The last 18 months have seen an extraordinary amount of television and movie stars take to the West End and Broadway stages. On the West End, Amber Riley has embodied the role of Effie White in the first ever London production of Dreamgirls. Meanwhile on Broadway, Bette Midler has taken on the infamous matchmaker Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! Whilst having names such as these is bound to make the productions commercially successful, is it necessarily a good thing that movie and television stars are crossing over into the theatre?
A particularly controversial issue which has all too often been the centre of media attention is the performance of the understudy. In April last year, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard was revived at the London Coliseum for a limited run of 5 weeks. The show’s star was none other than the actress who originated the role of Norma Desmond on Broadway in 1994, Glenn Close. The actress, most known for her starring roles in Hollywood blockbusters such as Fatal Attraction and 101 Dalmatians, was undoubtedly the biggest box office draw for the revival, which was hailed as ‘the theatrical event of 2016’. However, on 21st April, about three weeks into the run, it was announced that Glenn Close would not be playing the role of Norma Desmond that evening due to ill health. Instead her understudy, Ria Jones, would take her place. Notices were hung up on the doors of the Coliseum informing the audience that Close was indisposed, and an announcement was also made before the curtain went up for the first act. More than a few members of the audience booed upon hearing this announcement, and many walked out before the performance began. But would this have happened at a performance of any other show? A show which did not feature such a famous actress whose name was billed above the title of the show? Unlikely. So what was it about that night that made anyone in the audience think it was appropriate to behave the way some of them did? Most importantly, the use of an actress who is more famous for being in films than on stage attracts an audience to the theatre who are not necessarily used to the way theatre works. In theatre there is no guarantee that you will see a particular actor perform. The price you pay is for the show, not for the actor. And whilst many people disputed that having Close’s name above the title of the show was a bit risky (which I am inclined to agree with), it does not mean that she was guaranteed to play every single performance of the show. The backlash the Coliseum received that night would undoubtedly have been far less intense if the actress who had been absent was not a Hollywood movie star. And if those who walked out had stayed to watch the performance, they would have witnessed a highly acclaimed performance from Ria Jones, which received a five minute standing ovation and five curtain calls!
When actresses such as Glenn Close perform on the West End or Broadway stages, it undoubtedly serves to considerably increase the price of tickets. Last year the tickets for Sunset Boulevard reached £150, and at the current production of Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre, starring Glee actress Amber Riley, tickets go up to £145. That is not to say there are no cheaper seats available, but buying cheaper tickets risks having a restricted view. Charging such a price for tickets is bound to alienate many people who do have a genuine interest in theatre and that particular show, who, ironically, would not be quite so disappointed if the lead actor was absent. This particularly applies to the younger generation, who cannot necessarily afford to pay such a high price to see a musical.
Attracting an audience who are not regular theatre-goers also risks inviting in an audience who are not aware of the etiquette appropriate for the theatre. It is expected that during the show, audience members will switch off their mobile phones and not eat any food. However, if the audience are not used to this etiquette and do not abide by it, it can be incredibly frustrating to the actors on stage and fellow audience members. Only a few weeks ago, Glenn Close made headlines for stopping a performance of Sunset Boulevard (which is currently running on Broadway) mid-song to instruct an audience member to stop taking photos of her. Whilst this is a rarity, it proves that having a Hollywood actress on the stage does cause an audience to behave differently than they would at any other show.
All this is not to say that actors who are primarily famous for their work in film should not be on stage. It does attract an audience who are not necessarily aware of the theatre, but the experience they have watching one of their favourite actors on stage may allow them to find a new passion they would otherwise never have found. It attracts a new generation of theatre-goers and has certainly provided me with some unforgettable experiences.