For those of you that know me well this blog is well overdue, for those of you that don't know me, please settle down as I jump off the fence, catapulting over my soapbox, straight towards the high horse I intend to ride for the next few moments.
Not since Martine McCutcheon went off in My Fair Lady have I ever known such a fuss about a leading performer going off, and an understudy or cover going on.
So unless you've lived under a rock for the last week, Glenn Close disappointed thousands of fans by being ill. Due to star in Sunset Boulevard at the ENO, this was a rare opportunity for UK based fans to see a real live Hollywood icon on stage, in a role that she had already won a Tony for some 12 or so years ago.
The ENO did that notorious thing of putting the name of the star above the title of the show, which for those in the know means that if the star isn't performing you should be able to get your money back. They have effectively rated the star better value than the show.
Since the era of franchised musicals in the 80's we've lost the stars of musical theatre in this country. Who's playing the Phantom right now? Who's Fantine? Who are the performers singing ABBA songs every night? The shows got bigger than the stars...and as a result the stars got smaller. MT fans might know, but Joe Public don't have a clue and even more importantly don't care. They've bought into the 'product' not the performers. In the world of theatre we have huge stars...yet outside of our world nobody knows who they are. They're not even big enough to hook a show onto. Why do you think that established performers are resorting to shows like The Voice or X Factor? The legend that is Imelda Staunton who actually has some Joe Public value had to bide her time to play Rose, as she wasn't considered box office worthy enough to open the show any earlier.
Sheridan Smith, Michael Crawford, Michael Ball....they could all open a show and the PR world would be taking it a little bit easier as these legitimate theatre stars have the potential to sell out a limited run of a musical, in an average size house(then you'd better pray for someone else to turn up at the end of their contract).
The Elphabas could probably sustain a few week's worth of tickets (but only if they'd played the part for a sustained period of time).
Anyway I digress. Back to the ENO. There's something very peculiar about the world of Opera that has always baffled me (not that I've been to that many)...it's about how vocal the audiences are. No stiff upper lip here. Seemingly in an opera house it's OK to boo as well as 'brava or bravo'. I was first alerted to this on my first trip to see a 'proper grown up opera', when I watched part of the Richard Jones interpretation of Wagner's Ring Cycle. It was the part that they dared to have some of the characters in naked fat suits. To be fair I rather liked the interpretation (but I confess I was already a Richard Jones fan having seen his version of Into the Woods several times, and had personally worked first hand with Julia Bardsley, who worked very closely with Jones). Anyway on the press night it all kicked off. The creatives came to take their bows (another peculiar thing about this world)...and I was truly taken back to hear people booing them. Suddenly I felt like I was in some sort of surreal parallel universe. I've often spoken about my working class roots, and so I was already feeling somewhat out of place at the Royal Opera House (with my best ironed jeans on)...until this moment. When suddenly I felt like I was being transported back to a panto at the Swansea Grand. The audience had been split down the middle and half of them were shouting bravo (which up until that point I hadn't realised was a 'real thing'...for some reason I thought that it was made up), and the other half were actually booing people that had spent weeks creating this vision.
Now whether you like a piece of not, surely you must give respect to people's right to express artistic opinion? I know, I know...which leads to a whole debate about freedom of speech and the audience's right to express their opinion too.
So...jump back to last week, and let's spare a thought for the poor, poor bloke that had to stand up on that stage and announce that Ms Close was off? He was greeted by this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-4_s0h5_g8&feature=youtu.be
Now what the hell is that about? I 100% get that you've waited your entire life to see someone live playing a particular part, and I 100% get the immense disappointment you feel when that person isn't on. Your dreams are shattered, your wallet is lighter, and for what? When I went to see Gypsy, I distinctly remember that stomach churning moment just before the show started, when I literally held my breath in case that dreaded announcement came across the tannoy 'in this afternoon's performance of Gypsy the role of Rose will be played by...'. Fortunately it didn't happen BUT it has happened to me several times in my life, and every time I've been secretly devastated...but the key word here is secretly. Never in my wildest dreams would I vocalise my upset because I understand that some poor sod is stood in the wings getting ready only to hear an audience sigh/groan...and my heart just feels for them. I'm also aware that there are other people in the show, and I know from personal experience how despondent it can make you feel when you know that the audience are against you from the start. However, that said...this was the ENO...so there were no sighs, there was a full out shouting war going on.
I went on the 2nd night and I heard a similar reaction (probably not quite so pronounced)...and saw people instantly getting out of their seats to leave the theatre. So they hadn't come to see the show AT ALL...it was literally all about Ms Close. Yet ironically IMHO the star of Sunset is Joe Gillis. He never gets top billing, but it's HIS story isn't it? He guides us through the events that led to his death; I mean he's barely off stage.
In this current production the part of Joe is played just beautifully by Michael Xavier. It's the first production of Sunset that I've seen where I actually felt a sense of empathy for him, if I'm honest in the other productions I could have shot the Joes myself a few scenes earlier (if I were a fading film star with a psycho streak that is of course)
However Sunset is always billed around the Norma. Maybe because you can always surprise people with your casting I don't know. It Antonio Banderas played Joe maybe the tables could finally turn (or even better...James Corden...too far?).
