Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reality TV Talent Searches

There are some reality TV shows I’ll sit and watch every week, some I’m indifferent to, and others I question the sanity and intelligence of the producers/creators. In July 2006, composer extraordinaire Andrew Lloyd Webber approached the BBC to launch a programme that would allow the public to watch a selection of talented young ladies in a series of weekly, live ‘auditions’, and then vote for who they would like to see as the new Maria Von Trapp in the West End production of The Sound of Music. Six years later, the controversy of such a method of casting is still going strong, and has come back into the spotlight with yet another reality show- a search for the lead role in Jesus Christ Superstar. This time Lloyd Webber is offering the winner the chance to perform in an arena tour, and he has also jumped ship from the BBC to ITV.

I have been reading several different responses to this more recent show, and they have varied from calling it blasphemous, to a terrible shame that the casting of musicals has been lowered to this undignified approach to finding a new leading man/lady. So I thought I’d share my point of view, and please remember it is just that- I’m not a performer, I never went to a theatre school in London, and I’ve never been, nor know anybody who has been, on the inside of one of these shows, so I’m not for one second trying to maintain that I’m completely right or 100% ‘in the know’.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m against these kinds of shows and I honestly don’t think they do the damage that some are maintaining. If you think about the positive attributes- it gives those who couldn’t afford musical theatre training a chance to break into the industry thereby revealing talent that nobody knew existed and widening the search; people who have always dreamed of being on the stage but had to pursue other careers have the chance to turn back time, shall we say, and give theatre another chance; and it allows the viewers, the ones who pay to see these West End shows, to voice an opinion about who we would prefer to see in the lead role. I’ve read a couple of articles that make it sound as though the public having a say in these casting shows is one of their biggest problems. This is interesting, considering when it comes to award shows like the What’s On Stage Awards, where the winners are voted for entirely by the public, the audience’s opinion is a big deal, and is considerably relevant (if you watch interviews with the nominated actors, nearly all of them say that the reason these awards are so special is because they are voted for by the public instead of critics). So why when it comes to us having a say in the casting are we all of a sudden incapable and unqualified? It’s not like it’s entirely up to us; even though the public get a vote, each week ‘the Lord’ gets the ultimate say on who out of the least popular contestants is staying and who should go home (until the very last week) and there is always a panel of judges who tend to know what they are talking about to help us with our decision.

So far the public have chosen exceptional winners, such as Danielle Hope who at just 18 gave one of the most beautiful renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow I have ever heard, and Lee Mead, after winning the search for Joseph in 2007, continued to find work in popular West End shows like Wicked. But not only do the winners gain West End careers, other contestants who reach the live shows have also found themselves in show business- Samantha Barks for example did not win the search for Oliver!’s Nancy, but she gained the part of Eponine in the stage version of Les Miserables, and was recently cast in the film version alongside Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman. I chose Samantha as the example because critic for The Stage, Mark Shenton, wrote: “It’s possible that Samantha Barks, who came third in the Oliver! contest, is destined for bigger stardom now than anyone on the reality TV shows so far”. Yes, Samantha will more than likely become a bigger star and more famous (which some celebrities consider more of a curse than a blessing) than winner of the show Jodie Prenger, but that does not mean she was more suitable for the role of Nancy- she left the programme and found her own path, and good for her. Shenton wrote previously to this that: “It’s arguable that the best person for the job isn’t necessarily the one the public chooses, but you can say the same for private auditions where the casting directors make all the decisions; at the end of the day it’s all a matter of opinion, but if the actor sells tickets, they entertain, and they receive excellent feedback from the audience and critics, then they can’t be doing much wrong.
Jesus Christ Superstar has sparked even further debate than the previous talent shows because of already established West End performers, such as Oliver Tompsett, Alex Gaumond, and Roger Wright taking part. Shenton wrote (and he is by no means the only one saying this): It’s certainly depressing that established talent feels it’s necessary to submit themselves to the indignity of a public popularity contest.” Firstly, I wouldn’t refer to their situation as depressing; as already stated, they are established and successful performers who have experienced the spotlight and they already know how capable they are. They are more than likely living, or have lived, their dream of being a West End star, so I’m not too quick to feel sorry for them just because their audition for this particular part involves being part of a televised talent search. I’d also like to point out that established performers are not some sort of higher being, and nor are they above going back to the beginning and auditioning with people who don’t have the training, the agent, or the experience that most West End performers have.  I don’t believe these guys see themselves as above this process either, otherwise they wouldn’t have gone ahead and auditioned for it. Here I’d like to insert a quote from Oliver Tompsett’s Facebook page that gives evidence to my point: "I have never asked for a free pass for anything & do not want to be treated any different from the next guy […] to those who think that it’s beneath them to audition in such a manner in front of the nation & show that you’re only human and share your warts and all? I only have this to say: ‘TOO CHICKEN?’ ”

Well said.
As for referring to the shows as a popularity contest, the majority of the audience doesn’t personally know the contestants on these shows, so realistically we can’t just vote for the one we think we could be friends with; we have to vote on the performances they give and the attitudes they have. We want to know that they are willing to put every ounce of effort into the role, should they be chosen for it.

Having said all this, based on the viewings of this search for Jesus Christ Superstar, the public are getting a little disinterested in this format of casting. To begin with if he wanted to continue with these searches, Lloyd Webber would have done better to stay with the BBC, because ITV have made this year’s cheesier than ever, and quite a lot of it seems disjointed and a bit rushed. Not to mention the ‘last supper’ and other religious puns are not doing the show any favours, and I can’t be doing with all the adverts every ten minutes. Let’s just say the format of the show could do with some work. Nonetheless we shouldn’t predict that ticket sales for the arena tour are also going to suffer; I believe people will still be highly interested in seeing the actual production regardless of their discontentment for the casting process. Those who are feeling as though all of musical theatre is going down the pan because of Lloyd Webber’s reality TV should remember that there are several incredible musicals and shows out there that have nothing to do with him, and they seem happy to not follow in his footsteps and continue with the traditional ways of auditioning- all is not lost!
What we should all come to accept however is that however beneficial three years of training at Arts Ed, Mountview, and LIPA etc are, it is not the only route to becoming a professional performer. It definitely works for some people, but others have their reasons for attempting a different approach. When it comes down to it, it shouldn’t matter where you start; if you have the talent, you’re prepared to work hard, and you’re ready for the multiple rejections and harsh words on your way to the top, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves, televised or not. Some see these shows as an elongated advertisement for the production, but that could be what the West End needs, especially with the Olympics approaching amidst fears that shows are going to have to close because everyone’s attentions will either be on sport or on staying away from the capital. If Lloyd Webber can encourage people to see a show, and others besides, I don’t see it as something to complain about.

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