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West End Standard

November 27, 2013

In the second blog entry I’m squeezing out of my visit to “Love Story,” (I’m getting three out of this, value for money!), I wanted to share the idea of what constitutes “West End” standard.

By that, I mean, why does a show and performer get a West End presentation in a major theatre with premium seats and cute mice, er, ushering staff in the aisles and why don’t others?

“Love Story” was an excellent example. The show itself proved too insubstantial to survive on the Duchess Theatre stage for long, for reasons I guessed at last week. It didn’t tell the tale well enough, and was also perhaps too short for audiences to feel they’d got value from their £60 ticket. That’s a key clue right there. I paid just £14 and was very satisfied…. £60 or more, I’d have been thinking again, perhaps. As with anything, a high price ticket holds things to a particularly high standard.

Could the simple piano and four chairs staging I saw work in the West End either? As producer David Ian observed on Channel 4’s “The Sound of Musicals” recently, audiences expect a lot visually. Doesn’t matter that the piano was the cleverest way of solving the theatrical staging problem, the fact was, it didn’t light up or fly over the heads of the audience. That mentality has ended more than a few wonderful productions, alas.

And what of the performers? Again, I touched on the fact that it was obvious who the experienced actors were, and expressed concern that a newcomer might have over-strained. The seniors had West End credits, the youngsters “not yet” – so why?

Watching them, I was very conscious of the 99.9% possibility that neither lead may ever find themselves employed at such a high level again. Since both had gone through years of training, achieved impressive things that afternoon and could clearly entertain for years to come, that’s a shocking thought.

Against that, there must be tens of thousands (and another thousand or so more each year) of youngsters leaving musical theatre courses and who could have done as well or better in the same parts.

Reading West End programmes, the same names crop up in so many shows, you do just have to ask how casting is done and also admit that even those who shine in a venue in zone 3 may be outshone by those a mere 4 tube stations away. “Great, but not great enough.” In other words, “A Chorus Line” isn’t even the half of it for the vast majority of musical theatre performers. What a way to live, eh?

Summing up, there’s something indefinable about the West End, that only a fringe production can really remind you of. Compared to such careful professionalism as found away from it, the West End may be bolder, brasher, artistically superficial and vain… but it sets its own bar at a level most can only dream of – and that is what “West End” standard is, I guess… unique.

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