Views: A Star is…..Off by Marilyn Cutts

Marilyn Cutts

As well as being a space for my own thoughts, the Views section of the blog will sometimes give specially invited Guest contributors a chance to speak their mind on interesting theatre topics.

Our first Guest writer is actor/director Marilyn Cutts who has a wealth of experience across the industry, from Fascinating Aida’s first lineup to an extensive theatrical career encompassing musicals, drama and opera. Marilyn is passionate about actors’ rights, music, literature, art and theatre buildings. Marilyn writes below about how producers handle a star’s absence.

A Star is…..Off

When Louise Redknapp sustained injuries during rehearsals for the musical “9 to 5” (now playing in London), the producers took the unusual step of offering to exchange tickets for a future performance at which the Eternal star would be appearing. For those patrons who had booked specifically to see Ms. Redknapp this was undoubtedly a generous gesture, but it does raise an interesting point.

It used to be the case that in amongst the small print on the back of one’s theatre ticket there was a disclaimer that “the management reserves the right to make any alterations to the advertised arrangements, programme or cast without being obliged to offer a refund or exchange”. (I copied this verbatim from the back of a ticket to an event at Sadlers Wells dated February 2018). That was the deal, and it applied from top to bottom. Griffith James, a much-missed Company Manager once told me that in the early 1970s, when putting a sign outside the Haymarket Theatre Royal stating that “Miss Ingrid Bergman will not be appearing today”, a disappointed fan kicked him in the shins. Repeatedly. Now, while I do not wish a haematoma of the tibia on anyone, he was simply doing his job, and the angry fan was out of order on every count.

What has changed so that producers now feel they must make reparation for what could very reasonably be considered a “circumstance beyond their control”? Is it the perceived status of celebrities and stars? The attitude of the audience? Where does this leave fellow theatre producers? And what about understudies?

“…a disappointed fan kicked him in the shins. Repeatedly. “

I believe the answer is a subtle mix of some of the above. Big popular musicals, especially those based on films or jukebox musicals with their roots in pop, often attract an audience more used to seeking their entertainment in cinemas and concert venues. A celluloid star will always be available on request, and if a band cannot appear for whatever reason, the gig is cancelled, usually with the promise of a refund. So perhaps some fans expect the protocol of cinemas and concert venues to apply in a theatre setting too. Then again, where individuals have been voted to a high-profile position by a TV or online audience, the audience have physically assisted in that rise, and that changes the relationship. Instead of just appreciating a performer, the audience are now stakeholders in their celebrity, and they may well feel that their investment gives them certain rights. It could be that producers are already responding to this perceived sea change in the performer/audience relationship before it has been openly articulated.

All musical fans know that being an understudy can be a fast-track to stardom, just look at the role of Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. Or consider the real-life situation last year when Steph Parry rushed from Mamma Mia! just one block away to help out covering the star’s sudden indisposition in the second act at 42nd Street’s revival at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, to huge popular acclaim (and a contract to play the lead later on during the revival’s near two-year run). While we can all name our favourite icons in the ‘There’ll never be another……… (fill in as required)’ debate, when it comes to a show, no one is irreplaceable. Another current West End favourite, All About Eve, can tell us all about that!

Being a producer is one of the easiest ways to lose money there is. To survive, producers must sell tickets, consequently they engage artists with a substantial public profile, and presumably an eager following. But what is the criteria whereby one artist can be replaced by an understudy without comment, yet the same producers will offer a ticket exchange if another cast member is off? Surely by discriminating between performers producers are making a rod for their own backs? While offering to exchange tickets may appear generous in the short term, are the public missing out on the chance to see fresh talent given a chance? Think what it did for  Peggy Sawyer. She might have gone out there a nobody, but she came back a star!

Text and photograph Copyright 2019 Marilyn Cutts

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