AUDIENCES / Chums on seats: First-night crowds are a not-so-subtle mix of friends, stars, critics and padding, as Georgina Brown found at the premiere of Kiss of the Spiderwoman

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The Independent Culture
'A musical is not a musical unless Anneka's at the first night; the flops blur in the mind, but she doesn't. And, unlike the flops, she comes round and round again,' said one critic a trifle wearily. At last week's opening of the musical of the season, Kander and Ebb's Kiss of the Spider Woman, Miss Rice was in good company - indeed rather better company than usual. Instead of the rent- a-celeb mob you expect at any big commercial opening, she was rubbing shoulder-pads with theatrical luminaries (Terry Hands), composer (Andrew Lloyd Webber), megastars (Placido Domingo) and eminent Shakespeareans (Judi Dench and Ben Kingsley). Adrian Noble, Joan Collins and Ian McKellen were expected, but didn't show. Perhaps they couldn't face the scrum.

For a scrum it is. Entrance must be made through the tunnel of anoraked autograph-hunters and mackintoshed paparazzi poised to pounce on anything that tips out of a limo. Then, with the ritual refrain, 'See you at the party', ringing through the foyer, there's the slow push forward to a seat and space to breathe.

While Spider Woman's audience was exceptional in a few ways (there were no investors since the producers, Live Entertainment Corp of Canada, financed the entire project, and a slimmed-down roster of soap- stars and TV faces), it was typical in most. Initially just the Grand Circle at the Shaftesbury Theatre was sold to the public. Only when producer and publicist had placed all those they were obliged or wanted to invite were the remainder sold, in this case the final few rows of the Stalls and Royal Circle.

Priority is always given to those with something to do with the production: for Spider Woman the orchestra and chorus were each allowed to issue one invitation; guests of the producer and director took up rows and rows and rows - many happened to be bigshots (media mogul Conrad Black), many happened to be stars (Twiggy and Barbara Windsor), some were friends from previous productions (Dora Bryan was in another Kander and Ebb musical 70 Girls 70). Some were from the trade (agents, impresarios, etc) who asked for tickets the moment they heard about the show; some had tickets thrust upon them; Placido Domingo happened to be in town (for Otello at the Garden) and wanted to come.

Bill Kenright, the West End producer, who plans his first nights like military manoeuvres, claims that the glitterati don't shift tickets these days. 'Nobody reads the newspapers to see who was where last night any more. They're actually a hindrance. I think it puts people's backs up to see the paparazzi running after the big-titted birds.' Nevertheless, Kenwright issues 300 invitations and odds-on, you'll see Martin Shaw, Julia McKenzie, Hannah Gordon, Maureen Lipman, Tom Stoppard and Elaine Page at his shows. 'I don't invite them to lure the paparazzi. They're all friends who've helped me through the bad times.'

Like most producers, Nick Allott, Cameron Mackintosh's henchman, claims that the first night and, more particularly, the party afterwards are staged as a thank you to the cast, supporters, investors and anyone else the show knows and loves. The truth is that it is also an attempt to make the occasion rise to itself for the sake of the critics. For this is the night of judgement - not merely the reviewer's but the wife's (whose opinion many respect rather more). The actors, regardless of their experience, are terrified ('I remember seeing Rex Harrison running in and out of the loo,' said Bill Kenright). But nerves are what some stars need. As the director Michael Rudman says, 'There is no doubt that some actors are gentlemen players and some are money players. Paul Scofield and Alan Howard are real money players. Without disturbing anyone else's performance they can produce something way beyond what you hoped for. When it's on the table they go for it and they know they need the critics. Jack Nicklaus was once asked if he felt under terrible pressure when he was three strokes ahead at the ninth hole of the Masters. And he said, 'No, that's the time that I practise for.' It's like that for actors on press night.'

Reviewers can be easily distinguished from those journalists enjoying a night out and the rest of the audience: they are frayed and etiolated and unaccompanied by something female poured into a crushed-velvet sheath. What's more, they're a pampered lot; a pair of tickets is sent to each one in advance (so that they don't get trampled in the crush); those on national dailies are placed in plum seats ( pounds 27.50) on the central aisles of the stalls (to ease a speedy getaway for those filing 'overnight' reviews) and surrounded by purring luvvies.

