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Would You Put Your Child On The Stage?

August 15, 2013

Guest posting, by Andrew Peterson, owner of ShowsInLondon.co.uk.

With the proliferation of new musicals starring children we ask the question Mrs. Monkey would you put your child on the stage? Or indeed would you put your son on the stage Mrs. Coward?

Noel Coward summed up his view on child actors when he gave his verdict on the West End show Gone with the Wind. “Two things should have been cut,” he said. “The second act and the child’s throat.” And the child in question was none other than Bonnie Langford who later went on to star in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Cats amongst many other shows.

Interestingly Noel Coward made his own West End stage debut not as a cut-throat pirate but in Where the Rainbow Ends, aged just eleven.

Child stars lighting up the London stage
Currently London’s West End is seeing some brilliant child stage actors as these child prodigies tread the boards in Matilda, The Sound of Music, Once, Billy Elliot and The Lion King.

Sam Mendes, director of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane is no stranger to directing child performers, as he directed Cameron Mackintosh’s 1994 production of Oliver! at the London Palladium.

 

Slave labour or stars of the future?
The revival of Oliver! at the Theatre   Royal Drury Lane caused somewhat of a furore with the child actors quite rightly asking ‘Can we have some more, please!’  They appeared in rags, half-starved and too downtrodden to ask for a second bowl of gruel. The young paupers however, were well-fed boys and girls from the home counties perhaps pushed on to the stage by well-meaning parents. This mass of child labour were being cruelly taken advantage of, that in spite of the show breaking all advance booking records, taking £15m in ticket sales before curtain-up, some of the large cast of child actors received a Fagin-like miserly fee believed to be less than £20 a night.

The bright lights, the grease paint and for some the opportunity and experience far outweighs the meagre existence. The prospect of starring alongside Rowan Atkinson, who played Fagin, was obviously enough for some budding young stars. Look what it did to the careers of the late Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones.

They (whoever ‘they’ are?) say never act with children or animals, but the rumours that Rowan Atkinson earned several tens of thousands a week would have helped ease his burden. As for the prominent starring roles of Oliver and the Artful Dodger it is thought they were earning between £35 and £60 a performance, whilst the adults were contracted to earn between £450 to £500 per week.

 

Laws Governing Child Performances in the Theatre
Due to the strict laws governing performances by children several children need to be employed for each part. Oliver! surely held the record with over 150 children, including three Artful Dodgers and three Olivers.

No child may perform more than four times a week and chaperones must be provided.

Billy Elliot the musical had a huge task on launch to find not only child actors, but performers who could not only act but who could sing and were accomplished in tap-dance, modern dance and ballet and to do all this with a Geordie accent.

 

Musicals in London
In order to find the very best talent the producers of Billy Elliot created their own stage schools which taught children all aspects of theatre and acting performance as well as singing and dancing, which was a huge investment on their part, but also ensured they had a steady stream of actors to play the principal roles in what was a very short career as soon as their voices broke.

The child performers in Stephen Daldry’s hit West End musical Billy Elliot, were unusually central to the show and very much the starring roles. A spokeswoman for the show said the children were paid above the Equity minimum. “Working Title and Stephen Daldry had never done a musical before and anyone who had told them, ‘It is normally done like this,’ would not have been listened to. For us, each of the children playing the key roles were like Judi Dench. At the start we said the kids are not going to be paid £20 a night. It is just wrong. We did not want to pay something measly.”

Matilda another hit West End musical also use child actors as the central stars in the Roald Dahl adapted story. However, the child stars of the show in London are being paid just £60 a show, a fraction of the fee their U.S. counterparts earn on Broadway.

On Broadway, the girls who share the title role of Matilda will receive £1,095 a week, while the British actresses get £250 in comparison.

A spokesman for the show said: “The young actresses who play Matilda are paid fees appropriately above Equity recommendations.”

Another Roald Dahl adapted story that has hit the West End is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the musical. The show has starring roles central to children, including Charlie himself, as well as the more unseemly brats invited to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Mike Teavee and Violet Beauregarde.

Interestingly the children who share the roles of a young Simba and Nala in The Lion King at the Lyceum theatre in London take the opportunity during the time that they are not required on stage to catch up on their homework in their dressing rooms. They do not feature in the second act of the show but are required back on stage for the curtain calls thus having the whole of the second act to revise on those all important academic subjects.

You must be F*!*?! joking!
One issue for child performers to overcome in Billy Elliot and indeed with other shows is profanities, sometimes it is awkward with Billy Elliot particularly being littered with swear words that normally children are not expected to hear let alone say. Yet apparently it is all alright in the name of art and theatre.

From Oliver! and Billy Elliot to previous hit shows in the West End, such as Mary Poppins, The 2006 Palladium’s Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there are hordes of children performing on the London stage. But these were family shows, suitable for all ages, but not so with the show Enron and the play Jerusalem, because admittance is restricted to over-14s only.

Jerusalem, the play, had themes deemed unsuitable for children and language too profane for young ears, yet one of its stars, Lennie Harvey, was only 8 years old when he starred in alongside Mark Rylance in Jerusalem at the Apollo theatre in London. Lennie played Marky, the neglected son of Rylance’s character Johnny Byron, and a still point of innocence in the drug-fuelled turbulence of the story.

Meanwhile 11-year-old Ellie Bruce, along with two girls sharing her role, starred in the comedy musical Enron at the Noel Coward Theatre, so named after the child prodigy Noel Coward, himself on stage at the tender age of just 11 too.

And so to High School Musical…
The show where adults played children on stage meanwhile the auditorium was packed with pre-teens and adolescents who deemed it normal practice to be texting and photographing other friends in the audience whilst the show was going on. Crisps and chewing gum was the norm whilst singing along raucously to every song was obligatory.

 

So would you put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington?
In conclusion I would much prefer to see children on stage than in the audience!

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One Comment
  1. Sarah permalink
    August 15, 2013 10:51 am

    Some very interesting points made – I did not know that the children in these shows received so little financially -, but you have to consider what they receive in how much these performances enrich their lives ! I have now seen all the shows in London with children in the cast – the latest being Charlie & the Chocolate Factory last week. Reading the programme I was amazed and impressed at the repertoire from many of the children – their CV`s are “choc” a block with performances on stage, TV and radio. With each performance they gain experience and confidence that can only help when it is time for them to enter the adult ( and fully paid) world they have chosen.. Parents can only push the children so far – in the end the children concerned perform for the love of it and would soon be removed from the cast if they showed any signs that they were being forced to do it or did not enjoy it. It is very like doing an Apprenticeship – you get a lot less than others doing the same job, but you are learning a trade ! Like you I would rather see children on stage than in the audience – but that is only because children in the audience have invariably been given a noisy bag of sweets !

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