I’m The Greatest Star: When Twitter Rains on Your Parade

Sheridan Smith

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl in London's West End. Photo: Marc Brenner.

It’s a tale as old as time. Producers mount a show on the back of a star name, audiences buy tickets for said star, star misses performances for whatever reason and audiences are left asking for refunds at the box office. This scenario plays out season after season on Broadway, from once-smaller names in shows starring in supporting roles (Laura Benanti, Into the Woods) right through to leading roles and revivals mounted on the basis of one person alone (Christina Applegate, Sweet Charity). It seems that however many times this may happen, the industry isn’t fully prepared to handle the debate as audiences demand their money back. Notably, box offices on both sides of the Atlantic offer quite different refund policies.

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Twitter: a key tool for audiences to air their views.The problem is by no means a modern issue, but the reaction to it certainly is. Actors remain human, and through the ages stars have withdrawn from productions or suffered long bouts of illness that have kept them away from theatres despite it being their names in lights outside the marquee. In the “good old days” of which I’m speaking (mainly that forgotten time before social media ruled our lives) the whole situation was handled on both sides in a much more adult fashion. You’d turn up and sit in your seat five minutes before the curtain went up with anxiety about hearing the pre-show announcement that would warn you just in time:

…at this evening’s performance, the role usually played by your favourite performer — who you have travelled miles to see, crossing international waters and made a shaky business case for requiring annual leave — will be played by…

The producer David Merrick, Broadway’s “abominable showman,” employed a nifty trick when this situation occurred: He would have the conductor begin the overture practically over the end of the announcement to reduce its impact, thus the number of people demanding refunds. In this 24/7 age in which we find ourselves, however, even the slightest disappointment in our everyday life finds its way onto social media, and the “indisposition” of a star name leads even the heartiest fan to complain — as loudly as possible — at the push of a button.

Now, I confess: I’m as guilty as the next person. I regularly tweet companies when a certain branch runs out of my favourite lunchtime snack. In fact, I’m pretty sure a disapproving tweet I sent once led to a barista getting dismissed on Christmas Eve, but that’s a story for another time. Because of the increased costs involved, the audience is now more aware than ever that they are the consumer in the relationship, and whether it be bad service at a coffee shop or disappointment at a performer’s indisposition, it’s all too easy to share your enraged feelings.

Despite tales of ailing actors being as old as time, in London the debate over what happens when it happens is currently at a fever pitch. Two of the West End’s most successful productions this season have been built around fantastic star names, and in both cases numerous fans have been disappointed. Fanny Brice and Norma Desmond may not share too many characteristics as characters, but both are described in their respective shows as being “The Greatest Star.” And with that moniker to live up to, savvy producers have had to find the talent — and box office draw — to fit that description as well.

It’s all too easy to share your enraged feelings via social media.The English National Opera, based at the London Coliseum, finds itself in financial crisis. After losing significant arts council funding, musical directors and — let’s be honest — a core audience, the ENO’s artistic brief has opened up to embrace a wider palate of offerings: musical theatre to the rescue! Indeed, there was much excitement when it was announced that Glenn Close would make her West End debut at the ENO as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevardreprising her Tony-winning performance of more than 20 years ago in a semi-staged production complete with a stunning, full-sized orchestra. With 43 performances scheduled, it was always going to be a big ask for a 69-year-old performer. And we know that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score will push any performer to the brink — even in the heavily edited keys that were transposed specifically for Close and now remain in the official, licensed edition of the show. After gaining rave reviews from the press on her return to the “people out there in the dark,” Close and the show suddenly became a hot ticket. Top prices broke the £150 mark as Lloyd Webber’s score lived up to its claim of being “the theatrical event of 2016.”

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Then the inevitable: Close found herself “indisposed,” too ill to perform, and the stampede on the box office for refunds began — along with a conversation, in and out of the industry, played out via social media. Despite the original-original Norma — Ria Jones, who created the role at the tryout of the show years old at Sydmonton — suddenly finding herself in a Peggy Sawyer moment, audiences were most displeased. On social media, they criticized the ENO, which had spent the past 11 months advertising “Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard” and now could not deliver on its promise.

