The subject of celebrity casting is very relevant in today’s theatrical world and touches close to home for many people involved in the industry. Last month there was an article in The Daily Telegraph in which award-winning playwright Alan Ayckbourn condemned the industry’s reliance on celebrity casting. He admits there are exceptions to the rule, such as David Tennant, who has training and experience but drew audiences to Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing because he also happened to be cast as the more commercial Dr Who. Yet Ayckbourn warns that people who come out of I’m a Celebrity… and such shows and go on to grab leading theatrical roles could be “on a hiding to nothing” – in other words, Ayckbourn believes that celebrity castings are unlikely to result in a successful production.

Celebrity casting essentially has two branches; the first being stars of shows such as X Factor, where the aim is to find a popstar, and some then decide to turn to musical theatre. The latest case would be Shane Ward in the new show Rock of Ages, which has been lambasted by critics. Again, there are some exceptions, such as Ray Quinn who was an actor before X Factor and has since gone back to starring in West End roles. But he is one of only a few exceptions, and this is why a negative view of musicals develops – they should not be seen as a graveyard for reality show rejects, but as an opportunity to showcase true talent.

The second branch is slightly more contentious, and this is renowned composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s cast-a-thons to find new stars for leading West End roles. These ‘celebrity castings’ are harder to judge as opinion is divided over whether it has a positive effect on the industry by introducing new audiences to musical theatre, or a negative effect because other performers miss out. Winners of these shows, such as Connie Fisher (Maria in The Sound of Music) and Lee Mead (Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) have either had training at a top theatre school or were working in the industry, so had all the skills and experience but were getting nowhere in terms of lead parts, so it can be considered fair that they were given the opportunity to win the roles. Fisher has now been forced to give up theatre due to vocal problems, but Mead has solidly worked in the West End since Joseph and can currently be seen in Legally Blonde, which also stars Siobhan Dillon who was a runner up on the search-for-Maria programme. In fact, many of the finalists of these shows now have successful careers in the industry, so one could ask where is the harm?

The harm comes when people win these parts and don’t have the ability to follow it through. In a recent interview, Broadway’s leading lady Idina Menzel warned that using reality shows to find musical stars isn’t always the best way to cast productions, but interestingly stated that if someone can do eight shows a week then they have earned the role, taking issue only with people who lack the stamina for a long run. Again this is where Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows win points – Jodie Prenger, who won the role of Nancy but had limited experience up to that point, was put into the ensemble of Les Miserables before Oliver! to help her build the stamina required.

Yet even Lloyd Webber is bringing his reality TV shows to an end. Last week the composer was quoted on the Theatre Spy blog saying that he would no longer be casting via reality shows as he believes “TV talent shows have reached saturation point”, which is good news to the peeved performers missing out on roles due to being usurped by reality TV ‘celebrities’.

Personally I agree with Menzel – if somebody has the talent, stamina and technique for a long run then they deserve the starring role. What do you think?

Image by Matt Gibson