Off-stage Star Power

Celebrities are becoming increasingly prevalent on stages around the world. Taking hold of the star factor to sell tickets is now rather commonplace and truly resonates with bringing new audiences into the theatre to see their idols in a different role. But recently, a new trend has popped up. Celebrity songwriters. No longer are the big names only on the stage.

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Once reserved for the traditionally-trained writers, the Music & Lyrics credits for shows rarely featured many names well-known outside the musical sphere. But this is slowly changing. In the last couple of years, Broadway stages have been graced with music written by Tim Minchin, Cyndi Lauper, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and most recently The Police front man Sting.

Sting has brought a new musical to Broadway this season, The Last Ship. This show has been inspired by Sting’s own childhood experiences growing up surrounded by the shipbuilding industry Wallsend, Tyne and Wear and features a score entirely written by the singing icon.

Unfortunately this show, which follows a group of workers who band together to save their shipyard from imminent closure, will be facing its own closure if it cannot increase the number of attendees.

While many songwriters are warned to keep some distance between themselves and their work once it has launched, Sting has taken a completely different direction. From Tuesday, Sting will feature in the principle cast taking over one of the roles himself. This transition will almost certainly prove the positive connection between ticket sales and celebrities with fans of Sting flocking to the theatre. But the success of the show up until now brings up an interesting question.

How involved does the household name need to be for ticket sales to hit the roof?

I previously assumed that the great result from a celebrity starring in a show could easily be translated to a celebrity writing the show. It would stand to reason, that especially in the music industry, listening to a set of songs written by your favourite performer would provide enough of an incentive to buy a ticket. But this example suggests otherwise. In order to achieve this result, the popular performer also needs to be singing the songs – like any concert tour you would attend to hear a singer perform their new album.

But what about those other popular artists that I mentioned before?

They are all behind smash hits. Kinky Boots, Matilda and Book of Mormon all featured popular non-musical theatre writers. But the shows themselves also featured some strong existing connections with audiences. Matilda reached out to the fans of the book and movie. Kinky Boots had its own much-loved movie and also featured an entire creative team made up of huge names. Book of Mormon had the proven track record of South Park but also angered the Mormon community enough to get an enormous amount of hilarious publicity.

None of these shows had the advantage of a big name cast, but the successful three still maintained other connections to draw in enormous audiences. So could that be the role of a celebrity musician? Rather than providing an enormous drawcard, their name works as reassurance that fans will enjoy the show. However, there has to be a catalyst to purchase that ticket and that needs to be created through another existing connection with the potential audience.

I have no doubt that this celebrity addition to the cast will provide a much needed increase in ticket sales. Let’s hope that it will also create entire theatres full of brand ambassadors who will go out and spread the word to Sting fans that they will love the musical even once Sting departs early next year.

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