The premium seats with acres of leg- room and an open view are the front row of the second bank of stalls, traditionally reserved for the money men and VIPs. For Spider Woman, the producer Garth Drabinski shared it with Placido Domingo, Mr and Mrs Andrew Lloyd Webber and the director Hal Prince.

Inevitably, this practice of 'dressing' the house makes for a far from representative audience and one which makes a nonsense of that phrase commonly seen in tabloid reviews - 'The audience leapt to its feet.' Of course it did. At Which Witch, the Norwegian rock-opera and a hellish evening by most accounts, there was an astonishingly enthusiastic standing ovation, not entirely unconnected to the 'papered' house (ie invited or non-paying) of people in Norwegian national costume.

While an audience of luvvies can create a wonderful crackly atmosphere of actors thoroughly relishing the acting of others, even producers agree that obscuring the response of ordinary people can be a disadvantage. 'You've got to have some ordinary people there,' says Nick Allott, 'to gauge the reaction. Real people are the ones you rely on to tell everyone else to come.'

For the performers too, an over-responsive audience can be as tough as a dead one, and in a dressed house you must never underestimate the numb reaction of grudging professionals or those who wouldn't choose to go to the theatre unless it was free. Even at Spider Woman, the standing ovation on the first night was distinctly cooler than that at the previous Saturday matinee.

Irving Wardle, the Independent on Sunday's critic, has been reviewing for almost 30 years and remains ambivalent about these opening ceremonies. 'I like them because this is the moment when everything comes together, the time when you and the audience get to look at a production, and I feel you often get good results when there are deadlines - both for the writers, the actors and the audience. But I detest the social atmosphere of the mob when the triviality of the event is inversely proportional to the expensiveness of the wardrobe. The danger of a papered house is that it either bullies you into joining the majority, or stiffens you in your resistance.'

Certainly it takes an armour-plated reviewer to keep his head when all about him friends and family on freebies are falling off their seats at jokes that even a cracker manufacturer would reject. Most critics would gladly adopt the American system of four or five press previews with an embargo on reviews until the day after the opening night and a champagne bash for everyone associated with the production and all their friends. The advantage of this is that the producers can confect a Media Event without risking the critics' censure.

It won't happen. Perhaps the solution might be, as Michael Rudman suggests, an opening which is attended by the critics and no one else. But then, what on earth would Anneka do with her free nights?

WHO WAS SEATED WHERE

PRESS PACK

(Named critics and other journalists)

