Over the past few years, audience behaviour has probably been the biggest gripe to regular theatregoers (I refuse to continue to use the elitist label ‘theatre etiquette’), but a new contender stealthily emerged during 2019: stunt casting.
It’s not like it’s a new thing at all; most big tours will employ a ‘face’ as a lead, particularly if the show isn’t well known, as this will usually ensure that the tour can go ahead with some level of security. They may not always be the most obvious fit for the part, as far as character is concerned, but they should at least tick some rudimentary boxes – very often it will be a pop star fronting a musical, as they should be able to sing and may even have spent a bit of time at stage school.
In my Fame review, I noted that there seem to be so many trained stage performers now and nowhere near enough roles to go round – so how is anyone supposed to progress in their chosen career if untrained but famous people are thrust into what is available? It’s a fair question. Since I started my almost daily theatregoing, I have amassed a lot of actors whose careers I like to follow – yes, they’re mostly Sunny Afternoon or Emma Rice types – but despite there being a reasonable amount of casting announcements each month, it’s actually quite rare to come across names I know, with all the fresh (cheap) supplies graduating from academies and performing arts colleges making up ensembles and ‘stars’ taking lead roles.
I can imagine it isn’t easy to discover you’ve lost out to someone who lacks your experience and/or training (even if they turn out to be brilliant), and it is frustrating from an audience member’s perspective if you know that certain people would be perfect for a role yet get overlooked, meaning you don’t get to see them perform.
However, I’ve become more practical in my old age and have uneasily come to terms with the fact that this is an industry. And that means things need to be made sustainable by finding ways to increase the chances to getting bums on seats. Obviously one way is to make tickets more widely affordable (and not just the shit seats), but that’s another debate for another time. You may not like a pop star being handed a West End debut over a musical theatre actor, but if it helps to save the show..? It keeps a whole company in work for a while longer, and also means you can continue to enjoy a show you love. Childishly boycotting it is cutting off your nose to spite your face, even if you think you know everything that’s gone on behind the scenes.
I’m writing this today as my evening will be spent back at the diner for my eighth helping of Waitress. It’s not had the smoothest of rides in the West End; promotional blunders, miscommunication, and a seemingly never-ending supply of new performers; the show has seen more cast changes within the space of about eight months than I’ve ever experienced. The more ‘out there’ casting decisions include Jack McBrayer, Blake Harrison & Joe Sugg as Ogie, and Ashley Roberts & Hannah Tointon as Dawn – on top of this, by the end of the month there will have been two Broadway Jennas in the cast (Katharine McPhee & Sara Bareilles herself, reuniting with Gavin Creel for a six-week stint).
It is far from ideal to have that volume of change, as the company will have to keep rehearsing newbies for one thing, though in this case it may have somehow helped the show to an 18-month stay in the West End – it’s announced a July closing date, which will be followed by a UK tour.
I, of course, was skeptical about these choices, but Sugg was a particular surprise; I inadvertently saw him three times and it was an absolute delight on each occasion. It may have turned the social media side of things into a bit of a Joe Sugg party, but that can’t have harmed sales at all (at one point I was fearful Waitress might not have even made it to summer 2019) – not only did they get extra exposure courtesy of his YouTube channel, but they gained a talented performer as well. Had any of them been completely terrible, I could understand the outrage as it would have spoiled the show and not really made it worth being kept open (from the audience’s perspective) – unfortunately I can’t comment on Roberts’ performance, as she left earlier than anticipated, but none of the others have let me down as yet. And hey, at least there are always great understudies on hand should a face be “indisposed”!
Maybe this is a classic example of my contrariness in action, but I think this kind of casting is just something we’ll all have to accept for the moment. In a perfect world we’d all be able to see whoever we wanted in their perfect roles, for a reasonable price, and as often as we wished – but we’re not there yet. Actors have families to support, rent to pay, careers to build, just like the rest of us – why should some be denied this because we can’t take a few weeks of stunt casting to help prop things up? For now, we have to think about the greater good (the greater good).
And if you don’t like it… Save your money and don’t go!