The Wicked Stage: The reality TV cast-a-thon returns

Last October I wrote a blog about celebrity casting, including a quote where composer Andrew Lloyd Webber declared: “I think the reality shows are at saturation point and probably what proves that is what has happened to X Factor in America.”  Now, just four months later, it seems he has partially reneged on this. Whilst he is not casting another West End production, he is using reality TV to cast an arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar.

There have been rumours to this effect all over Twitter for the past few months, and since the news officially broke social networking has been awash with condemnation, with many of the jokes relating to the idea of the loser being sent home via a crucifixion. However, there has been one voice in the newspapers and on websites that has been louder than others and probably has more right than most to be angry. Tim Rice, who wrote the lyrics for Jesus Christ Superstar, is not impressed that his old colleague is going to cast the show in this manner. It is no secret they have not been as close as when they first started working together, and I’m guessing the fact Lloyd Webber has ignored Rice’s wishes is not improving their relationship.

Rice stated in an interview that he finds the whole TV show idea “tacky” and “relentlessly downmarket”, but he is a fan of the arena tour concept. He also points out: “They can’t cast the show without my approval. I have the right to veto casting so if Andrew casts it on TV and I didn’t like the person, I could say so.” There was a large part of me that was thrilled after reading the interview because it is nice to hear a lyricist putting their foot down. Historically they are often the unsung and quiet heroes of a musical theatre writing duo, however Rice proves that when angered they can be a force to be reckoned with.

But Rice isn’t just causing controversy for the fun of it; he has good reasoning. There is the obvious argument that there are plenty of trained performers in and out of work in the West End who could play that role but may miss out again because they are not as exciting as the pull of a big name. But the main reason I have issues with casting this way is because you run the risk of an untrained singer winning the part. Anyone who knows the show and songs such as ‘Gethsemane’ will understand how hard they are to sing – the use of falsetto could easily damage the voice without good technique. The show is billed as a rock-opera, however the world has moved on vocally and modern day rock singers don’t tend to sing in the same way as the 1970s performers with that Bee Gees-style falsetto.

Rice also makes a point about the type of show Webber is casting through TV: “Those shows are relentlessly downmarket, which is fine if the show is a lightweight bit of fluff.” Whilst this does sound like Rice is having a go at his own show, Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat, in contrast Jesus Christ Superstar is still a fairly controversial show due to its plot about the last days of Jesus and his relationship with Judas and Mary Magdalene. Back in the 1970s people stood outside the Broadway theatre protesting, and the KGB persecuted performers who put on an unofficial production in 1971, so as Rice points out it is “ill-advised” to have people voting for who can be Jesus.

The point Rice makes is valid: the TV talent show isn’t the powerhouse it once was, proved by the controversy surrounding The X Factor both here and in America. Nowadays things are often a step ahead on social media networks, which are introducing new ways of casting into the fray. Currently there is a talent search under way headed by the unknown tweeter @westendproducer, who is searching for a Twitter leading lady and leading man via his ‘Westendproducer Star Search’. The winner doesn’t get cast in a show but does get the title. The downside to this is that it is another talent search, with the contenders facing a public vote and the risk of horrible comments, but the upsides win out – whoever is behind the profile is very connected both as a person but also on Twitter, meaning a lot of performers, producers and directors can see the videos people are placing on YouTube. On Friday of last week @westendproducer even tweeted that an agent had been in contact regarding the videos, so who knows where it could lead for someone.

The issue of using different mediums to cast a production is hard to judge. I agree with Tim Rice that a TV show isn’t needed for the arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. Especially judging by the climate on Broadway, which is having a religious celebration with revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and original show Book of Mormon and newcomer Sister Act –  surely this could trigger a religious resurgence in the West End too? So, then, if TV has reached saturation point, could mediums such as Twitter be the future?

Image by H. Michael Karshis.

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