Importing more stunt casting to the West End
The West End's worst-kept secret was finally let out of the bag yesterday with the announcement that Lucie Jones is to take over as Jenna from Katharine McPhee in the West End production of Waitress from 17th June. One former reality TV star is replacing another - McPhee was a runner-up in American Idol, and Jones was a former The X Factor contestant over here. But actually both McPhee and Jones have long since earned their theatrical stripes, with McPhee previously taking over in the original Broadway version of Waitress, and Jones' credits including appearances in Legally Blonde, Ghost the Musical and Les Miserables, plus last year's brilliant concert version of Howard Goodall's Girlfriends whose cast album was recently released.
But it was a strangely-revealed announcement: back in February I was in New York when I saw her face adorning Broadway posters for the show already, and I tweeted at the time:
So I was hardly surprised when the news was announced yesterday that it is indeed the case, though in fact it came days after she's already actually made an unscheduled run of four performances in the show last week! But there was a surprise in store nonetheless; that she would be joined from 17th June by former Pussycat Dolls member and Strictly Come Dancing contestant Ashley Roberts in the role of Dawn, currently being played by Laura Baldwin, who it was in turn revealed on Twitter would be returning to the show "at the end of the summer."
Many fellow performers rallied in her support, with Hamilton Olivier winner Michael Jibson tweeting "Dearest @LauraBaldwin92 you are a total and utter superstar. Everyone who knows this industry also knows how cheap it can be." West End regular Oliver Tompsett agreed, tweeting "Makes me so angry!! I’ve been there. @LauraBaldwin92 enjoy your break as weird as it may feel and remember it’s just business the art still burns bright in your hands."
Of course this is not the first - and it certainly won't be the last - time that commercial priorities have trumped purely artistic values. And in fact it's also hardly surprising that the lead producer is Barry Weissler, who long ago pioneered the modern theatrical trend for ‘stunt casting’ - booking big names in order to boost financing and audiences - in their 1994 Broadway production of Grease. Roles for the show were filled by the likes of Linda Blair, Debby Boone, Chubby Checker, Micky Dolenz, Sheena Easton and Brooke Shields.
As I've previously noted elsewhere, "In Blair’s case, the casting was recognised in Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, during which an auditioning actress laments: 'Why am I working so hard? These are the people who cast Linda Blair in a musical'."
The Weislers amplified this tendency with their next production of Chicago, which was kept alive in the West End (and continues to be kept alive on Broadway) by a rotating door of celebrity guests, that on Broadway have included George Hamilton, Sharon Lawrence, Billy Zane, Christie Brinkley, Billy Ray Cyrus, Melanie Griffith, Huey Lewis, Brooke Shields (yes, again), Jerry Springer and the late Patrick Swayze, among others. The West End edition saw the likes of Kelly Osbourne, Ashlee Simpson, Lynda Carter and Alison Moyet pass through its ranks, and the show's recent London return last year starred Cuba Gooding Jr.
Of course, I understand the pragmatic need for a star name to boost the profile of a show. But the pity is also the fundamental disrespect it seems to show the other actors in the show, who are shunted aside at the prospect of a name arriving to fill their shoes.
Time was that none of this would actually matter. Again, as I previously wrote, "The British-led megamusicals of the 1980s - Cats, Starlight Express, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon - created a new dynamic, in which the shows themselves (and their special effects, whether a massive ascending tyre, a roller-skating rink around the theatre, barricades, a falling chandelier or helicopter landing onstage) became the stars. The good news is that they don’t need replacing."
So it's again slightly baffling that when after Cameron Mackintosh sends the original West End production of Les Miserables into the sunset in July, he's re-staging it temporarily in an all-star concert version at the Gielgud Theatre for a summer season before he brings in the current touring production back to the Queen's in the autumn.
Perhaps, in the end, even Les Miserables needs to provide a different reason to keep potential theatregoers interested during a hiatus between two different fully-staged versions of the show.