Richard Jordan: I dreamed a dream of fantasy-casting my favourite musicals
The marketing of Les Misérables the staged concert, which opened last month at London’s Gielgud theatre, describes it as the “dream cast”, featuring a roster of the show’s veterans led by Alfie Boe, Michael Ball, Carrie Hope Fletcher and Matt Lucas.
Many of its ensemble also return in different roles from those they previously played. Among them, it’s particularly pleasing to see Gemma Wardle, Earl Carpenter and Grainne Renihan – all three have previously given terrific performances as Eponine, Javert and Fantine respectively in the past.
The fact that in this concert version they are not playing principal roles says much about the affection held by many actors for this musical, while further serving to help endorse the dream cast publicity.
There is always fun to be had in spotting a seasoned pro in a supporting or cameo role. The 2012 movie of Les Misérables offers a multitude of opportunities for eagle-eyed musical theatre fans to recognise familiar faces popping up around the barricades.
My favourite theatre production for this was Richard Eyre’s 1997 National Theatre revival of Guys and Dolls, which offered an array of well-known actors within its ensemble who were clearly all having great fun acting together.
If you are ever bored on a long car journey and have finished The Stage crossword here’s a game for you: simply pick a musical (or a play) and then create the dream cast you’d like to see in it.
I would love to see Charlie Stemp play Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl and, when he’s older, PT Barnum in Barnum. I feel the same about Sheridan Smith playing Mabel Norman in Mack and Mabel and Charity in Sweet Charity.
Or, how about Hugh Jackman as Fred Graham in Kiss Me Kate, Samantha Barks as Flaemmchen in Grand Hotel, Scarlett Strallen as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Colm Wilkinson and Roger Allam as Sweeney Todd and Judge Turpin, Tyrone Huntley as Hedwig, Bonnie Langford as Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly!, Debbie Kurup as Cassie in A Chorus Line, John Partridge as Steven Kodaly in She Loves Me, Jessie Buckley as Julie La Verne in Showboat, Philip Quast as George in Aspects of Love and Sutton Foster in The Act?
My list goes on (and keeps changing), but it’s often casting the supporting roles where you can have the most fun. Let me ask this question about Les Misérables: by making the statement that this concert production is the dream cast, does that mean it’s considered by its producers to be the definitive version?
In theatre, the term ‘definitive’ is not possible to quantify because you never know what the next revival may offer. However, it’s still a term that is used a lot. A few months ago I was in New York browsing inside Theatre Circle, the busy showbiz shop on 44th Street, when I overheard two young people – probably about 15 years old – talking enthusiastically about shows.
“Patti in Evita,” said one of them with a real sense of authority. “That’s the definitive performance.”
“So was Ben Vereen’s performance in Pippin,” remarked his friend. Their conversation made me smile simply because neither of them had been alive when those shows played on Broadway.
What they had heard probably came from the stories that trickle down through theatregoers’ memories. They’re the theatrical equivalent of stories shared around the campfire, where shows and performances become the stuff of legend.
I hoped what they’d been told had compelled these two young fans to go and listen to the original cast recordings, and that their assessment had not simply been based on hearsay, or by what they had read online about it. In any case, they’d given their rubber stamp to these performances and ensured that they will be shared again with others and then onwards by those people.
Some plays are filmed and in recent years, NT Live has screened performances, but these aren’t usually released to own. In contrast, when it comes to musicals, there may well be a professionally made and widely released cast recording even if the show was a flop – so there is at least access to performances that you’ve heard about but never saw.
Your first experience of discovering a show may arguably make it the most memorable – it’s this first encounter you’ll always remember
These recordings can also tell you a lot about how a performance was created. Patti LuPone demonstrates this in originating the role of Fantine. Her performance of I Dreamed a Dream, using her skill to upscale through a note was something she felt needed to be incorporated into her interpretation of the song, and this has always stayed. But does that make LuPone the greatest Fantine? She certainly sings it exquisitely on the original London cast album but many other good actors have also played the part – it’s just that many of them never got the chance to record the big number.
Your first experience of discovering a show may arguably make it the most memorable: while you may see that production again or other revivals, it’s this first encounter you’ll always remember. The actors in that production may also prove influential to your future theatregoing because of the connection you make to the show. This in turn means that you watch out for their names and follow their work.
One of my great pleasures in seeing Grainne Renihan back on stage in Les Misérables is recalling when I saw her play Florence Vassey in the West End production of Chess. This was the first time I ever saw that musical on stage and she had taken over in the lead role. Although I have subsequently seen that musical many times in different productions, the original, with Renihan’s powerful performance, is the one that I remember most vividly.
Therefore, any dream cast is always going to be subjective and personal, and any lead actor is nothing without a good supporting company to bounce off. But like making an personal playlist, thinking about a show and imagining your favourite actors together in it may be the only way to truly guarantee that a show’s casting is ‘definitive’.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan
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