Yesterday brought the news that Girls Aloud star Kimberley Walsh will be taking over the role of Princess Fiona in Shrek in October whilst Amanda Holden is on maternity leave.
Whilst congratulations rang out across social networking sites both for Amanda Holden on her pregnancy and Kimberley Walsh on her West End role, many West End fans and artists voiced their disappointment at not only this particular casting news, but stunt casting in general. Why should a celebrity be cast in a role when many performers have worked years in the business and do not get a look in?
First and foremost, a lot of people are very quick to judge a celebrity. “They can’t do that” is a phrase that is bandied around a fair bit in the West End, and often proven wrong. In the case of Sheridan Smith in Legally Blonde, a lot of negative criticism ruled before the show opened, only for it to open and prove all of the haters wrong. In the end, Sheridan won “Best Actress In A Musical” at the 2011 Olivier Awards against stiff competition, of well known West End actresses. Jill Halfpenny, another “Stunt Cast”, also won an Olivier this year for “Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical” for Legally Blonde proving that both her and Sheridan’s performances were not only recognised by the fans, but by the critics and panelists as well. I always make sure that I have seen a “stunt cast” performer prior to judging their performance, but I think it is very difficult not to judge when some understudies could easily carry the lead role but are overlooked again and again due to stunt casting.
Many people do not realise that a lot of ‘celebrities’ are in fact trained performers who, like anyone else, went into a boyband/girlband/TV show in order to make money, do what they love and make a name for themselves. After all, isn’t that what any performer wishes to do? Going back to Sheridan Smith, pre Legally Blonde she had starred in Little Shop of Horrors as Audrey (for which she also had an Olivier nomination) as well as numerous National Youth Music Theatre productions as a child. Amanda Holden had performed in several musical tours prior to her run in Shrek and Suzanne Shaw (who starred a couple of years ago in Chicago) has performed in quite a few musicals as well.
But is having trained for a little while and performed in a couple of musicals enough? Is it a kick in the teeth to all those performers who work incredibly hard to put themselves through three years of drama school and then tread the boards in whatever role they can get in the hope of one day being given the chance to play a lead? Is it disheartening to our fantastic West End talent when someone with less experience and in some cases less talent steps into the lead above their head, particularly if they do not do it justice?
One has to ask the question, though, would theatre sell without stunt casting? As I have discussed in previous blogs, British audiences are generally a lot more closed minded than American audiences, so do we NEED a celebrity to put those elusive bums on seats? Even with brands like Shrek that are well recognised as a brand in themselves, do we still need a “stunt cast” to bring in the punters? I don’t know about you, readers, but I think if someone who is a ‘celebrity’ can do the role well and help sell tickets then I am happy to support that. After all, I would much rather have a show open with a celebrity or two than closed with many actors, front of house and techs out of work.
Many people blame producers for celebrity casting, but are they solely to blame when culture says the celebrities sell tickets? At the end of the day, many people forget that theatre is a business for some. For me and for many of my Twitter followers, theatre is a pastime and and an enjoyment, but from a producer’s point of view it is a business. A show won’t be put on if it won’t sell. Same as if the producer believes that a stunt cast will help sell tickets, then why not have a stunt cast? This certainly applies in the case of serial stunt casting shows such as Chicago, where nine times out of ten one of the four principle roles will be a ‘celebrity’. Again, would a show like Chicago really interest the general public if it weren’t for stunt casting?
I think until the minds of audiences change then celebrity casting (good and bad) will continue. Until people will go and see a show based on the show itself, not based on what celebrity is in it or who they voted for on that TV show, we will be forced to see the occasional problem of miscast celebrities who stumble though the show without a clue, whilst the performers who have spent their lives training amble around in the background.
Would love to hear all your opinions folks! Drop me a comment!