Many classical actors have a long-running fascination with starring in a musical. Producers, theatres and directors also find this idea appealing: the concept of seeing a well-known actor doing something completely different is proven to grab both audience and press attention.
However, just because many musicals may appear to be more frivolous than Hamlet, playing the lead in one of them can be as Herculean a task as playing the Dane.
I am certain that every classical actor who stars in a musical walks away at the end with a new-found respect for the craft of the musical theatre actor. But are audiences and critics generous toward those that do make the leap?
Recently, I watched Anne-Marie Duff play the title role of Charity in Cy Coleman and Dorothy Field’s musical Sweet Charity at the Donmar Warehouse. Duff gave 100% to the part and turned in a killer acting performance but there was an intrinsic problem: the vocals. Alongside a cast of professionally trained, seasoned musical actors, she sounded weak.
For anyone cast opposite a musical performer as talented as Debbie Kurup, the bar is set colossally high, but it’s a problem when the supporting actor is a better singer than the lead. Added to that, any actor playing an iconic musical role such as Charity will face the added pressure of being compared to a litany of legendary musical actors who have played the part – and sung and danced the hell out of it.
The compensation for this is that the audience will hopefully be guaranteed that the lead performance will be extremely well-acted, making any book scenes incredibly powerful.
But whichever way it is dressed up, most audiences book to see a musical for the singing. The greatest musical actors offer the triple threat of singing, acting, and dancing. Their natural talent makes what they do look effortless, and why many of them are the hardest-working and most accomplished performers in our industry.
I am pleased that Duff did not receive a critical bashing for her performance in Sweet Charity – her consummate skill as a gifted classical actor, with considerable assistance from a stellar supporting company, enabled her to deliver a decent performance. However, at the end I was struck when I heard other audience members commend “how hard Duff had tried” and that she “gave it her best shot”.
When it comes to musicals, does the appreciation of the well-known classical actor up there “giving it a go” – eight times a week – find audiences more forgiving? There is a definite enjoyment in seeing them on stage having fun and maybe even attempting to dance.
Now flip this the other way. If a leading musical actor had decided they wanted to try their hand at playing Shakespeare, then would the critics be quite so forgiving if their delivery of the verse was not quite up to scratch? Would audiences say the performer had “tried their best”?
More likely, they would be lambasted by reviewers while audience members would leave annoyed at paying top price for a ticket only to find the big Shakespeare speeches they’d waited to hear were not properly served.
The popular classical actor doing a musical has become a theatrical event. But it is frustrating that those who can do serious dramatic roles and, more importantly, are able to cross over vocally into a musical are often overlooked for an actor who may possibly be considered a bigger name, but is a far less able singer.
Musical inexperience – and an actor’s limitations at singing – may only become fully apparent in rehearsal. Therefore, while the producer is probably delighted box office tills are ringing, there’s a real risk that the musical itself may be compromised. This could result in its numbers having to be heavily restructured and re-orchestrated to accommodate the issues.
At the worst end of the spectrum, the actor starts channelling their inner Rex Harrison and speaking the more vocally challenging lines rather than singing them – thus committing one of the greatest cardinal sins in musical theatre.
There are two particularly glaring examples of this in action: the first is Bea Arthur’s cringe-inducing interpretation of Don’t Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl, which she performed at the 1977 Tony Awards. It clearly became apparent in rehearsals she could neither handle the song or its all-important last note.
The second is, surprisingly, Cher’s interpretation of I Feel Pretty from West Side Story for her 1978 US TV show, which brings up another important point: the assumption that being a good pop star means it’s an easy step to becoming a musical actor. Although, as Katherine McPhee’s recent stand-out lead performance in the West End run of Waitress superbly demonstrated, if you can both do it – and, crucially, get it right – then the results are thrilling.
As audiences, if we share in the same fascination as the star of wanting to see them “give it a go” and play in something completely different, then we have to accept that as a result, our theatre performance expectations may well also need to change with it.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan