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The best musicals need a touch of Papp

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Once adverts for open auditions of all major West End musicals used to regularly adorn classified pages of The Stage.

This once-familiar sight has sadly been declining in recent years, possibly the result of the rise in power of the casting director and the TV talent contest that seem to have become endemic and reliant to the casting process but leave concern for its future.

So it delighted me opening the paper a few weeks ago to see an advert for open auditions for the forthcoming West End production of A Chorus Line. If ever there was a musical that should be cast in this way – this is it; after all, the musical is set in a Broadway audition telling the stories of the dancers auditioning for it.

My two hopes for this revival are: that when it opens next spring at the London Palladium, the producers stood by their decision of casting many of its roles through open auditions reflecting the path of the original 1975 legendary New York production thus embracing a real opportunity for greater public recognition of the West End’s emerging talent. Secondly, the production resists the temptation to go down the path of casting a TV ‘celebrity’ who’s done well in a reality show dance-off or similar contest.

[pullquote]A Chorus Line owes much of its success to originating at New York’s Public Theater and the bold vision of the Public’s late artistic director Joe Papp[/pullquote]

This was the eventual path that the 2006 Broadway revival took with the role of Zach – the musical’s own supposed director – a role that’s easy to parachute a TV name into for a few weeks. However, I also fear this casting route has now become inevitable for musicals to take if they run long enough.

Musicals often are the stuff of legend and A Chorus Line is exactly that – a show many have heard of but never seen – this is its first West End revival. For many theatregoers, artists and drama students (for whom many of its songs have become the anthems of graduation) their only visual exposure to the work has been Richard Attenborough’s movie adaptation with Michael Douglas (note my earlier point about casting).

In fact, far better although never given a UK cinema release is the excellent 2008 documentary film Every Little Step.

The current UK arena touring revival of Jesus Christ Superstar illustrates how another seminal musical lost its integrity through crass commercialism. Foremost, there must always be responsibility to the material but I am not so caught up in the romance of this notion not to recognise that commercial theatre is a difficult and high-risk business. However, as Mark Shenton observed in his review of the show, the biggest disappointment of this production of Superstar is that as a result of it, the superb revival Des McAnuff directed last year at Canada’s Stratford Festival will not now have the chance to be seen by British audiences.

A Chorus Line owes much of its success to originating at New York’s Public Theater and the bold vision of the Public’s late artistic director Joe Papp. That example is equally one which artistic directors working in theatre today should sit up and take notice of.

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