It’s panto season once again, the annual ritual that expects your inner transvestite to make an appearance. From my experiences of trying to get last minutes lights for St Chad’s festive extravaganza, it’s clear that each college is determined to put on the show of the year complete with Clichés, and copious amounts of innuendo each hoping that theirs will be both funny and enjoyable – which is much harder than it looks. Unlike its dramatic counterparts, Panto’s main character is the audience; if they don’t react, it’s a disaster. Your panto can be as funny as you like but if the audience don’t like it then you’ve got no chance. Although this immediately implies that if panto is popped onto the small screen, à la ITV2, then it won’t work but strangely enough it does. Granted the cast, writing, and costumes are all slightly more advanced than some slightly worse-for-wear regional productions but they have to be if cameras are used – HD takes no prisoners!
But can panto or any other theatrical production really work on the small, or even silver, screen? By theatrical production crucially I don’t mean adaption, I mean actual filmed theatre productions. It’s quite clear that adaptions, on the whole, do work. But with actual filmed productions, you are very aware that you’re not there – you are only the audience of the audience. But let’s be honest, you do tend to get a better view than can ever be expected, and usually a little bit of variety in terms of shots, although you don’t get a choice over what you see. The vital question really is whether or not television and cinema are demystifying the theatre or opening it up to a wider audience.
The adaption of stage musicals to cinema is a trend that appears to show no sign of stopping. Les Misérables is the latest – released 11th January – in a very long line. Chicago, Phantom of the Opera and with Wicked already in the pipeline for 2014, it’s clear that musical adaptions are very much here to stay. Although there is a distinct issue with musicals in comparison with other theatre- cinema combos: the music. For more successful cinema musicals – Chicago and Moulin Rouge for example – the reason is fairly obvious: because the cast had the musical ability. Essentially it’s a bit of a Black swan situation: you can act the part of ballerina but unless you can actually walk the walk, there will be no Oscar nomination for you. And herein lies the (potential) problem with Les Misérables. Although the cast does have some basis in musical theatre, the released songs have appeared a little bit pathetic in comparison to the original 1985 cast or even the various anniversary concerts (EXCEPT Nick Jonas). Any Les Misérables fan will tell you that the title song of I Dreamed A Dream, is powerful, despite Anne Hathaway decision ‘to apply the truth’ which can here be read as ‘I can’t hit those big notes’. However, even if the singing is not really up to scratch, it’s likely that Hooper’s adaption is going to be a big hit both with the public and the critics; after all, it scared Baz Luhrman so much, he pushed back The Great Gatsby’s release to miss out on Hooper’s expected Academy Awards domination.
So let’s look at some others, Hairspray – very big, in more ways than one – commercially and critically successful. But again, more actual singers which does tend to help. The Phantom of the Opera is probably the best example of where acting took precedence over the music. Although Emmy Rostrum did have some musical background, Gerard Butler didn’t, and arguably was chosen more over his physique than anything else. Whilst it is possible to insert actors into some minor musical roles (Orin Scrivello in Little Shop of Horrors, Thénardier in Les Misérables) the Phantom is one of the largest male parts in musical theatre. You can’t have a couple of week’s rehearsal and then expect to step into the mask.
The scale of musicals is also fairly interesting as, on stage, they have to be enclosed and almost claustrophobic, simply because of the limited space available; whereas, in the magical world of film this problem never presents itself. Arguably this is the reason behind the 2005 Phantom of the Opera never quite made hit the lofty heights it wanted: because it was just too big for the musical. Set within the fictional Opéra Populaire in Paris, it only really moves in chronological sense rather than geographical. Therefore it cannot rely upon the vast sets and locations that Hooper’s Les Misérables can. And perhaps this is what will ensure that the latest musical creation will set the world alight rather than crashing down like the Phantom’s chandelier.
Whilst I remain fully loyal to the West End, the adaption and filming of stage productions does have its advantages. It opens up the theatre to an entire new audience, one that hopefully will go and see the productions live. Although it’s no alternative or replacement for live theatre, it does represent its advancement within a world dominated by technology and streaming media rather than first-hand experience.