So the latest news is that, in an extended example of Kanye West’s personal ‘myth’/infamous ego becoming its own sentient being and proceeding to eat itself, a musical is currently being produced about the rapper’s life. West himself has no involvement – it’s a student production debuting at a festival in Sydney. But its very existence, and the accompanying raised eyebrows, brings to mind some interesting questions about the often fractious relationship between theatre and popular music. The two should, you’d have thought, be familiar bedfellows. Yet often, musicals based on aspects of popular music become embarrassing flops. So why is it so difficult to turn popular music into popular theatre?
I have some personal experience of producing a pop musical: a few years ago I worked on the tour of ‘Our House’, the Madness musical. It was loud, bright, had a quirky story, a great young cast and everyone knows more Madness songs than they think they do. The audiences who went to see it, on the whole, loved it.
So what was the problem? Not nearly enough of them went. Despite Madness selling out tours, being a major fixture at Glastonbury, and their biggest hits still being played on the radio, it was a struggle to convert that into actual ticket sales to the musical. Why? I have a couple of theories.
Commercial theatre depends on star casting – and by that, I mean a name known above all to the theatre-going public. ’Our House’ only has one such role. We ended up casting Steve Brookstein who, having not done theatre before, was relatively unknown to the venues’ regular audiences, who tend to make up the bread and butter sales of touring shows. And – fairly or unfairly – what reputation he did have was defined by his notorious X-Factor experience. You do your best to counter such perceptions, but you can’t fight reality TV.
Then there’s the draw of the musical artist themselves. Madness’s core audience is, generally, working class men – perceived as the least likely demographic to venture into the airy-fairy nonsense of their local theatre. Figuring out how to get their bums on our seats was a bigger head-scratcher than you’d imagine. Convincing the regular theatre audiences – and critics – that it wasn’t just a louty, laddish riot seemed just as difficult.
Commercial theatre is one of the few areas that, despite everyone’s best efforts, remains relatively resistant to the current cross-media pollination extravaganza. There still seems to be a definitive divide in the kinds of audiences who go to these shows – or, rather, don’t go. Take That had ‘Never Forget’ – except as my friend Jess points out, “we all did forget… and then it closed”. ‘Taboo’, based on the life of Boy George, went to Broadway where the critics promptly kicked it back to the 80s. It’s really not as if commercial theatre’s not attempted to capitalise on the feverent fanbases, punters and critics alike, of pop music. But how you convince those fans to spend £60 on a ticket when they can see their favourite artists in the flesh for half the cost? I’m a huge fan of both theatre and pop music, and I have no idea.
For every ‘Mamma Mia!’, there is a ‘Closer to Heaven’. Looking at ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Jersey Boys’, the common thread leading to apparent pop musical success might just be nostalgia. But what do you think? Which current artists would you want to see immortalised in their own musical? Will you be booking your flight to Sydney to see Kanye’s life with jazz hands? Or just lining up to the impending Spice Girls musical, tomatoes in hand?