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Monthly Musical Musings - February

Annemarie Lewis Thomas' monthly musical theatre column

Dateline: 8th February, 2010

So London has embraced the Sunday performance (well…not exactly embraced - but you know what I mean). I have quickly become a big fan - I mean: no congestion charge, free parking (well for the time being at least). Need I go on? I've always thought it strange that the West End was dark on a Sunday (but that's probably because I spent years working on the fringe and then off West End, so Sunday performances were always the norm).

I finally got to see Legally Blonde and it didn't disappoint. However it's not my job to review - but it did prompt a muse. The hype surrounding this show has been widely reported in the media. A success even before it had opened is praise indeed. Some shows just create a cult - there is no fan madder (or more generous depending on your viewpoint) than a Musical Theatre superfan. Years ago when doing Rent I was regularly amazed by the loyalty shown by the fans that must have spent their entire wages on coming to see the show….almost daily! Even on a saccharine show like Annie we had people that would catch up to four performances a week - wherever we were in the country!! At the end of a long run you regularly see the fans more upset than the cast and crew - wondering what was going to happen to their social life now the show has closed. Ironic when the cast and crew were effectively out of work - but could handle the closure better)!

Now Legally Blonde has not been running long enough yet for me to comment on how enduring their fans will be. However the producers were confident enough of a sufficient fan base to change the official Stage Door to facilitate the customary hoard of autograph hunters at the end of every performance (no doubt helped by the cult status of having a former Dr Who and a sit com star in their show)

So finally the muse: if any performer wants a masterclass in how to build and maintain a fan base, watch the cast of Legally Blonde at the end of a performance. I'd like to say at this juncture I wasn't actually waiting for an autograph - I had arranged to meet a mate that had been in the show at the Stage Door - hence my observation. However what I witnessed was some of the best PR I'd seen at the theatre in years. Despite the rain and cold the autograph hunters waited patiently to have their pictures taken and programmes signed by the stars of the show. The cast were faultless - really taking their time to connect with the fans (as opposed to the often seen rush of a signature). Listening to the comments of the contented fans most were determined to return to the show again - especially now that they had made some sort of connection with the 'stars'.

Sheridan Smith is a powerhouse in that show - there aren't that many roles in contemporary Musical Theatre that would utilise a lead quite so much - but there she was at the end, in the wind and rain signing the programmes and smiling for photos. A lesson to many a performer!! A few years ago I was involved in a show with a pseudo-celebrity - who I'd heard several times refusing to pose for pictures or sign autographs whilst out and about due to the fact that it was her 'down time'. Now let me be clear: this was not a celebrity who was inundated with fans - to be honest, she needed the fans more than they needed her - but still she refused to pander to the needs of her public.

On Broadway you will often hear the Musical Theatre stars raving about the benefit of touring - as it's a chance to go out there and meet their public - again ensuring return business, and thereby ensuring box office draw.

I've been on record quite a bit recently talking about the need for Musical Theatre to embrace the idea of celebrity - not by going on reality TV but by simply creating celebrities out of our 'stars'. It's no good those of us working in theatre burying our heads in the sand and pretending that we don't live in the 'celebrity' age, but why not look at things the other way around? We have the stars - let's simply big them up!

For all of you out there thinking of training in performance - remember to respect your audience - as that way they'll come back and support more live theatre - thereby keeping us in work. It's not complicated is it?

Philip Fisher reviewed Legally Blonde for the BTG.

Annemarie Lewis Thomas

Originally from Swansea, Annemarie graduated from Middlesex Polytechnic with a degree in Performance Arts. As the Musical Director for the award winning Steam Industry she was the MD/Arranger for many critically acclaimed shows. As an established pianist on the London cabaret scene she has played for people such as Patti Boulaye, Andy Bell, Ria Jones, Howard Samuels, Paul L Martin to name just a few. In 2009 she opened her own full time college - MTA (The Musical Theatre Academy) - offering the UK's first accelerated training programme for musical theatre performers.

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