Again I digress. So the show is held for 20 mins as everybody takes it out on the box office staff and the FOH staff (as they are clearly the reason that Ms Close is indisposed), meanwhile waiting in the wings was one of the West End's most accomplished performers, ironically waiting to sing the role that she had actually originated. Maybe the thing that we should be most ashamed about here is the fact that when her name was announced, Joe 'I came to see a Hollywood star' Public didn't even recognise her name. As far as they were concerned, the director had bolted it to the Theatre Cafe and asked if any of the people singing karaoke fancied taking a stab at the role. This randomer from Wales had volunteered, the outfit fitted so she was on.
Now as some of you know I happen to know Ria personally....in fact I've known her on and off for around 40 years, since she was a child star, and I was . . . well, I was finding my place in the world ;-)
In fact I've known her predating her days belting out a show tune or two in the working men's clubs around the Swansea area. I played the same circuit...but I was playing the electric organ, attempting to accompany the 'acts', as they got seriously heckled - very, very quickly(there was none of this 'give them a chance' time at some of the venues). I say attempting because some of those clubs were so tough I couldn't hear the acts let alone follow them, due to the audience opting to give a vocal critique as though the cabaret was some nightmarish immersion theatre piece. Interestingly I would say that the crowd were a bit rough at times....but having been at the ROH that evening, I can now reframe the occasions into an audience with vocal energy.
In other words... I knew that Ria, with her 40 odd years of stage experience was not going to be beaten by the boos. I also knew that she has wanted to play this role since she originated it back in Sydmonton when dinosaurs were still ruling the earth. For the past 20 odd years I've worked off and on as Ria's MD, and she invariably sings a Sunset song, and it always brings the house down. Just last year we did a gig back in Swansea together and she sung As If We Never Said Goodbye (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IqhRcYIjqI) - listen to that applause at 2 mins 48 secs. Without fail when she sings that exact moment, I get goose bumps. In recent years the line has been even more poignant given her much publicised health scare.
So here's my moan - I KNOW that it's PR gold to talk about the understudy becoming a star, but that's never real. In fact it's as real as Norma Desmond's comeback. It's a fantasy, spun to the world, to make us all think that there's a short cut to success. Shouldn't the headlines be shouting out "FINALLY THE ACCOMPLISHED THEATRE STAR GOT TO PLAY THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME"? Shouldn't Ria be dragged onto every talk show going, to talk about this unique journey of hers? Shouldn't we be attempting to make her a household name in that precise moment? Shouldn't we be using the opportunity to finally explain to 'Joe Public' how amazing our understudies are...and that they're very likely not playing the lead, because their public profile isn't big enough? Then let's talk about the real saviours of Musicals - the Swings. The performers learning countless tracks, ready to switch sides and harmonies within a heartbeat, in order for the show to continue. Shouldn't we talk about the fact that in NY the Swings are revered, yet over here it's almost a 'next best thing' to be the Swing in a show.
Maybe we should talk about the fact that in NY Broadway performers can demand a huge salary, whereas reaching the top in the UK...those not famous performers who are supposedly at the top of their profession as they're performing in the West End....invariably have to get a day job to subsidise their income in order to live in the city that we all aspire to work in.
Maybe...just maybe...we could have just spoken about real life theatre?
The PR story was great - the Theatre Cafe girl won over the crowds and in the end they cheered her. The movement gathered momentum and people started to book tickets in the hope of seeing her...but what now? One paper rightly commented that they hoped that Ria's agent was currently taking their time sifting through hundreds of offers, then choosing their pick of shows for her to do. There's a Joe 'musical theatre fan' Public rumbling almost daring ALW to produce a full version of the show with Ria finally in the lead. Could that happen, or more specifically could that happen without Ria first having to compete on live TV with all the other actresses of a certain age, that could equally play the role brilliantly? Of course that wouldn't happen, as the majority of those actresses (Ria included I would suspect) wouldn't put themselves through the editing hell that is a reality 'Search for your Star' programme.
So what's my annoyance? A dear friend and colleague finally got to play the role of her dreams, and everybody got to hear about it. My annoyance I guess is that we now live in a world that needs us to spin a story, as oppose to acknowledge and celebrate hard work and perseverance. Ria is the only person I know in this industry that has never done a 'crap job' just to get by and pay her rent. I think that that is phenomenal, and secretly we'd all like to dislike her a bit for that fact, but we can't, because she's also notoriously nice. She's the worse that this industry can produce....a lovely grafter, like Kerry Ellis, Caroline Sheen, Rosie Ashe, Killian Donnelly, Mike Jibson, Alistair Harvey, A J Casey, Cassidy Janson, Jenna Russell, Daniel Evans...Michael Xavier my list is endless. Is there any wonder that we're in a world where young graduates leave the industry within 5 years because they haven't 'made it' yet, or where people won't tour, because they're waiting to 'open in town'. Even when something great happens, we feel the need to perpetuate the myth. Not necessarily in the full articles, but pretty much in every headline.
I keep screaming this - let's create stars out of our stars. People like talent. Ria proved that 4 performances in a row...and because she's a seasoned professional, I'd put money on the fact that she could have played the role every performance (unlike a ridiculous article that I was reading today about how roles were now so difficult all performers needed a show or two off??) It you're playing Eva Peron maybe (just maybe)...if you're playing Charity Hope Valentine, just develop the stamina to do the job that you're paid pennies to do.
Our industry has the most phenomenally talented people in it, advertise them at the side of your Hollywood stars, as you never know...one night they might have to go on and save you £££££'s in returned ticket revenue.