THE CANCELLED JCS TOUR - AND OTHER MUSINGS:
My dears –
I have recently spent an awful lot of time with some dear actor friends. Some of whom have been going through particularly hard times with various shows being cancelled last minute, and lack of work becoming commonplace for them. It is a worrying time when more shows seem to be closing by the year. And of course this fact makes it even harder for producers and investors to put shows on. There is no formula for what makes a successful show. What seems like a bankable hit on paper may turn into a million losing disaster. Times are hard.
But sometimes I think we forget the impact that this industry can have on the people working directly in it. I have been deeply saddened and concerned for some of my colleagues who have been involved in these closing shows recently. I can only imagine the pain, both financial and mentally, that must occur as a result of losing something that you were sure was going to happen. It is hard enough getting an acting job these days – often there will be a gruelling process of 4 or 5 different recalls, sleepless nights trying to learn material, and hours spent in H&M trying to purchase the correct tight t-shirt – but imagine the disappointment of getting an acting job, rehearsing it, and then learning 3 days before the show was to open that it had been cancelled. Awful, terrible, devastating.
So I really do feel for everyone – cast, crew, creative – who were involved in the recently cancelled Jesus Christ Superstar USA arena tour. Indeed, as some of the cast have said, in the first instance I thought it was some kind of bad joke. To cancel a job three days before the cast and crew were supposed to be flying out seems simply ludicrous. But of course, as we all know, different rules often apply in this silly business we call show.
I was informed that the cast had just done a full run through, and the associate director and creative team were thoroughly impressed and excited about the state of the show. In fact, one of the creatives was so proud of everyone that he left his card behind the bar so that everyone could get a drink. I believe they may even have been treated to the odd salted nut to suck on too. But sadly their celebrations were quashed rather too soon when one of the creative team got a call from the company manager – who was in New Orleans – telling the awful news that the JCS tour had, in fact, been cancelled. This was then relayed to the rest of the company who were in the bar. Obviously this wasn’t the way the producers had wanted the news to be shared, but the member of the creative team who was told the news felt it only appropriate and fair to do it while everyone was together.
The show’s director, Laurence Connor, was in New Orleans, directing Jonny Rotten, Ben Forster, Brandon Boyd and others into their bits before the rest of the UK team were arriving on the Monday. The cancellation of the show was as much of a shock to them as it was for the rest of the company.
Now, can you imagine how awful this talented team must have felt? The tour had been booked since last November – and many of the cast, crew and creatives were requested to commit then – so had turned work and auditions down to be in the tour (this can be commonplace – but usually the job that people have been waiting for actually goes ahead…). People had sub-let their rooms, booked flights back to London, had families and partners book tickets and flights to go and see the show. There was even a case of a cast member paying over £1000 for a return flight to come back to London for a wedding during the tour (and has now lost that money).
So where was the problem? Lack of advertising? Lack of promotion. Apparently tickets just weren’t selling well enough – forcing one of the American backers to pull out - but if the tickets were selling that badly it would have been obvious months ago. I find it very hard to understand how any producer could allow a company to rehearse, knowing full well that they would be cancelling the show. It would be far wiser, and far kinder, to have cancelled the show at the earliest opportunity – rather than have the entire cast and team give their heart and passion to a project that was never going to happen. I haven’t heard a whisper from Lloyd Webber about his thoughts on what happened, I hope he is alright. After Stephen Ward I can imagine it must have been something of a blow. There is no question that Jesus Christ Superstar is a brilliant piece. But something went wrong with it in the US. Over here in the UK it sold out.
The tour’s American promoter, Michael Cohl, said that ‘ticket sales did not support the tour’. He said in an email that ‘It became obvious the shows were in trouble, but we tried until the last moment to give it every chance to turn around. In the end, it just did not make business sense to continue, and we didn’t want the cast to endure playing to disappointing audiences.’ In April Mr Cohl said that the tour would need to make ‘several hundred thousand dollars’ each night to keep it afloat.
Could it have been that the stars simply weren’t big enough (it is sad that we have to rely on celebs these days – but it is a fact that we simply must accept) – or indeed that the venues were simply too big? I don’t know. Maybe the show wasn’t promoted properly in the US. In fact Ben Forster had said that he was concerned by how little interest the American news media seemed to show in the new production.
