre.

Winner of 2008’s I’d Do Anything, Jodie Prenger, told The Stage that the Lloyd Webber TV shows have “given a total rebirth to the whole industry”.

“I cannot tell you the amount of people at stage door who have told me, ‘This is my first time at the theatre and I want to come again’. That’s brilliant,” she said.

A report in 2010 published by the Society of London Theatre into West End audiences found that, among London theatre-goers who have watched a theatre-based reality show, 47% said watching the programme had made them more likely to see the musical production featured on TV, with a third saying it had made them more likely to see a musical in general.

Of course viewers who see these shows on television are going to be more interested in seeing the musical with the winner of the series in, but the fact is, the TV shows have spawned so much talent, who then go on to appear in a number of productions, that this alone can only be good for the industry and for theatres.

A look back at those who have appeared on the shows over the years and where they are now demonstrates that the performers who make a name for themselves on television can carve successful careers for themselves, and continue to be a draw for audiences. Indeed, it has become commonplace for The Stage to receive a casting announcement for a new musical which highlights a former contestant on one of these shows, something which demonstrates how valuable the programmes are to people plugging a theatre show. And a quick search for what former contestants have been doing since appearing on television makes for an interesting read.

Katie Hall, who was a boot camp contestant in I’d Do Anything, will soon be touring the UK in the new tour of The Phantom of the Opera.

Lee Mead, who won the Any Dream Will Do series, has gone on to appear in shows such as Legally Blonde and Wicked, while Daniel Boys, who was a finalist in the series, went on to appear in Avenue Q.

Meanwhile, Siobhan Dillon, who was a finalist in How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, has been in Grease and Legally Blonde and is now the lead in Ghost the Musical, while Helena Blackman, who was also in the series’ final, is currently touring with a solo show and appearing in a sold-out run of Ivor Novello’s Gay’s the Word. Elsewhere, Niamh Perry, who was a finalist on I’d Do Anything, was cast in Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies. And this week it was announced that Samantha Barks, also a finalist in I’d Do Anything, has been cast as Eponine in the forthcoming Les Miserables film.

As Prenger points out: “Some talent shows produce one hit wonders. There was never one person who won I’d Do Anything. All of us have gone on to do other things.”

It does certainly seem to be true that, for his part, Lloyd Webber has made use of much of the talent he has found through these shows and that, unlike other talent programmes, the level of aftercare and support these contestants receive appears to be high.

In fact, while Equity – which has worked with ITV to ensure all finalists on Superstar are paid – has often raised concerns about the welfare of contestants on some talent shows on television, it has never seemed to have this issue with the Lloyd Webber programmes.

Having said that, the care and support on the show would need to be high for the contestants to cope with the reality of performing eight shows a week in the West End.

Yet let’s not forget that many of the performers who find fame on these theatre search shows have often had some sort of training prior to appearing on them. Mead, for example, was in The Phantom of the Opera when he auditioned for Any Dream Will Do, and trained at Whitehall Performing Arts College, while Hall had trained with National Youth Music Theatre prior to appearing on the BBC and Sarah Lark, from I’d Do Anything, was at the Royal Academy of Music.

Perhaps, though, this demonstrates that, despite their training, some performers feel there only opportunity to hit the big time might be with a casting show on television.

It has been said, for example, that Mead might never have made it to leading man status had he not taken his chance with Any Dream Will Do.

So what of the future then?

Despite having four Lloyd Webber shows on the BBC, the Corporation has decided enough is enough and not to do another. This has nothing to do with ratings, as they remained stable for all the four shows.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? attracted an average of 5 million in 2006, with Any Dream Will Do in 2007 averaging just over 6 million. I’d Do Anything had an average of 5.9 million tuning in each week, and Over the Rainbow, which launched the career of Danielle Hope as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, attracted an average of 5.4 million.

The reason, then, for the BBC’s decision to stop working with Lloyd Webber appears to be more to do with the fact the shows have been criticised for being adverts for his productions. This does not bother ITV, whose only previous attempt at a theatre talent search show was 2007’s Grease is the Word. The programme itself was criticised by Denise Van Outen, who said it had been more concerned with ratings than with nurturing talent. If this was true, it didn’t work, as ITV later admitted the series had been a ratings disappointment.

Clearly, then, it will be hoping that with Lloyd Webber it will enjoy similar ratings to those the BBC enjoyed, which in turn means it will be able to attract big advertising deals around the show. And, by all accounts, it would seem ITV is on to a winner. After all, Lloyd Webber alone provides enough entertainment value for audiences, and with him firmly perched on his throne, there seems to be plenty of life left in musical theatre casting shows yet.

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