by Ryan Gover
Who watched ITV’s All Star Musicals last Sunday? It presented seven celebrities who have never been in a musical before. They had to each sing a song from a show on a West End stage.This was all whilst being backed by an ensemble of professional musical theatre performers - that’s where myself and 15 other gorgeous humans did our little bit!
All Star Musicals took place in front of a live audience of over 3,000 people. And if that wasn’t enough they were then judged by a panel of some of West End and Broadway‘s biggest names: Elaine Paige, Kristen Chenoweth, Kevin Clifton and Trevor Dion Nicholas. Finally, after combining the judge’s scores with an audience vote, one of the celebrities would be announced the winner and bag the All Star Musicals’ trophy.
The following week, the show was broadcast to the nation. This meant the general public had the chance to see our night packed full of fun, musical theatre entertainment hosted by Mr Fabulous himself, John Barrowman and all from the comfort of their own homes. What more could you want from Sunday telly?
When I heard about the auditions for All Star Musicals it really excited me that ITV, along with director and Olivier award-winning choreographer Bill Deamer, were looking to cast 16 musical theatre performers to be part of a one-off celebrity talent show for national television.
My career for the last 10 years has been onstage in musicals. It’s cliché, but I truly love everything the theatre has to offer. It’s my drug! The only experience I’ve had on TV has been on shows like Sunday Night at the Palladium and The Royal Variety Performance doing a company number from the musical I’ve been in at the time. Other than these awesome, but rare occasions, I’ve never properly seen how a television show is produced, but now there was an opportunity that would marry these two worlds together in one job – long story short, I was fortunate enough to get an audition & the following week found out that I’d made the final cut to be in the All Star Musicals Ensemble – I was over the moon.
At our meet and greet, we were told who was involved and what songs we would be doing with each celebrity on the night. We were going to be opening with a Mary Poppins medley followed by hits from Mamma Mia!, Hairspray, The Greatest Showman, Chicago, Funny Girl, South Pacific and Joseph. The #stageygeek inside me was elated. In this industry, I always try to stay realistic and I know that there’ll be dream jobs that I won’t ever get cast in or will simply pass me by - ”That’s showbiz kid!” I may well have missed the boat to that Greek island in Mamma Mia! and I’m probably too old now to be a “Nicest Kid in Town”, but how wonderful that All Star Musicals was giving us ensemble actors a chance to perform this entire selection of well-known musical numbers, each unique in their style, in a single night.
The rehearsal process was fairly intense; we had lots to learn, but we only had three weeks to do it all in. The ensemble, apart from being some of the loveliest people I’ve worked with, was an experienced group of performers with a great energy and ethic. I had no doubt that we would all be prepared for a heavy workload, but of course the looming thought in all of our minds was that on the night you only have one shot to get it right. Normally in theatre if you make a mistake during a show, the chances are you get the following evening to correct yourself and it will never be seen again. However, on All Star Musicals we had to make sure we were really on top of our game because there wasn’t going to be time to record several takes - and the camera never lies.
It was strange doing what felt like a typical rehearsal for a musical, but being aware that there was a camera or two, moving around us in the room to gather behind-the-scenes footage for the final TV production. There was no hiding. After the initial nerves. we soon got used to it and pressed on with each day as normal and focusing on getting the show ready. We were sometimes rehearsing numbers & literally having to dodge the camerawoman to enable her to get the shots she needed. This was different every run-through and meant that we always had to keep our eyes peeled. Over the three weeks, the crew filmed a lot from various angles, in different lighting states and even in slow motion; I was fascinated to see how much material they would actually use and what it was all going to look like in the final edit.
The filming part was the least of our seven celebrities worries, as they had the hardest job of all! They were being asked to do something that takes years of training, in only a few weeks and then perform in the spotlight to thousands (and eventually millions when the show was broadcast).
When we met them one by one, you could tell that they were nervous for what was in store but when Bill Deamer staged each of them into their routine, added with the support of our singing and dancing; they were incredibly excited that their number had come to life and reached a whole new level - the magic of musical theatre!
