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Mark Shenton: When fans matter more than favourable reviews

Les Miserables at the Queen's in London's West End. Photo: Shutterstock Les Miserables defied critics and became a fans’ favourite and the longest running musical in West End history. Photo: Shutterstock
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“Do you hear the people sing?” goes the call to arms in Les Miserables, a musical that is now the longest-running in West End history. The song could be referring to its audiences who, back in 1985 when the English-language version of this Paris-born musical first opened at the Barbican, defied (some of) the critics to propel it to the West End’s Palace Theatre.

At the time of its press night, producer Cameron Mackintosh was famously trying to decide whether to exercise his option to transfer. He got his answer when he rang the Barbican box office – and the manager told him he was surprised he’d managed to get through. The phones were ringing off the hook.

Yet my fellow associate editor at The Stage, Lyn Gardner, wrote in the now-defunct City Limits: “If I was the RSC I’d forget about a West End transfer and settle for a made-for-TV American mini-series.”

She was far from alone in her disdain of the show: it was famously re-dubbed ‘The Glums’ by the Daily Mail’s late Jack Tinker. Francis King in the Sunday Telegraph wrote that the show “stands in the same relation to the original as a singing telegram to an epic, the reduction of a literary mountain to a dramatic molehill”. The Stage was one of the few publications to offer a more positive review – from then editor and critic Peter Hepple.

Not for the first (or last) time critics found themselves out of step with popular taste. It has happened again and again: when We Will Rock You first opened at the Dominion Theatre, Robert Gore-Langton wrote in the Daily Express: “Only hardcore Queen fans can save it from an early bath”, while I dubbed it a “grim spectacle” and “tacky, trashy tosh” in the Sunday Express.

These shows outwitted (and outlived) us all as critics on those publications (though Gardner, Gore-Langton and myself are now on others). But we’re not paid to be soothsayers; we’re paid to give our honest opinions on a particular time and day, based on our own long experience of writing about and loving theatre.

The new age of social media now means more than ever that critics are increasingly a reduced part of the equation. Last week, it was announced that Be More Chill, a show that has become a viral sensation since it was premiered in 2015 in a regional New Jersey theatre, is heading to Broadway in its current Off-Broadway incarnation.

In a recent interview in the New York Times, composer Joe Iconis said that after an unenthusiastic review in the same paper for its 2015 run, he thought the show was over. He said: “It just kind of fizzled there — the audiences were loving it so much, but we didn’t get the review that a show like that needs to have a life, and we didn’t have a commercial producer or a famous person attached, so I felt like that was the end.”

But then the score was recorded by Ghostlight Records. And fans started finding it. Kurt Deutsch, who founded the record company, commented: “We started to see these fanimatic, homegrown videos of ‘Michael in the Bathroom’, and these Tumblr and Reddit pages were getting a lot of traction, and the streaming numbers were going up substantially”. It has now been streamed more than 170 million times worldwide; and as Deutsch also comments: “It was completely organic — we don’t have tons of marketing dollars to make this happen. It just grew to became a viral sensation.”

Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, run by the powerful Shubert Organization, will be its new home; and Robert Wankel, president of the organisation, says: “This has truly been created by social media, which is fantastic. Social media these days, I don’t have to tell you, can make or break something, and in this particular case, they’re loving it.”

It’s the public who decide what shows to embrace; and it’s a similar story here in London with the transfer this week of another Off-Broadway originated show Heathers to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, after a sell-out run at the Other Palace over the summer.  That was achieved without even inviting the critics to see it at all there: they were considered surplus to requirements.

A big proportion of the audience came to the Other Palace run already primed for it: as producer Paul Taylor-Mills said in an interview then: “The insane thing about the audiences actually coming to see the show is at least a third of the house are dressed up. They know all the songs, they know the lyrics, they know the script. The incredible thing is seeing an audience that’s so young.”

It helps, no doubt, that the show also has a social media superstar, Carrie Hope Fletcher, starring in it. So the musical is getting two bites of that pie: as Taylor-Mills also commented: “There’s something about the alchemy of Heathers and Carrie Hope Fletcher that has meant that the audiences are going mad for it. I think it’s hit the zeitgeist. There’s a crossover between the audience who wanted to come see Carrie and those who wanted to come see Heathers.”

This time the critics are being invited. But are their reviews already redundant before they’ve even been written? Just as the fans of Be More Chill were not swayed one way or another by what the New York Times have said, so Heathers already has its own momentum.

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