Jack Tinker, Daily Mail G19-20

Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph J17-18

Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard H19-20

Malcolm Rutherford, Financial Times D17-18

Michael Billington, The Guardian H17-18

Paul Taylor, Independent K19-20

Sheridan Morley, The Spectator L17-18

David Nathan, Jewish Chronicle K11-12

Kenneth Hurren, Mail On Sunday D28-29

Michael Coveney, The Observer F17-18

Peter Hepple, The Stage R29-30

Clive Hirschorn, Sunday Express E13-14

Irving Wardle, Independent on Sunday G18

Kirsty Milne, Sunday Telegraph H25-26

Robert Hewison, Sunday Times E19-20

Jane Edwardes, Time Out 09-10

Benedict Nightingale, Times J19-20

Ivan Waterman, Today H5-6

Graham Wassell, What's On R7-8

Baz Bamigboye, Daily Mail H13-14

Matt Wolf, AP / City Limits G23-24

Michael Ennis Birmingham Post RC G26-27

David Wigg Daily Express F9-10

Paul Dacre Daily Mail N19-20

Tony Purnell Daily Mirror D7-8

Hilary Bonner Daily Mirror 07-8

Evening Standard Diary RC G6-7

Michael Owen Evening Standard F23-24

Evening Standard R23-24

Guardian P31-32

Independent P11-12

Mark Steyn, Radio 4 Kaleidoscope G6-7

Wendy Trewin The Lady C7-8

Ruth Leon LBC / Polygram 025-26

John Lahr New Yorker J23-24

Charles Osborne, freelance RC D10-11

Press Association RC D8-9

Christopher Grier Scotsman R13-14

Sunday Times RC F32-33

Chris Reece-Bowen Gay Times / Time Out P29-30

Wogan RC D23-24

Edward Curness Dress Circle RC G10-11

Eve Pollard Sunday Express D11-12

Rex Reed Vanity Fair G9-10

TV-am RC D15-16

Anne Diamond BBC-TV RC D17-18

HELLO] N33-34

Natalia Ravida ANSA RC G4-5

Erika Wright Nightwaves J4-5

People Magazine L34-35

Roy Sander Backstage Magazine RC H25-26

Times P3-4

CBC F11-12

CBC RC F4-5

Helena St James CTV Television RC H3-4

Toronto Star 032,33,34

Toronto Sun D6-7

Andrew Phillips Maclean's Magazine E4-5

Bruce Garvey Global TV D4-5

David Gritten LA Times/Telegraph N3-4

Hannah Charlton Sunday Times RC F11-12

Michael Kennedy Glasgow Herald RC E17-18

Peter Ansorge Channel 4 RC F8-9

Independent L1-2

Freelance RC C4-5

Robert Cushman, freelance musicals critic P25-26

The Observer F15-16

Daily Mail Diary R27-28

Independent F7-8

BBC-TV P23-24

Hollywood Reporter G29-30

GQ RC D13-14

Esquire magazine J 31-32

CELEBRITIES & VIPS

Garth Drabinski, producer M14

Mr and Mrs Andrew Lloyd Webber M17,18

Hal Prince, director and family M21-24, plus 25 seats elsewhere

Fred Ebb, lyricist for Spider Woman L22-24

John Kander, composer for Spider Woman D9,10, L19-21

Jeffrey Huard, musical supervisor and conductor of Spider Woman C15

Martin Levan, sound design for Spider Woman J21,22, B7-14

Rob Marshall, choreographer of 'Aurora' movie sequences for Spider Woman, E15-18

Howell Binkley, lighting design for Spider Woman C16-18

Terrence McNally, the 'book' for Spider Woman K16-18

Jerome Sirlin, design / projections for Spider Woman RC C23,24

Gareth Valentine, musical director for Spider Woman CC12,13

David Jacobs RC D19-20

Ismail Merchant L27,28

Placido Domingo M13

Ben Kingsley F19,20

Wayne Sleep O15,16

Ian McKellen M19,20

Terry Hands E25,26

Adrian Noble J11,12

Richard Stilgoe RC A21,22

Christopher Hampton, author G21,22

Charles Hart, lyricist A25,26

Geraldine James K25,26

Twiggy G11,12

Cleo Laine, John Dankworth, St H11,12

Dame Judi Dench D15,16

Anneka Rice (seat not confirmed)

Lionel Bart 05,6

Maria Bjornsen, designer H23,24

Conrad Black, newspaper proprietor;

Barbara Amiel, columnist M9,10

Victor Spinetti, actor E23,24

Neil Tennant, Pet Shop Boys N7,8

Mark Thompson, designer C21,22

Barbara Windsor CC19,20

Alan Strachan, director RC C29,30

Geoffrey Palmer RC E25,26

Sheila Steafel, comedienne E23,24

Christopher Biggins L7

Joan Collins L8

Gillian Lynne, choreographer - F11,12

Gloria Hunniford, broadcaster E19-20

Caron Keating, TV presenter RC E15,16

Argentinian Embassy:

Minister Cullen & Secretary Massuco N27,28

Counsellor Benitez R25,26

Ivan Ivanissevich R31,32

Secretary Claudio O Rojo R33,34

F F Burzaco P33,34

American Embassy:

Ambassador Timothy Deale M25,26, M33,34, R5,6, R9,10

Edward Jordan CCA/NIV M31,32

Robert Nixon, Canadian High Commissioner E21,22, P27,28, RC G21,22

GUESTS OF LIVE ENTERTAINMENT, CANADA, AND MANAGEMENT COMPANY (NOEL GAY)

Noel Gay B15,16, C11,12, J25,26, RC B6-10, RC C6-8, RC J11-16

Orchestra - 18 seats

Production team - 24 seats

Cast / stage-management - 24 seats

Guests of leading lady, Chita Rivera - 24 seats

(Diagram of theatre omitted)

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