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Oliviers 2017: Andrzej Lukowski – Should we mourn the loss of the audience award?

Cast members Ben Forster and Emmi Christensson from Phantom of the Opera, winner of the Olivier audience award last year. Photo: Pamela Raith
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Amid the flurry of changes at the Olivier Awards this yearnew venue, new host, plush new telly time slot – one thing that seems to have evaded attention until now is the quiet demise of the audience award for most popular show.

I can’t help but feel that the fact that there appears to have been precisely zero outcry at its disappearance ultimately speaks volumes about its significance. But still, it’s a fairly major change to pop out on the quiet, and I feel a little torn about its passing.

The most important thing to note about audience-voted awards is that, as an actual credible measure of quality, they are almost always entirely worthless. The people who vote in them are inevitably either die-hard fans of a single show who may not have even seen all the nominees, or even worse, people who haven’t seen any of the shows and are picking one arbitrarily.

Because they’re voted for by ‘the people’, a sort of salt-of-the-earth virtue is inevitably ascribed to the outcome (by the winners, anyway). But it’s bollocks. At the audience-voted WhatsOnStage awards, you can guess 95% of the victors purely by looking through the shortlists and calculating the size of an artist’s pre-existing fanbase (it is scientifically impossible for Benedict Cumberbatch to lose in any category he’s nominated for). The quality of the show they were in is an irrelevance. And the Olivier audience award is essentially just a gong for whoever can mobilise the best social media campaign that year: the fact The Phantom of the Opera beat Les Miserables in 2016 but Les Miserables beat The Phantom of the Opera in 2014 has absolutely no bearing on the ongoing quality of either production.

When winners say ‘this is more important, because it comes from you’, they’re lying – they would much rather have a proper award voted for by notional experts who had concluded they were the best after objective comparison to the competition. To use a needlessly bombastic simile, audience-voted awards are like the EU referendum, an under-informed public being flattered that they hold some greater understanding than experts.

Of course the main difference between the Oliviers audience award and the EU referendum is that the Oliviers audience award is just a bit of fun. During its lifetime, its main function was to provide some live content for the public watching the main event on the screens outside the Royal Opera House – the cast of the winning show would do a song for them. In particularly tepid years for new musicals, it would be nice to get One Day More trundled out again, because it’s an absolute banger. With the Oliviers relocated to the Royal Albert Hall, there is no public second stage this year (presumably the good people of Kensington would unleash their hounds on such a thing). So no award, either.

Goodbye, then, audience award: you were a harmless piece of fluff that kept a few people entertained for a bit. I won’t even remotely miss you, but if we happen to cross paths again, hopefully we’ll both just shrug and have a nice sing-song.

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