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Reality talent shows: does the culture of instant fame threaten the performing arts?

I was fascinated to hear the choreographer of decades of best selling West End shows, and former classical ballerina, Gillian Lynne say on Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 25/3/13, that she felt that the reality talent shows were bad for music theatre. Her point was that if someone rises rapidly to the top in a talent show without years of work backing their ability up, how would they then be able to survive any future bookings in the demanding professional world of music theatre?

It’s a very valid question to ask, and knowing what I know of the rigours of professional world of classical music, it can be extremely difficult. And is it fair to do this to someone?

Illustration of microphone

Let’s take a singer, for example. He wows the reality television world with an Andrew Lloyd-Webber song, because of a good, natural voice, performing talent, charisma and luck, but without substantial vocal or musical training, and no understanding about the hours of work and commitment needed in both those areas. He is lucky and he wins the talent show. Now what? He is flavour of the month and he can make money for a lot of people who manage his career. So he is given opportunities, and lots of them. He is pushed into the music theatre world because he has a name and that will attract people to watch him. But he has had no training. How can his voice survive the onslaught that music theatre will demand? How can he manage to learn the role, and the music, that is needed and that all music theatre singers have to master if they are to be out there in the public arena? And how can he manage the stamina required, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally?

This is an entirely imaginary scenario even though I know it has played itself out in reality many times over. It is a scary prospect not only for the singer, but also for the audience, the future of music theatre, and for the performing arts in general.

Not only this, but what precedent does instant fame through reality shows set for young, aspiring performers? It is so attractive to think that you only need to sing one song well, woo the panel, the audience and then have instant, lasting fame. But can that fame really last without the solid training and hours of work that are the foundation of any successful artist? Instant fame is a much more attractive concept than hard work. Instant is just that: instant. Hard work, years of training seems boring, tedious, a hard slog. And part of it is, for sure!

There is also knowing your voice and the music inside out, gaining experience of the stage before you are in front of a paying public and the subsequent fulfillment of feeling thoroughly secure in your craft. And this, alongside talent, is what gives a performing artist a long and successful career.

So, let’s keep the reality talent shows – they have a place and are incredibly popular. But please let’s not deceive young, aspiring musicians into thinking that they automatically have a lasting career from just one successful song. We owe it to them to let them know what is really involved.

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