February 27: Star (and stunt) casting is still all the rage, but is it necessarily a bad thing?

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Theatre may have migrated online for now (though here’s hoping that we’ll be back in the stalls and not just our armchairs or desks soon). Even though online theatre has created a much more level playing field in terms of opportunities for people and productions to be seen, with the smallest theatres like the Barn competing with the biggest like the National for audiences, star casting is STILL a thing.

In fact, it may even be more of a thing; the ‘stars’ are also on lockdown, and they’re as eager as anyone to actually do some work, so they’re available for online shows — especially ones that can be done from home — as never before.

And just as a star name can be useful in physical theatres for getting people to buy tickets, digital productions can also do with the lure of a star name to get people to choose to buy a ticket to watch a show at home. A separate, but related issue, presents itself around hiring local talent — based in the region of the presenting theatre(s) — as opposed to imported talent from elsewhere around the country, and in particular London-based actors.

Was it wrong, therefore, for Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum to cast the premiere of Mark Ravenhill’s Angela — the first offering in their eight-play Sound Stage partnership of audio productions — with actors, all but one of whom were based outside Scotland, led by star names Toby Jones and Pam Ferris?

One Scotland-based actor Janette Foggo posted on Facebook,

“At this exact moment, we do not need to be made to feel that stars from elsewhere are the magic that will bring us back. We need to be reminded that we are the magic that puts bums on seats. We are the blood and bone of our theatre. We need to know that there is a future and that our theatre managements and directors actually see and understand how bitterly Covid and its restrictions are affecting our whole community.”

The Royal Lyceum’s David Greig was seemingly unrepentant about the message, only willing to accept responsibility for the way that message was conveyed, replying:

“It is good casting, I am really excited about it. I do want to apologise that we didn’t present that well, particularly to our home audience.”

But in a statement that spoke for both theatres, Pitlochry’s Elizabeth Newman offered a more conciliatory approach: “We are really sorry. It is about where people are emotionally and what the pandemic has caused people to be suffering from, as regards their mental health.” She also stated that Scottish actors haven’t been abandoned: “We are employing people, we audition people, we did two full days of auditions for our winter project with only Scottish people. We have been auditioning Scottish people for the Sound Stage project as well. Auditions have been taking place.”

As The Stage subsequently reported, thirteen of the 17 performers in the new plays by Jaimini Jethwa, John Byrne and Lynda Radley that follow the Ravenhill play are based in Scotland, as are the directors and assistant directors of the three productions.

But for some commentators, the original sin still needs appeasing: talking of the casting of Ravenhill’s play, Lyn Gardner — again in The Stage – wrote,

“Such casting is possible because of its digital form. We can safely say that in non-pandemic times Jones would be unlikely to spend a summer season in Pitlochry. Although that would be his loss, because it’s a gorgeous place. With a script by Ravenhill and such strong casting, what can possibly be the problem?

Maybe it’s the message this sends out during a pandemic when, like other theatre freelancers, Scottish actors are bereft of work. Why suddenly forget one of your communities – a community in crisis and in evident need – in favour of star casting that will give your production greater profile and attract a new audience?”

I agree that there’s a perception, with that opening announcement, that the local acting community was being forgotten; but it has now been rebutted by the subsequent announcement. Meanwhile, I think Gardner has supplied her own answer to why it was done, which was to give the production “greater profile and attract a new audience.”

That’s hardly a bad thing. Local theatres do need to serve their own communities — both onstage and amongst its audiences — first and foremost, but they also will benefit financially, especially in work that requires audiences to pay a fee to watch — if there’s a star attraction.

It has ever been thus. Back in 2017, there was a bit of a furore when former England cricket captain Freddie Flintoff [pictured above with Jodie Prenger] was cast in a UK touring production of Fat Friends — the Musical (at some but not all dates). I went to review it at Milton Keynes, a date where Mr Flintoff was not scheduled to appear. But I found out at the Saturday matinee that I went to see that he was being put into the show that night; so I stayed and saw it again (I’m nothing if not diligent in my efforts!)

The difference was instructive. Sure, the matinee actor was easily more accomplished. But as I observed in my review for The Stage,

“His presence in the show generates enormous reservoirs of goodwill, a commodity whose effect it is impossible to underestimate. No, he’s not the greatest actor – he really doesn’t know what to do with his hands – but he puts his solo song over with verve and nerve. While he brings a slightly homespun quality to the show, this only makes it more intensely relatable for audiences.”

