The musical theatre stigma

Ryan Forde Iosco
Ryan is the artistic director of Theatre Renegade, a theatre company that focuses on new writing and social issues.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that performers in possession of a good musical-based CV, must be in want of film and television work.

With musicals asking for performers to go from revolutionary Paris to remote Ugandan villages (and the multitude of tenuous situations/locations created to showcase jukebox musicals) there is a great deal of skill expected from MT performers.

When it comes to working as actors though, there is a belief from many in the musical theatre community that we are not considered ‘real’ actors; tarred with the idea that our performances lack depth. Is there a jazz hand-esque stigma attached to MT performers and, if so, should I be labelled performative, false and too polished simply because I can belt out an A while pulling off a barrel roll and giving my best Winkie Prince?

Lisa Cagnacci, associate artistic director at London fringe venue Theatre503, pointed out to me that “a casting director will usually have a slightly apologetic tone when they say ‘he’s mostly done musicals’ – although they believe the actor is worth seeing, they clearly think I’m going to wonder why they’re recommending someone with a musical theatre background.” However, Lisa is unfazed by the idea of seeing an MT performer for an acting role.

[pullquote]Does the stigma exist? Yes[/pullquote]

Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Miserables, which has garnered numerous prestigious film awards and nominations and sees the West End’s finest climbing the barricade and working as lovely ladies, brings Hugh Jackman back to his musical theatre roots. With Hollywood stars like Jackman and Patrick Wilson starting their careers in musical theatre, is it really so easy to turn away a performer whose most recent credit is playing to 1,200 seats in Phantom?

I trained in musical theatre and, after working for four years in the industry, trained again as an actor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. There were huge similarities and differences in my training (both included dance classes and students singing and dancing in the corridors, even Central’s “not inconsiderable number of chippy, grudge-bearing lefty luvvies” - I quote the Daily Telegraph - love a good showtune). My decision to retrain was based on my need to further grow and improve as an actor but I would be lying if I didn’t say that my fear of a 'musical theatre stigma' didn’t play a part.

Does the stigma exist? Yes. Does it affect us as much as we think it does? Probably not. The key to the stigma is not to give it power. It’s about allowing an open-minded view, and this comes from both performers and creative teams. Most importantly, hard man Wolverine sings showtunes. Awesome.