April 29: Producers have jobs for life; but not the actors or musicians that they need for their shows (until they start using digital versions…..)

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My New York colleague Jeremy Gerard wrote yesterday to quote Cameron Mackintosh’s statement in the interview the producer gave to the Telegraph on Sunday about radically reducing the orchestra size on The Phantom of the Opera: “I do find it odd why musicians would want to keep doing the same thing year after year. I believe we should not be holding jobs for actors or musicians ad infinitum. This is not the Civil Service, we’re creating art.”

As Jeremy, a former New York Times and Variety theatre journalist, trenchantly observed: “Phantom has been running — sorry, ‘making art’ — in London since 1986. It’s self-satisfied producers doing the same thing year after year — locking up theatres with now-and-forever cash machines — that best resembles social security for the wealthy, civil service be damned.”

As with all Conservatives, it’s clearly one rule for Mackintosh, another for the rest: it’s fine for him to keep doing his own job producing the same show ad infinitum, but not for those who seek employment in it.

As The Stage’s editor Alistair Smith noted in an editorial yesterday, Mackintosh’s words “betray “a disturbing lack of empathy and understanding for the plight of freelancers, many of whom have spent the past year surviving on next to no income. They don’t want jobs ad infinitum, they just want any job. At all.”

Smith cleverly contrasts it with the recent debacle of the European Super League.

For those of you unfamiliar with this story, Europe’s 12 richest football clubs attempted to launch a breakaway competition to secure their pre-eminent position and, essentially, become even richer. It made fine commercial sense, but was against the wishes of the fans, players and even managers of their clubs. In the end, they were forced into a swift and embarrassing climbdown.

I don’t expect that to happen when it comes to Phantom, but there are lessons here for those running British theatre. The most obvious is to beware becoming completely divorced from the grassroots of your industry.”

Meanwhile, a different, more positive story was lost in the outrage. As I queried here just a few weeks ago, why are some of the key jobs on the same show significantly restricted by race? I asked why the Phantom is yet to be played by a person of colour in the 35 years that the show has been running in the West End, though black actors have played the role on Broadway, in LA and on the US road (You can read it here).

So even as Phantom has been making the headlines over the last week for being so cavalier with the livelihoods of the musicians, there actually was another headline that should have been celebrated on Tuesday when the show’s return was announced: the casting of Lucy St Louis in the role of Christine, the first-ever person of colour to get the role (pictured above centre, with co-stars Killian Donnelly, right, as the Phantom, and Rhys Whitfield, left, as Raoul).

But the trouble with drawing attention to it is dangerous, as it may be wondered why on earth has this just not happened far sooner. No, Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber (pictured above) have been far more intent on shaving costs from the show — and thereby to increase their own personal profits — than profiting the cause of more integrated casting.

These are fictional characters; there’s no reason at all why that couldn’t have happened much, much sooner. Except there’s been no will or appetite to otherwise wrestle with an audience’s assumptions; ones that the casting to date have actually fosters and embedded. So it’s a chicken and egg situation: you don’t want to muck around with a formula that works, but it’s a formula you’ve created yourself.

But clearly there’s no comparable hesitation to much around with the formula you’ve also created, which is that the lush score is heard by a full-bodied orchestra of 27. No, that particular standard is there to be knocked freely off its perch, citing technological advances that mean that electronic sounds can now be manufactured much more easily than ever before.

Theatre, however, is a human business; we’re there to see live actors and musicians, not ones on a digital tape that we could watch at home, or sounds that they produce by pushing buttons. If and when great digital technology evolves to provide 3D actors who aren’t actually there, will Mackintosh dispense with living ones, too?

It’s only a matter of time, it seems to me. And then we might as well all stay home, and have those digital actors turn up in our living room to perform the show just for us. Live theatre, which has persisted since the ancient Greeks invented it, will finally be finished.

At awards ceremonies, actors and creative people alike seem to be programmed to say “thank you Cameron” — regardless of his involvement. I won’t be saying thank you, though, if this is the eventual outcome.

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