Lessons to learn from X-Factor musical’s flop

Victoria Elliott (Jordy), Nigel Harmen (Simon) and Ashley Knight (Louis) in I Can't Sing. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Richard Jordan
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
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This week's closure of I Can't Sing, the X-Factor musical, makes it one of the biggest failures in West End history.

As the most anticipated new musical of the season, its rapid demise will also certainly shake up some corners of the West End and commercial theatre industry. The shock of its departure stems from the outward perception that, with considerable profile and money behind it, even with mixed reviews it could survive.

Here was a potential audience from a massive national demographic comprising the several million who watch the X Factor TV show on a Saturday night. On paper, this sounds like box office gold where, even if a small percentage of them came to see the show, it could enjoy a decent run. Add into that mix the comedy talent of much-loved family favourite comedian Harry Hill as the show’s co-writer, alongside Sean Foley who has fast become theatre’s "go-to director" for comedy in recent years as well as two talented and respected industry leads in Nigel Harman and Cynthia Erivo and, crucially, Simon Cowell himself as a producer then this sounds like a dream mix - a virtual ‘no-brainer’ as one colleague who had seen the workshop described it to me.

Simon Cowell is a master at product and branding placement, as his television shows have demonstrated. This has been reflected in the highly visible advertising campaign the show has run for many months before its opening that has included television appearances on the Royal Variety Performance and various other major TV shows.

It is one of the longest marketing campaigns I have seen for a West End musical in recent years, and had been highly visible from the immediate announcement of its West End premiere, suggesting there was a lot of money behind I Can't Sing. This makes its fast closure all the more unexpected because little has been reported on the show doing poor business, seemingly exemplified by the lack of discount tickets.

Even on the day the show was announced for closure (and had obviously struggled with ticket sales), the TKTS booth in Leicester Square did not offer any discount on performances. On Saturday April 26, the same day as the closure was reported on The Stage website, I received a text from Orange with a week-long flash sale offer for I Can't Sing but to date it is the first discount offer I had received for the production.

This is a surprise as, more than any other recent musical, this is a word-of-mouth show and yet the drive just to get audiences in and talking about it seems not to have happened.

In stark contrast, a musical such as The Book of Mormon utilized this tool with free first previews and made a deliberate move to reach both a young and new audience which has continued since its very first performance. It would now seem I Can't Sing entirely misjudged its marketing strategy spending all its money on advance advertising but held little production running reserve to handle the fall-out if press reviews were bad and with no strategy for this situation. It is also reflected by the subsequent discounts offers that seem randomly thrown together in an attempt to try and do too little, too late. The very fact the show is closing so quickly without even an attempt to get to school summer holidays (where there would seem a potentially strong attendance), highlights this further suggesting it has been produced from a zealous over-confidence.

That attitude is not dissimilar to the one shown towards the short-lived Viva Forever!, the Spice Girls’ musical last year. Although I Can't Sing is a much better show, it has had an even shorter run despite more favourable reviews.

The tragedy of I Can't Sing's West End failure is that here was an original large-scale new musical with popular names attached and major media coverage that was not adapted from any movie or recording artist’s back catalogue. Despite all that, for it to then close so quickly one has to consider just how bad sales must have been with no belief they would improve.

This is especially significant when you consider that here was a musical potentially offering the biggest global franchise since Andrew Lloyd Webber. Its failure will also make producers and investors already smarting from the recent failure of Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward yet more nervous of going down the original musical path, and in some respects could be seen to be a critical nail in the coffin for the future of the new British musical in the West End.

I Can't Sing also illustrates something that I have long believed – the audience who watch the televised X Factor or many other reality competitions, are not ticket buyers. They enjoy voting for the contestant at home but that does not translate into ticket sales or necessarily them even subsequently developing a long-term interest in the artist or their work.

This can perhaps be further reflected in The X Factor’s own recent and less successful post-TV concert tours or the short-lived recording careers of many of its contestants. The X Factor, like I Can't Sing, regularly creates "flashes in the pan" as opposed to long-lasting, durable careers. Simon Cowell has also previously expressed his disdain of musical singing that makes this project feel a vanity-driven exercise which he comes to with a limited understanding of the theatre industry, discovering it cannot be manipulated in the same way as a TV audience.

The subsequent fast closure of the show might also suggest this was an experiment for him or even, in relation to his rival Simon Fuller whom through the Spice Girls held some association with Viva Forever!, it was a case of "Anything you can do, I can do better".

When I Can't Sing did not achieve the anticipated reviews, then, like many of his own X Factor contestants, it possibly saw Cowell quickly lose interest. Meanwhile, his co-producers, the experienced Stage Entertainment, is also currently producing the musical Rocky on Broadway whose recent opening failed to land the anticipated knock-out punch or Tony best musical nomination and is therefore facing a more challenging run.

I Can't Sing proves there is no such thing as a "no brainer" in theatre but its failure will leave people debating how this could have happened for a show that outwardly appeared to be an obvious success story.