Do celebrities belong in the theatre
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Some would say it’s a rather recent gimmick, but the rise of ‘celebrities’ in theatre shows has definitely helped to spike ticket sales for shows of all shapes and sizes. But it does pose the question, are those hiked ticket prices worth it? Or are they simply there to pay for the named star, instead giving you the best performance you could possibly see?
One is aware that performers will often fall into celebrity culture, there actions or reactions may find their way into the press for example performers personal lives, views and controversies can turn them into a pseudo-celebrity overnight.
Celebrities by there very nature find themselves exploited on every platform available to keep their namesake floating in the media. But before continuing it is important to emphasise my use of the word ‘celebrity’, world class actors who belong on the stage and whom gained fame from this performance media belong on that stage. We’re talking love-island fodder and names you vaguely recognise from a time long ago.
“The precise moment a public figure becomes a celebrity occurs when media interest in their activities is transferred from reporting on their public role to investigating the details of their personal lives” - Graeme Turner
Of course the most common place to cultivate your has-beens is going to see the Pantomime. Celebrities divvied out left right and centre for their winter bucks. You could find yourself seeing The Hoff don his eye patch and hook for Peter Pan or Kerry Katona playing Maid Marrion in a local theatre near you. Punters will buy their tickets then wait at the stage door to meet these celebrities for that opportune instagram moment.
You expect to find Joe Pasqualli as buttons and Jimmy Osmond as an ugly sister year after year. In this medium the role of celebrity can be an incredible addition to a cast. The audience overwhelmed with excitement as a 90’s singer strolls on stage to sing their token hit, the joking call backs and self-deprecating reference to their flailing career and personal lives fills the audience with mirth in a way that a ‘no-body' could possibly fill.
It sparks social media delight and marketing for the show is made almost easy with a recognisable face and knowing the cast of Corro will be in your town soon. When you know a celebrities persona like Craig Revel Horwood or Christopher Biggins, you instantly recognise their characteristics and know that they will do a sterling job playing a voluptuous dame, and are sure to buy tickets. Plus factor in; no theatre would pay the hefty £400,000 for Hasselhoff and not surround him with the most wonderful set, script and creativity.
Broadway and The West End have had an influx of celebrity cameos in musical to give sales a bit of a push in the last 20 years. Shows such as Wicked and Les Miserables are long running quality shows with great actors, and haven’t compromised the quality of these plays with anything less than the perfect cast. Actresses like Idina Menzel could now be referred to as a ‘celebrity’ after her work with Disney, Glee and so on - However she rose to stardom on the stage and will remain a star on her return to the boards.
Compare that with the likes of Everybody’s Talking about Jamie and Waitress which have had a carousel of different stars donning the costumes. Does it compromise its quality? Or do the so called ‘celebrities’ add anything to the delivery of the show? There is no doubt that someone untrained will not produce the same quality as a Juilliard graduate. However, imagine Mark Labbett from The Chase playing Miss Trunchball - The audience would believe the villainous character from his media persona; surely that would add to the audience experience.
Let’s talk about Jamie (Everybody is). John McCrea, previously a low level actor, captivated the audience with his performance as Jamie New. Trained actors Tasmin Carroll as Miss Hedge and Phil Nichol as Hugo were simply incredible. But compare that to current performances where these people have been replaced with a more ‘mainstream’ some would call ‘celebrity’ cast. I personally preferred John McCrea as Jamie New, opposed to the Bad Education star Leighton Williams - However Williams was known for his camp personality and being a gay man, therefore a perfect casting and the audiences knew what they would get. Similarly I loved Phil Nichol as Hugo, but Shane Richie brings his well known and loved humour to the role to create a very different Hugo, one the audience already love!
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie really struck a chord with the gay community, and stars of Ru Pauls Drag Race have really gotten behind the show. Famous gay advocate Michelle Visage, now a house hold name joined the casting to play Miss Hedge, as did beloved Bianca Del Rio - The audience knew what they were coming to see, these people are in 'the community' that this play is about, they add a wonderful new layer to the show. On the flip Jamie sent actor Daniel Jacob into the world of celebrity as his time on Drag Race UK as Vinegar Strokes. Celebrities seem to work, right?
I was lucky enough to see Waitress shortly after it opened in London, I was blown away by the show. However due to poor ticket sales it’s clear the producers needed to find a gimmick to fill the theatre and the recasting began. Again, not detracting from the talent of the performers, but…
Casting reality TV star Lucy Jones as Jenna, Busted star Matt Willis as Dr Pomatter, Pussycat Doll Ashley Roberts as Dawn or the endless list of B-listers playing Ogie (Jack McBrayer, Blake Harrison, Joe Sugg). In this instance I have to say the choice of castings were less about putting on the best show, and more to pack out the Adelphi Theatre.
Many celebs have made the transition to becoming an actor through the world of theatre, and I must say you can tell they are serious about it when they find themselves the face of a serious play. There seems to be an unwritten agreement between audience and performer that their previous work and media persona’s are set aside and ignored for the 2 hours traffic of the stage - an agreement that is seemingly not present for Pantomimes and Musicals.
X Factor winner Shane Ward was incredible in Band Of Gold. Comedian Rufus Hound excelled in his performances with the Royal Shakespeare. Plus I cannot wait for singer Lily Allen to star in 2:22 A Ghost Story. You ignore the fact Lily Allen launched a sex toy, Rufus Hound’s political controversy or Shane Wards leaked sex tape, because why would they drop a celebrity in a serious play if they’re not good enough to perform?
In conclusion, I don’t mind a celebrity in a show, as long as the need for their presence is beneficial to the show. A famous face will easily sell a few more tickets, but let's not cast MP Anne Widecombe as Ulla in The Producers or The Go-Compare Guy as Evan Hansen.