Stunt Casting: A blessing or a curse?

Musical Theatre

The necessary evil of theatre.

Stunt casting is hardly an old tradition. In television or film, small parts by big names are used to increase audience figures, bringing in an established audience for a celebrity into what otherwise might have passed them by. You come for the actor, you stay for the show. The same happens for stage shows, though often these casting announcements need to be made more frequently to ensure a steady flow of human traffic into the theatres.

Stunt casting has been in the forefront of many theatre fans’ minds these past weeks as a result of Waitress‘ announcement of its new cast starting 17 June.

For many of us, the news that Lucie Jones is stepping into Katharine McPhee’s shoes is hardly surprising. When I visited New York this February just gone, I noticed Lucie’s face adorning a Waitress poster for Broadway. In my astonishment, I said “Is Lucie Jones in Waitress?”, only to discover it is, in fact, Shoshana Bean playing the role. Despite my frenzied Googling of the topic, there was no Waitress announcement linking Lucie to the role at all. This slipped out of my mind, until the news came that, while Katharine went back to New York for a week, Lucie would step into the role for a week. The cover was seemingly blown that Lucie would be the next actress donning the apron for the diner.

What’s more surprising is the announcement of Ashley Roberts playing the role of Dawn. Clearly, the producers are concerned that Lucie’s name will not bring in the crowds in the same way that Katharine McPhee’s will, especially considering Katharine’s increased Twitter following and previously inhabiting the role on Broadway. Bringing in a Pussycat Doll with her own demographic makes sense for ticket sales. It is, however, monumentally inappropriate. Why is this? Because Laura Baldwin is still playing the role of Dawn and is sublime and, as such, is rendered unemployed during Ashley’s run until she leaves at the end of the Summer.

Not the way that you would expect producers to be treating their leading actresses. It demonstrates that the producers are worried about ticket sales. It’s hardly surprising: from briefly looking on the website, I managed to book for June 17th without any worries at all only three weeks in advance. It appears that the early hype that allowed the booking period to extend has run out.

Stunt casting can make sense. Indeed, in the case of Waitress on Broadway, we’ve seen many people step into Jenna’s shoes: we’ve seen Sara Bareilles, for one, and now Shoshana Bean, as well as playing opposite Jason Mraz and Jeremy Jordan. Indeed, it seems to thrive off limited engagement runs, encouraging fans of these actors to book tickets in a frenzy. Chicago on the West End had the same technique: pulling in stars like Alexandra Burke and Duncan James and Cuba Gooding, Jr. for short periods of time to encourage theatre goers to book not just for the show, but also so they could see their favourite celebrities.

Unfortunately, in a world where theatre is a business first and foremost, it makes a brutal sort of sense. As phenomenal as the leading actors may be who front your show and how incredibly the show is, you need to get the public through those doors first. And who can help establish a show the best? Celebrities. Some shows, like Heathers, literally just need a name for people to see how incredible it is even aside from that one actor. Carrie Hope Fletcher’s name was on the door and brought the people in, but praise and awards were heaped upon the entire cast and not just the front runner. Meanwhile, Kelsey Grammer has shown himself unable to front Man of la Mancha in the same way.

While some shows, like Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Lion King and Wicked have a show as its star, not all musicals have this luxury to bring in the crowds day after day. They need short term boosts to their ticket sales to make them stand out in a competitive industry: and big names can bring in big returns. Sure, it’s so unfortunate for those actors who are out of a job, but it makes commercial sense.

It’s a tricky topic, because I am definitely on the side of producing good art above everything else, but I feel that it can be a necessary evil. Bianca del Rio in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie pains me, but if that is the price to keep such a landmark show open on the West End, then I have no problem paying that. If Waitress needs this kind of casting to make it successful and boost their ticket sales, then that’s absolutely fine, but they might want to consider their PR strategy as they have alienated a lot of fans in their treatment of the phenomenal talent they already have. They may also want to have an investigate of how their ticket prices are affecting their sales, as casual viewers who are unfamiliar with the content are not going to pay £130 for a stall seat. Bring down the prices and allow the word of mouth to do the rest. Fingers crossed that the casting gamble does pay off, as it would be a shame to eradicate so many people’s hard work and passion as a result of an ill-thought through (though well-intentioned) casting blunder.

Also, hire somebody else in your social media department. Like, seriously. You’re fucking it up.

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