Thursday, 14 May 2009

No Big Risk goes Unpunished (and no, this has nothing to do with Wicked)

The young (now jobless) stars of Spring Awakening

After being tipped off by my literature project supervisor's secretary Broadwayworld confirmed that Spring Awakening would be closing in the West End at the end of the month. I saw Spring Awakening at the Hammersmith Lyric on Valentines Day, the theatre seemed pretty full. Although it has some obvious flaws its one of my current favourites, I gave it a really positive review as did most of the critic world. But despite some natty advertising in tube stations (my personal favourite was the giant Melchior poster, I could have stared at that for a long time)it never really picked up pace. I expected it would hang around a bit (preferably long enough for my uni work to get out of the way so I could see it again)due to word of mouth- surely a critically-acclaimed musical would have some merit to the average theatregoer? WRONG. Lets explore why...
On Broadway, most shows benefit from an out-of-town or off-Broadway tryout, it gives time to iron out any kinks and make lots of changes. This doesn't seem to be the case in the West End. Two recent shows took advantage of out-of-town or off-West End;
Imagine This (premiered in Plymouth) and Spring Awakening (Hammersmith Lyric). First, Imagine This, I think in this case the tryout did help (although we can hardly say the West End run was a success but this was done to wrong place at the wrong time. People hardly want to see a musical about the Holocaust during a recession).

In theory Spring Awakening's premiere should have been a benefit. I was sceptical when I first read that it would be opening at Hammersmith Lyric- why would it want to do that? I guess the producers were unsure if there was the audience for a rock musical about nineteenth century teenagers having sex. For some reason Broadway Spring Awakening gained an almost cult like following that I assume they would have liked here and were expecting to see at the Lyric. Tickets near on sold out and the buzz around my friends was great. Here lies the problem. Everyone who wanted to see Spring Awakening saw it at the Lyric. These tended to be the theatre types who, wanting to see as many shows as possible, can't afford to see the same show twice. So once they'd seen it, they'd seen it. The word of mouth didn't particularly spread beyond the theatre types and so Spring Awakenings' grand opening on the West End was the equivalent to the switching on of Christmas lights in my tiny village on the one road that do it for charity- a damp squib. Looking at the two most recent openings on the West End- Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Sister Act, both had a huge hype around them with TV, press and even bus coverage almost continuously. Spring Awakening's cutesy Underground campaign was a case of too little too late.

And so we come to the other reason why Spring Awakening failed to gather an audience. West End audiences are afraid to take risks. There we go, I've said it, I now expect a barrage of coach parties of middle aged women banging down my door. But this is the problem! Yes there is a small percentage of people who are genuinely interested in the furtherance of musical theatre and are keen to see new and exciting shows. They also happen to be the people with the contacts to get comped seats. Beyond this small sphere lies the rest of the British public, those who like to watch Saturday night TV and read The Sun (please don't berate me, this is a blog about theatre not a blog insulting the British public. They want something recognisable and safe, they don't want to be challenged or have to think. This is all well and good but if we'd played it safe we would never have had West Side Story or Hair or any number of shows that build the basis for modern musical theatre. We would be stuck with constant revivals of Rodgers and Hammerstein where nobody dies and the guy gets the girl. I understand the need for escapism but I can see escapism in most shows. Even Imagine This, supposedly a depressing show about the Holocaust highlight the hope of the situation which made me feel kind of hopeful in myself.
This brings me to "Tonight's The Night" hosted by everyones favourite homosexual,
John Barrowman. The general premise of the show is that John makes ordinary members of the publics' dreams come true by letting them sing with famous artists or casts of musicals. Hell I would love to get that opportunity but it is never going to happen because my friends would never watch something like that. I tried to watch an episode but it was so camp and cheesey even I couldn't manage it (so I just skipped to the bits with Gethin Jones in it. Each person chosen had some sort of story of loss or heartache and were "very brave" eve
The world's favourite gay- John Barrowman

This type of show, a filler for lack of Doctor Who, encourages Joe public to keep attending the same shows: Phantom, Mamma Mia or at a pinch Hairspray. Yes I do like Hairspray but I can think of better and more worthy shows to spend my money seeing. These shows also give musical theatre a bad name. No wonder so many people are turned off by the idea of the musical- they can't see pass the stereotype of high kicks, toothy grins and lots of froth. Not helped by the likes of our beloved Mamma Mia. I'd like to see what Benny and Bjorn have to say about the situation, would they prefer if it was Chess that had the long run? Tim Rice has always said it is Chess that he would like to be remembered for rather than Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
As a producer once told me, if we have no new shows what will we have to revive in ten years time?
n if they were rubbish. The episodes were book-ended by performances by Barrowman himself who must die a little inside after each show. Come on! Here's the man whose had a successful theatre career in parts as diverse as Billy Crocker in Anything Goes to Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard to even Cal Chandler in The Fix. I know he says he loves to entertain and I would love to entertain too but a man has to have some integrity. The numbers are accompanied by perky dancers in ugly costumes and dodgy backing tracks (for God's sake, if you are going to have a show involving music at least use a live band!)I like to call this concept "The musical theatre equivalent of The Sun".

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