The Wicked Stage: Audience Vs Critics

Like any argument, the controversy is often split in two with a chasm separating the opposing sides. The latest one is news of the Spice Girls musical Viva Forever opening in December. My twitter feed is mainly dominated by theatre people (those in and around the industry) and especially musical theatre geeks, so it is no surprise that the show has been lampooned and ridiculed by people I follow. This then made me wonder what the so-called “average audience”( i.e the prospective audience) think. This is where I started to see a division. Most of these people are a younger generation who grew up with the band’s music and can think of nothing better than seeing these songs on stage. People as far away as South Africa have been registering their desire to see this show.

The same happened with the Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour – performances have sold out. Like it or not, this was a shrewd business move: a limited run in a big venue with big names, not worrying about the show’s longevity – all important and prudent considerations as the Broadway revival of JCS recently shuttered. Viva Forever could either go the way of Mamma Mia, and be a success in its own right (running since 1999), or the way of the Take That show Never Forget (opened and closed in the West End in 2008). It has the positives of being written by Jennifer Saunders and directed by Judy Craymer (Mamma Mia) but that is no guarantee of success.

Yet what I keep coming back to are the different reactions; I’m fascinated by how the ‘theatre people’ I know have already taken arms against this new juke-box musical but the regular audience and fans are beyond excited. A similar case is We Will Rock You – I know people of the theatre community who loathe it as a show and it was panned by critics, but audiences have been seeing it since it opened in 2002. I am amongst these people in immediately hating the very notion of this latest juke-box show because it feels like it kills originality, but I can’t help but think that if it has an audience then where’s the problem? American theatre innovator Viola Spolin puts it best: “The audience is the most revered member of the theatre. Without an audience there is no theatre. Every technique learned by the actor, every curtain, every flat on the stage, every careful analysis by the director, every co-ordinated scene, is for the enjoyment of the audience.”

So if theatre is for the audience and it has an audience can we grumble at how it’s presented? Does that mean we, as members of the theatre community, need to let go of any reservations and embrace what the audience enjoys? Or should we use it as a base from which to change the audience’s views, if you can or should change peoples taste? This idea was explored by a French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu of audience taste vs. critics and even he couldn’t come up with a concrete answer…..

Image via Viva Forever the Musical