The Wicked Stage: McTheatre – Have musicals joined the world of mass commercialisation?

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Having been wholly uninterested in anything related to the economics of theatre, I’d managed to get through three years of being a Musical Theatre undergraduate without ever hearing the phrase ‘McTheatre’. Yet, having come across it in Dan Rebellato‘s Theatre & Globalization, the idea has blown my mind.

The derogatory phrase is used to draw a parallel between mega musicals - Phantom, Les Mis, Wicked and the like – and McDonald’s restaurants, in that they all look the same regardless of their location. As Rebellato puts it, “these aren’t new productions; they are franchises”.  In 2008, Phantom of the Opera had a US$5 billion global box office gross which Rebellato states is “about the same as the combined receipts of the current four top-grossing films of all time.” I’m not sure I can even comprehend what this figure will be now in the wake of the 25th anniversary celebrations.

Cameron Mackintosh, in the 1970s and ’80s, decided he wanted to take the London shows to people who couldn’t make it to the West End. Although this might seem like artistic altruism, it also benefits producers, as all these other locations act as a giant advertisement for the original productions. However, it also kills the uniqueness of theatre, with actors often slaves to showy sets or costumes. These are part of the brand – people go to see Miss Saigon just for the helicopter flying in – yet, as Rebellato points out, the same is not true of the performers, as “in McTheatre even the biggest star is replaceable.” A potentially positive side of McTheatre is the building of new theatres around the world to house these massive shows. Yet this, too, is problematic – these theatres seat so many and often aren’t built with acoustics in mind that they are unable to house other kinds of theatre.

Given the costs of producing these big shows, it’s hardly surprising they take every opportunity to cash in. The Lion King has a reputed production cost of US$20 million, not including the large running cost of the show. A show can easily take a year to turn a profit but there is a chance this Disney epic will never make its money back. Yet whilst the show loses money, the endless pushing of merchandise – everything from mugs to key rings, souvenir brochures to T-shirts – ensures it makes enough to keep running.

It does seem sad when parts of theatre have become so commercialised. Yet for many of us musical theatre fans, a piece of McTheatre was what we first saw and what got us into the genre. Much as we might rail against Mackintosh and these big productions, they are generating and inspiring future performers and audiences. As in cinema, we need our epic blockbusters as well as our indies for rounded creativity.

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