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Mark Shenton: What makes a truly great musical theatre performer?

Elaine Paige in Evita at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1978
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“Stand back, you oughta know whatcha gonna get in me / Just a little touch of star quality.”

That’s what Eva Peron famously sings by way of a warning to Buenos Aires when she first arrives there in Evita. And that’s precisely what Elaine Paige delivered when she originated the role on the London stage – as did Patti LuPone on Broadway.

Some actors have that something extra: the bit that can’t be taught. To quote Momma Rose from Gypsy: “Ya either got it, or ya ain’t.”

As she goes on to sing: “Some people got it and make it pay / Some people can’t even give it away.”

It’s a cruel fact in all walks of life, but show business provides a particularly cruel and graphic demonstration of it: rejection for most of those aspiring to be in it is par for the course. And only a handful of people can be stars.

I recently wrote a series of columns about my favourite musical theatre actors (male and female), and after I did so, a teacher at a drama school who was teaching her students about acting through song wrote to ask about what qualities I looked for to make a good performer in musical theatre.

Charisma will get you noticed. Charm will get you a job. Both will make you a star

The simple answer is the skills that make up the traditional triple threat – acting, singing and dancing. But that’s not all. Nowadays the actor often needs to be an all-out threat, even to the orchestra, who they are sometimes asked to replace entirely in actor-musician performances. But topping it all is charisma and charm, neither of which can be bought or bottled. Charisma will get you noticed. Charm will get you a job. Both will make you a star.

But what of the skills that can be taught?

Acting: It’s all very well to sing something beautifully, but if there’s no acting going on, it’ll all be sound and no meaning. Great musical actors are also great actors. No wonder that many cross easily between the two. Judi Dench, one of our all-time greatest living actors, was famously the original Sally Bowles in the London premiere of Cabaret. Likewise, Audra McDonald has won Tonys for both musicals and plays.

Voice: I love an expertly trained voice – give me Audra McDonald or Kelli O’Hara or Barbara Cook and I’m in heaven – but it’s got to be connected, as theirs are, to humanity and experience. And by the same token, give me those qualities, and I can forgive bum notes: Patti LuPone hardly has the most beautiful instrument (nor the best enunciation), but she’s a great, great musical actor.

Dancing: Being a great hoofer is not essential to be a superb musical theatre performer, but the actor must look at least comfortable and natural.

Musicianship: Not everyone can play an instrument – but even if they can’t, perhaps they can be taught to play the spoons. Just the other week I was hugely impressed watching Jodie Prenger doing just that in the actor-muso production of Calamity Jane, currently on tour. And I’ll never forget Patti LuPone parping on a tuba in Sweeney Todd on Broadway.

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