And the show didn’t rest on his shoulders, but meant that — thanks largely to his box office appeal — the production was able to happen at all, and provide employment for a number of other actors, creatives and crew.

I’m not sure that its worth getting too stressed by the addition of a Freddie Flintoff if it means that a dozen or more other jobs are facilitated. Ditto, when the West End company of Waitress was briefly supplemented by YouTube celebrity Joe Sugg in 2019.

This video explains his reach and appeal:

And in this vlog, he talks us through auditioning for the show — and getting the job:

And that video was seen by three quarters of a million people. The production couldn’t buy publicity like it. (And it’s fascinating to watch how he plays out his life entirely in public, as he tells him mum about getting the job).

It’s hardly surprising that he gets it, though: the lead producers of Waitress were Barry and Fran Weissler, whose signature move throughout their Broadway careers has been stunt casting. This was immortalised in Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last 5 Years, where Cathy, an aspiring actress, sings in a song called Climbing Uphill of her audition experience:

Why am I working so hard?
These are the people who cast Linda Blair in a musical.

That was the Weisslers, who cast Linda Blair — the possessed daughter in the film The Excorcist — as Rizzo in their revival of Grease on Broadway in 1997. (Subsequently versions of The Last 5 Years have chosen other mismatched celebrity castings to poke fun at; after the film version of Les Miserables was released, the line became “These are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical.”)

Its a technique they subsequently perfected with their biggest-ever hit Chicago — and where the cult of celebrity over talent is actually one of the themes of the show, so life wasn’t so much imitating art as embracing it.

As that show’s Broadway casting director Duncan Stewart said in an early 2020 interview for playbill.com, “Some people call it stunt casting. We firmly call it star casting.” He has been casting the show for a decade and a half, joined by his business partner Benton Whitley for the last ten of those years.

As Playbill reported,

“Contrary to popular assumptions, Chicago is not an open door for any A-lister to come play. Three or four times a year, the casting directors create a list of hundreds of names for potential celebrities. Then they decide—with the producers, creatives, and marketing team—which stars they want to audition. “From that, maybe you get eight people in a year who express interest, who we audition and see a tape on,” says Stewart. “And maybe two or three end up getting cast during the year.”

Some of those who starred in Chicago over the years have included Jerry Springer (pictured in the show above, in 2009), celebrity model Christine Brinkley, Billy Zane, Melanie Griffith, Cuba Gooding Jr, country star Billy Ray Cyrus, Usher, Huey Lewis, Brooke Shields, Todrick Hall and Wayne Brady, who weren’t known for musical theatre beforehand; though the last two, at least, acquired a taste for it and were subsequently seen in Kinky Boots as well on Broadway, which likewise went through a phase of using stunt casting to bolster its box office.

That wasn’t even a Weissler show, so it proves that the technique has now been adopted by other producers. And as well as the aforementioned Joe Sugg, the Weissler’s went for stunt casting several more times during the London run of Waitress.

The original star of the West End run was Katharine McPhee — a runner-up in American Idol who’d had a successful stint in the show on Broadway — and she was in turn replaced by Lucie Jones, a former X-Factor contestant over here. That was in fact one of the West End’s worst-kept secret: back in February 2019 I’d been in New York when I saw her face adorning Broadway posters for the show already, and I tweeted at the time:

And that wasn’t the whole story, either: that summer of 2019, Lucie Jones was joined by former Pussycat Dolls member and Strictly Come Dancing contestant Ashley Roberts in the role of Dawn, who was at the time being played by Laura Baldwin, who it was in turn revealed on Twitter would be returning to the show “at the end of the summer.”

Many fellow performers rallied to her support, with Michael Jibson tweeting,

Jibson’s brilliant wife Caroline Sheen herself came to the rescue of the West End run of 9 to 5, when pop singer (and footballer’s wife) Louise Redknapp (pictured, centre, with co-stars Amber Davies and Natalie McQueen) was injured in a fall that left her with a fractured wrist and a cut to her chin, just days before its official opening; Sheen learnt the show in just three days to take over for the first night.

On that first night, I remember running into Jibson, and telling him, “Caroline should have been cast all along!” Of course she should — but Redknapp would have attracted a particular demographic beyond the theatre that Sheen, a far more accomplished and experienced musical theatre actor, never would have.

Now I’m not sure that Toby Jones has quite the box office sheen of even the industry beloved Caroline Sheen, though he’s certainly very distinctive; but I can see why Pitlochry and the Royal Lyceum wanted to welcome him to their audio company.

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