They each had two one hour-long sessions with us, whereby we rehearsed their songs a fair few times to get them ready for the big night. As performers, we are mentally and physically used to repetition and doing eight shows a week, but to our celebrities who had never done anything like this before, they were amazed by the amount of stamina that is required in just one song: they really were in awe of what we do for a living on stage! This took me by surprise because if you’re anything like me, I always feel star-struck and total admiration when in the presence of a celeb, but to have them appreciate our line of work too, really meant a lot.
They were a truly wonderful bunch and it was lovely for us to see their growth in confidence throughout the process, as we know how hard it is to get up and sing in front of people, let alone a nation. We all just wanted them to go out there on the night and smash it.
Overall, as a company we were very fortunate to have Bill Deamer; not only for his brilliance as a top West End creative, but also to mentor us throughout this process. Although we knew how a stage show is put together, we weren’t sure what to expect from a television one - and vice versa for our celebrities who were completely alien to musicals.
Bill has had an extensive career in Theatre and TV, choreographing for shows like Follies, Top Hat, Strictly Come Dancing and So You Think You Can Dance? so he really knows how both industries work. He had the challenging task to choreograph for two audiences: it needed to be theatrical for our live audience at The London Palladium, but equally he had to consider the viewers at home and he specifically staged each routine with camera angles and close-up shots in mind.
Having that knowledge and experience behind him; Bill was the perfect man for the job. The celebrities and all of us in the Ensemble learnt a lot in a short space of time by having him at the helm of the production – we were in good hand.
On show day, the schedule was tight. For it to work we had to stick to the times allocated, so as not to keep our audience waiting when they arrived that evening. After an early 8:00 am start and a late 11:30 pm finish, it was a long day for us all; but like any show, adrenaline gets you through and we had a fantastic night, leaving on such a high.
There were many highlights for me; an opportunity to perform at The London Palladium is an honour for anyone who works in theatre. Also witnessing two musical theatre icons duet for the first time together who inspired me as a child to pursue this as a professional career was the icing on the cake!
However, I primarily came away from the evening feeling total pride for our seven celebrity contestants. Even though Daniel Brocklebank took home the trophy, they’d each dived headfirst into the deep end, having performed in their musical theatre debuts and were all winners at heart!
As a child it was these types of programmes I used to yearn for being on telly, as living outside of London it was the only place I could get my theatre fix! Every year when The Royal Variety was aired before Christmas, I used to love when the new West End musicals would come on and perform. I always wished there were more opportunities on national television like that and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one with these feelings! So to have a new concept for TV like All Stars Musicals, not only gives us that spectacle and variety you get from going to the theatre, but it also has that extra entertainment factor, which other television programmes like I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here offer; by adding a hint of competition and putting well-known faces in situations they’re not used to…in my opinion singing and dancing is more pleasurable to watch than someone being forced to eat Kangaroo testicles!
I was nervous watching the show back on Sunday. As a stage performer you never have to do that and although I had a few moments cringing seeing myself on screen, I tried to look at the bigger picture and felt overall that what ITV had created was a really entertaining, super easy-to-watch TV show with the fun and magic of musical theatre driving it along.
I have no doubt that amongst our millions of viewers there may have been some cynics who didn’t enjoy All Star Musicals. You’re never going to please everyone - maybe some people didn’t like the concept? Maybe some people simply don’t like musical theatre?
However, during these current times when the media is saturated with some pretty dark events, why not take yourself away from that for a couple of hours and enjoy a light-hearted show like this? One of the things I love most about musical theatre is that it offers people escapism! It is one of Britain’s greatest attributes and I think it’s important that television is looking at different ways to broadcast it.
The All Star Musicals journey began with a pilot in 2017 and due to its success, that’s why ITV wanted to film our recent episode this year. Having now finished, I will personally look back on this job with very fond memories and couldn’t have asked for a better start to 2019. Who knows if in 2020, the show will grace our television screens once more or whether there’s even potential for a series? Just imagine the endless musical theatre hits they could chose from and the variety of celebrities that could be involved. I think I’d tuning in every Sunday for sure!