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The Wicked Stage: Is it enough to be a ‘triple threat’ performer?

Posted on 30 October 2011 by Sarah Green

A key term in musical theatre training is learning to be a ‘triple threat performer’, which means the ability to act, sing and dance to a high standard. An example of this is Sutton Foster’s performance at this year’s Tony Awards, where she performed the title song from the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes – she belted out the song whilst also performing a tap break.

Now, as good a performer as Ms Foster is, there is debate about whether it is enough to be able to just do the three elements – maybe there is even the need to be a ‘quadruple threat performer’. The Lion King requires you to learn puppetry and even stilts for some animal characters, Starlight Express required performers to be on roller skates, and many shows now require you to be both an actor and a musician. It is this last group of performers, those who are both actors and musicians, that I want to focus on.

In 2008, Craig Revel Horwood directed a production of Sunset Boulevard where everyone except the characters Norma and Max played instruments on stage. In 2004 there was a production Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street which didn’t use an orchestra, but had the 10-piece cast playing instruments on stage instead – an idea that also transferred to the 2005 Broadway revival of the show. So the question raised is: do performers need to have an extra trick up their sleeve to secure work?

Katie Pritchards, who graduated from the same university as me and is currently working as a swing (someone who is an understudy for chorus parts in a show) in the West End show Dreamboats and Petticoats, tells me that “It wasn’t until I left uni that I realised that I could make a career out of doing my two loves – playing instruments and musical theatre. I saw it as a way into the industry. I figured that I only had a degree from Buckinghamshire, which is not a drama school, and that there couldn’t be that many actor/musicians out there, so I should be in with a good chance!”

This goes back to another age-old problem of making yourself stand out from the crowd. One of my close friends got the lead in Mack and Mabel during our second year because she is brilliant at tap. Even so, in the dance call she messed up, but did it in such a funny way that the director gave her the lead anyway. It’s not to say messing up puts you onto a winner, but in that moment she stood out and was perfect for that character. In a similar way Katie identified a way to utilise her extra skills to forge a path into musical theatre: “Once I had left Uni I used my music skills as a means to getting into the industry. I knew I was going to have a hard slog if I didn’t get some credits soon after I graduated, and I was struggling to get musicals because my training and agent weren’t considered the top of their game, so I snuck my way into the industry via the actor/muso door, and it worked – now I’m working as a swing in a West End show!”

Before I get too carried away with saying how four is the new three in terms of amount of skills needed, there is a cautionary tale. I asked Katie if she thinks it is required to be a ‘quadruple threat’ nowadays: “I’ll be honest, I don’t think it is required at all. There are some days I wish I didn’t play instruments, because then I would get seen for more leads, as the leads even in actor/muso shows don’t tend to be musicians, and bigger companies will save good musicians for the ensemble and instrument tracks, no matter how good they may be for a leading role.” Katie goes on to mention that there are only two actor/muso shows on in the West end at the moment, Dreamboats and Petticoats and Million Dollar Quartet, and the latter is closing in the New Year. So whilst there are shows requiring the actor/musician combo, there are more shows that don’t require it, so it isn’t a completely essential skill to have.

So to answer my title question, I believe it is enough to be a ‘triple threat’ performer, especially as the bulk of the musical theatre back catalogue doesn’t require you to do more than this. However, I also think it wise to heed Katie’s advice that having an extra skill such as musical instruments can open unexpected doors.

Image by rickz.

Sarah Green

Sarah Green

Sarah is a musical theatre graduate now studying for her Masters in theatre practice with hopes of going onto a PHD. She has been writing for A Younger Theatre since September 2011 on all things musical theatre related.

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Review: Spend Spend Spend!

Posted on 06 November 2010 by Sammi Woollard

Based on the autobiographical book of Viv Nicholson, Steve Brown and Justin Greene’s Spend Spend Spend! tells the story of a couple from Castleford and their brief flirtation with the high life. In 1961 Keith and Viv Nicholson won £152,000 on the Pools – equivalent to around £5 million pounds now, in 2010. The reprised production, directed by Strictly’s Craig Revel Horwood and now touring extensively throughout the UK, tells the tale of the couples’ fifteen-year spending spree.

The production has been described as a cross between Billy Elliot and Blood Brothers, and it’s an unsurprising comparison: much like the aforementioned West End musicals, Spend Spend Spend! isn’t prepared to gloss over the tragic elements of Viv Nicholson’s story with a flustering of jazz hands. After indulging in the euphoria of Viv and Keith’s enormous win with tongue-in-cheek humour and blokes dressed as bunny girls, the second act quickly depicts the misery that such sudden extravagance can precipitate. As an audience we’re left rooting for Viv and Keith to reach the same conclusion as we have, only quicker: that money can’t buy happiness.

Wonderful performances are given from Kirsty Hoiles’ ‘Young Viv’ (TMA Best Supporting Performance in a Musical 2009) and Greg Barnett’s ‘Keith’ with both providing a level of vulnerability that is evident even throughout their characters’ seeming bravado. Equally, Jack Beale’s slightly soppy ‘Matt’ is enough to evoke the protective instinct in any woman (something about the eyes?) as we watch him become shoehorned out of his own marriage.

An ever-present narrator (she even helps ‘Young Viv’ re-make the bed after her first sexual conquest) Karen Mann’s (‘Older Viv’) reflection on her life is a wonderful mix of brass humour and unfortunate knowing. The play’s strongest scenes are those that entangle the past and present of Viv’s story, not necessarily through duets, but through the aptly choreographed weaving of the two characters involvement in the same scenes. As we undertake a slow transition from young to old, Mann and Hoiles’ overlapping rendition of ‘Pieces of Me’ is stripped back and haunting. No longer blessed with the luxury of her youth, an exhausted and frightened Viv bounces from one car crash relationship to another in a desperate bid to avoid loneliness, all the while her winnings are rapidly dissolving.

Craig Revel Horwood’s choreography is less noted in the well-rehearsed (if a little un-adventurous) dance routines and more in the faultless arrangement of his characters from scene to scene. The exceptionally talented actors all remain on stage for the majority of the piece; if not as a specific character, as an orchestral member (all cast members play musical instruments). Arranged with the precision that only a dancer himself could systematise, the movement of large instruments, props and even set pieces is never awkward and characters seem to simply appear and disappear with an understated efficiency.

Brown and Greene’s script captures the gritty lifestyle of the northern miners, demonstrating how it collides catastrophically with the introduction of undeserved wealth. Entertaining yet poignant, Spend Spend Spend! is a well balanced mixture of guilty pleasure and truth, with the real-life tale of Viv acting as the firm basis for the show. Although I’d be eager to experience Viv’s story stripped back to nothing but a dialogue-heavy play, Revel Horwood’s production has a level of integrity that is often sadly lacking in crowd-pleaser musicals.

Spend Spend Spend! was on at the Richmond Theatre until 6th November. Details here.

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