Rhoda Koenig: The market for audience-generated stage stars is limited

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The Independent Online

Dramatic rallies and relapses in the West End have won commercial theatre the nickname "the fabulous invalid". The difference between it and real invalids is that every development that brings about an improvement in its health seems to be a cause for gloom.

If film stars descend on the West End, audiences are coming simply to see celebrities rather than great acting. If musicals fill the houses, then we are being deprived of Shakespeare and Co.

So, are the packed houses for musicals starring TV talent-contest winners a cause for alarm? It all depends. Does anyone seriously regret the Cinderella-style debut of Connie Fisher? Certainly not the critics, who last year voted her the most promising newcomer.

The danger of such mass-appeal contests is that the winners will triumph for audience-pleasing rather than talent. But Andrew Lloyd Webber realises that such flashiness would throw out the balance of a show. Fisher, for instance, is named on the show's website simply as "Connie" – she's a member of the family, the plucky kid sister to be supported even when reviews are not that great. For this reason, the number of audience-generated stars the market can bear at one time is limited.

The short-term benefit of the contest-winner shows is obvious: actors get employment and people who have never been near a theatre step inside. And who knows? Their taste may be whetted for something more complex. But I'll only start to worry when plans are announced to cast "The People's Hamlet."