Birdman... And the effect of Celebrity on Broadway and the West End
Last Wednesday I took advantage of (the soon-to-be-extinct) 'Orange Wednesday' and treated a friend to the new movie 'Birdman,' which is mainly set at Broadway's St James Theatre. What a polarising evening it turned out to be! I absolutely loved the film and was totally intrigued by its psychology, as well as its setting. My friend missed a portion of it, as he fell asleep (possibly due to the stuffy heat inside the seemingly non-air conditioned cinema) and a random girl, who chatted to us afterwards, told me it was the worst film she had ever seen! And now, it is up for an astounding 10 BAFTA awards!
As this isn't a film review, I won't bore anybody by explaining the plot and examining the performances of the various very talented cast members. However, I will say that anyone who is interested in Broadway (or the West End) should definitely go and see this film. It offered me a unique insight (if possibly heightened to the extreme) of the proceedings backstage at a Broadway play. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu did a fantastic job of de-glorifying the dressing rooms and corridors backstage. I really sensed the claustrophobia and the drabness. Even the star's room felt somewhat like a prison cell. I admire the realism, depicting 'behind the magic' as less than magical in reality. Also, something that the medium of film is able to offer, that theatre cannot, is seeing things through the point of view of others. Through the positioning of the camera on stage through the POV of Michael Keaton, we are able to see what it's like being on a Broadway stage in front of hundreds of people.
A particular piece of dialogue from the film sparked my interest. It took place between Michael Keaton's character (Riggan Thomson, a has-been Hollywood star, attempting to re-ignite his career with a stint on Broadway) and Lindsay Duncan's character (Tabitha Dickinson, a ruthless New York theatre critic). Tabitha resents everything about what Riggan represents, calling him a 'celebrity and not an actor,' and is determined to write the worst review ever, despite not even having seen the play yet. In her eyes, movie actors undeservedly waltz onto Broadway and think they own the place. This altercation got me thinking about the effect of celebrity on the West End and Broadway scenes today.
We must never forget that the theatre industry is a business that must evolve with the times in order to make money and survive (or even prosper). There is no denying the appeal of seeing a celebrity on stage. Now moreso than ever, in our fame-obsessed society, producers feel they have to capitalise and seduce movie, TV and popstars to tread the boards. Purists turn their noses up at certain West End or Broadway debuts, but I feel more tolerance and openess should be encouraged.
In this country, we are extremely fortunate that many of our top actors in the world of film and television have already had a great deal of experience on stage before they 'made it' in Hollywood. Names such as Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Patrick Stewart, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, James McAvoy and Damian Lewis spring to mind. However, there is also a trend, where celebrities with little acting experience are thrown into leading roles in the West End - Ronan Keating, Nicole Scherzinger, Beverley Knight and Alexandra Burke being some recent examples. In pretty much all of the aforementionned cases, there has been a terrific increase in ticket sales. Purists who moan about such celebrities are never the ones footing the bill to put on a West End show and I would argue that the more stage experience and training you offer these celebrities, the more accomplished their performances will become. Hopefully, everyone, in the end, will be a winner. (I know this isn't always the case, but I refuse to name names here.)
On my recent trip to New York, there were also Broadway shows with Reality TV stars appearing in shows such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Cinderella' and 'Rock of Ages'. Although I saw one of those shows and was certainly underwhelmed by the performance of one of those stars, I couldn't help but appreciate that this individual had brought a totally new audience into the theatre, who might never normally even consider going to a Broadway show. I really felt I had to look at the positive of the situation. On the other hand, I would hate to see the West End overrun with 'stars' from 'The Only Way is Essex,' 'Eastenders,' 'Made in Chelsea' or 'The X Factor' - but an eclectic mixture of shows offering this, as well as time-tested stage actors, big movie stars or musicians - can only be a positive thing as it will appeal to a number of different demographics and not just the usual, middle-aged, caucasian, middle or upper-middle class theatregoer. So on this occasion, I will have to respectfully disagree with Lindsay Duncan's critic character in Birdman...
Sub-Editor at Londontheatre.co.uk & NewYorktheatreguide.com