When is a show ready for a paying audience? David Orchard, associate producer of the new musical THAT MAN which has two staged concert performances at the Hippodrome next week, argues that it depends on the show and its “mixing board” of elements. High-profile, one-off previews in the West End can be just the thing needed to find new audiences and take a project to the next stage.
There’s a debate out there about “when is a show ready for a paying audience”. This might be a new trend with theatre productions, but many other industries do something similar. Restaurants have “soft openings” and comedians have long done work-in-progress gigs. We all know that any kind of entertainment venture involves massive investment and leaps of faith. So why not lessen the risk, whilst still giving an audience a show worth seeing? When is the right time to find out if something is or isn’t working? And on whose feedback is it based?
The West End’s Museum of Comedy hosts comics from Michael McIntyre to Frankie Boyle who try out new material in front of a paying audience. Comedian Naz Osmanoglu (BBC3’s Flat TV) won acclaim in Edinburgh last month with a show for which he held 20 work-in-progress gigs. He says: “Some people don’t want to see how sausages are being made, but others relish the chance to be in at the birth of a great routine they see months later on TV”.
With friends in the theatre world, he’s shocked that so much rides on a press night: “I know theatre is an ‘elevated art’, but today it’s important for people to feel connected to the shows they see, or else they could easily stay home with a DVD.” He adds: “The feedback I get from different audiences night after night makes an incredible difference to the nuance of every word, so why shouldn’t a theatre production with so much at stake do the same?”
So when it comes to new musicals which can cost millions to launch, this intermediate step of “staged concerts” seems the natural – and sensible – step between a workshop performance and a full production. With THAT MAN, a new musical with songs made famous by Dutch singer Caro Emerald and book by Wendy Gill, we wanted to try something different and reached out to the Arts Council England for financial support. The key factor in securing funding was demonstrating we were trying to reach new audiences for musical theatre. Think, for a moment, who might come to a workshop or a run of a new musical no one has heard of above a pub in Zone 3? Likely hard-core musical theatre fans and those who live nearby. The response a writer or producer will get from that won’t tell them much about how it might go down in the West End.
Following two sell-out workshop performances of THAT MAN 18 months ago at the London Theatre Workshop, we needed to progress the show and reach that new audience. Fortunately for us the management of the Hippodrome Casino is very open to staging such shows. This is in no way about the writer’s ego to be “on in the West End” – rather it’s about putting the production on in a very accessible, comfortable venue which there’s no obstacle for people to get to and creates a really good night out. It is clearly billed as a staged concert, and there’ll be full costumes, elements of a set, back projections and a four-piece live band. And, most importantly, everyone is getting paid full Equity and Musicians Union rates.
“The bottom line is: if you want to pay people what they’re worth, the ticket prices have to reflect that. And, sadly, people would not be willing to pay those prices at a fringe venue.”
Without opening another can of worms about fringe rates and unpaid work, the bottom line is: if you want to pay people what they’re worth, the ticket prices have to reflect that. And, sadly, people would not be willing to pay those prices at a fringe venue. By putting the show on at a West End venue, with larger seating capacity and the draw of a known TV star (for us, Jonny Labey from EastEnders, who also has a musical theatre pedigree), the ticket prices are palatable. And those willing to pay for the handful of premium price tickets are de facto “angels” or crowd-funders.
But even still, the support of Arts Council funding was vital to making the show happen. The way we approached this is what we call the “mixing board”. Each show is like a sound or lighting board and we carefully dial up or down each element – venue, star, audience, subject material, reach, etc to find exactly the right fit. We also try and find a clever hook to create added appeal such as our recent variety show at the Tower of London, and in this case a musical about a cabaret venue in 1950s London staged at a venue which was just that (Talk of the Town).
So who’s coming to see our show? Punters from the casino, performers from West End shows next door, EastEnders viewers, Caro Emerald jazz fans and yes, hard-core musical theatregoers. They’ll see a great, polished performance by a cast and crew who’ve all been paid. We’ll get genuine feedback from a much wider audience who’ll reflect the audience any show would need to be successful long-term. And they’ll hopefully have the experience of being in on the ground floor of what just might be a successful and profitable new show.
The staged concert presentation of THAT MAN runs for two performances only, at 4pm and 8pm, on Tuesday 20 September 2016. The 4pm matinee is followed by a Q&A chaired by Mates co-founder Terri Paddock. My Theatre Mates is also running a Twitter competition to give away VIP passes for two to the 8pm performance. Follow @MyTheatreMates and Retweet for a chance to win.