Twitter became the key vehicle for audience fury. On one side were outraged ticket buyers who spent money, traveled and found accommodations specifically to see the Fatal Attraction star in her moment of glory and now, in their disappointment, were ready to shout about it. On the other side were industry figures attacking the fans for not giving Jones a fair chance.

Twitter complaints to the ENO

Twitter complaints to the ENO

We all love an Erin Dilly-Sutton Foster breakthrough story. Indeed, whilst she was initially met with audience boos, Jones reportedly triumphed, playing to packed houses for five performances and people even rebooking in order to see her Norma. I understand the debate fully, but I can’t help feel the business case in this example outweighs the cry from the industry to silence the people’s displeasure. Yes, Jones is wonderful and audiences should embrace talented performers. At the same time, I firmly believe that inflexibility when it comes to box-office refunds will ultimately wound the industry. Once bitten, twice shy audiences outside the “theatre bubble” that many of us forget to peek out of will vote with their wallets and refuse to book in advance for future star attractions. With the ENO committing to another five years of celebrity-led musical theatre concert productions, I can’t help feel that next year the pre-sales for whatever production is next will suffer as a result.

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Sheridan Smith owes a lot of her popularity to her social media presence and her fans’ ability to feel connected with her 24/7. Unlike Close, who radiates that old-school Hollywood glow, Smith is much more down to earth; thanks to her Twitter profile, Smith can update her fans in real time and also speak directly to them, making them feel a sense of ownership of her life. The wisdom of such accessibility came into question earlier this year when Smith withdrew from the final week of the sold-out Menier Chocolate Factory run of Funny Girl after learning that her father was diagnosed with cancer. What followed was a battle between star, management and fans, all of which overstepped the boundaries of professionalism.

Sheridan Smith promises fans ticket refunds

Smith promises fans ticket refunds…

Clearly distressed, Smith began offering gestures of consolation to disappointed audience members, sometimes assuring them personally that their tickets would be refunded or exchanged for the later run of Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre. She even went so far as to offer backstage tours to those who seemed the most angry at missing out. All of which obviously bypassed the guidelines set down by the theatre, which stood by its policy that all sales are final. Soon, a debate over over-the-title billing and refunds was playing out on a 21st century platform.

Months later — and with Funny Girl now ensconced at the significantly larger Savoy — the debate raised its head yet again, fueled yet again by social media madness. Following a performance in April that was terminated 15 minutes in, rumours of Smith’s onstage behaviour began to circulate first on Twitter. The newspapers, desperate to sniff out details, piled on, running stories claiming that the performance was cancelled due to Smith being drunk on stage. Further research on both Twitter and Google will enlighten those for whom this is brand new information, but the point is that once again it was social media propelling the story while providing a forum for debate, discussion and comment.

Sheridan Smith Twitter Debate

…but even so, a Twitter debate erupts.

Officially, of course, the performance was terminated over “technical difficulties.” But in this Internet age it literally took seconds for reports — by those present as spectators and working at the venue — to be broadcast worldwide. At the BAFTAs, Smith found herself at the short end of host Graham Norton’s opening jokes. This then furthered the story and led to even wider speculation and commentary.

Whilst once upon a time these pre-show announcements may have been met with mild shrugs from the audience and the occasional demand for money back, now the matter is played out in the most public forum possible. As outlined in the above examples, the general public’s access to performers and their ability to directly communicate their feelings to them feels dangerous. On May 12, after Smith had missed four post-BAFTA performances, it was announced that she would take a “leave of absence” for between two and four weeks; “stress and exhaustion” was cited as the cause. Her understudy, Natasha Barnes, will carry on in her stead, and many people believe that it was social media and “bullying” by the press that contributed to the situation.

The mental health and well-being of performers is not something widely discussed; it still feels slightly taboo for open debate. I can only hope Smith’s example highlights how social media can impact on the ability of a performer to function. Whilst social media is undoubtedly a significant marketing tool, its threatening undertones cannot be ignored.

In the meantime, I’ll draft my coffee table book on the fictional Twitter responses to Carol Burnett being “indisposed” during Fade Out, Fade In. Of that we can only dream.

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