If they’d managed to convince Miley Cyrus to twerk her way through as Mary Magdalene I’m positive it would have sold out. Even more definitely if Ozzy Osborne had been convinced to give his Herod. And Victoria Beckham to play 1st cover…
As for what has happened since the cancellation – well I honestly don’t know. I have been informed that the actors have been offered something in way of remuneration. The problem is that the tour was not an equity contract as it was an arena tour. Currently, Equity doesn’t have a contract for arena tours in place - and this is something that must be changed. Especially as they are becoming more and more frequent. Over the past few years there have been arena tours of Batman Live, War of the Worlds, and Walking With Dinosaurs to name a few. And in each of these productions a huge amount of actors are used – often far more than in regular theatre shows. The sad fact is that these actors are touring without any backup by their union. If, at any point, a tour is cancelled, the producers are not obliged to give any notice at all. In theatre the ruling is a notice period of two weeks (which in itself is too short). I, for one, encourage Equity to do all they can to look into creating Equity Arena Contracts – and as soon as possible. This would at least provide some sort of stability for artists in these kinds of jobs.
And while we’re on the subject of shocking closures I must say I can’t quite believe how quickly I Can’t Sing closed. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, laughed out loud through it, and thought the whole production was superb. I was very sad when the announcement came of it's two-week notice. Especially after all the hard work and money that had been pumped into it. I fear that the whole thing was treated as a little venture for Simon Cowell – and he obviously wanted his musical in one of the biggest theatres in the west end. This was a mistake. The show should have been trialled on tour, and then transferred to a much smaller venue. In my mind, one of the main problems was that audiences who watch The X Factor like doing that for free, at home, on their televisions. They are not prepared to pay up to £90 to see a musical about it, no matter how good the reviews are. Anyhow, my heart goes out to all involved.
The Full Monty team experienced the same distress when, after marvellous reviews, it was suddenly given it’s two weeks notice. It is very worrying. But, I hasten to add, understandable for producers and investors. If a show is not selling and covering costs, it simply does not make financial sense to keep it running – when a show could be losing hundreds of thousands each week. I suppose this brings questions about whether there should be certain criteria before putting a show on – like enough back up if a production is not selling to allow it to continue for a certain amount of time – of course this is only possible with huge investment. This idea is at once idealistic and naïve, but one that has frequently been brought up by colleagues over the weeks, so I felt I should share it.
Producers often get it in the neck for not paying their actors enough money – but sometimes it is the only thing that is negotiable. For example, if we are putting on a show that has no interval – the theatre will expect us to cover the loss of money on bar takings. Which weekly can be huge. And where do we go to chelp with this extra expense? The lighting designer? No. Musical Director? No. Director? No. The marketing budget? No. Sadly it’s the actors – as they will be prepared to work for less money. And if one of them won’t be, another one will. And this will only continue until the acting union gets stronger
I recently visited Broadway again – one of my favourite places in the world. In the USA it strikes me that American Equity has provided some positive options for artists in shows – particularly the ‘out’ clause. When performers, particularly ensemble performers sign contracts in lengthy contracts on Broadway there will often be an ‘out’ clause. This clause allows the actor to give 4 week’s notice that they will be leaving the show – allowing them to move on to other projects, or simply leave if they are not enjoying their time in a production. This gives the performer some power, as it means the company and management they are working for will feel obliged to treat them well, and pay them well – as in the long term it would be more cost effective this way than having to re-rehearse a new actor into a show every few weeks. And sometimes this clause can be made even smaller – for example a two week 'out' period – if negotiated before the job is accepted. This clause is obviously a great advantage to the actor – and gives them a good amount of power – in fact in many respects it allows them to be on equal terms with their employer. While obviously a clause like this is not ideal for us producers, in fact it could be a bloody nightmare, but in an industry where the actors sometimes seem so undervalued I think it is something they deserve.
Before I sign off, let me quickly mention the marvellous #JCSGlasto campaign that has been going around on twitter. For those who don’t know, some of the cast are trying to put on a version of Jesus Christ Superstar at Glastonbury this year – which I think would be terrific. The whole show had been rehearsed, and was ready to take USA by storm – so why not let it happen at Glastonbury? Whether it be a concert version or a full staging, Glastonbury is the perfect venue for JCS. It is also a fabulous opportunity for Lloyd Webber to turn this whole thing into a big positive. I hear that things are moving forward – I urge you all to back the campaign, and tweet about #JCSGlasto to show your support. It would be such a wonderful experience for all those talented performers who are ready and excited to perform their already-rehearsed show.
Apologies if I’ve gone on. But sometimes I feel that the people who do all the hard word, night after night, are not given the appreciation they deserve. And the problems they face, whether it being shows cancelled, short notice periods, or lack of respect from the business, needs to be shared.
Anyhow, now I’m going to put my Miss Saigon hot pants on and go sunbathe for the afternoon.
West End Producer.