Hashtags killed the TV star? @Westendproducer and the birth of a new kind of talent contest

7 May

It’s official: we live in the era of the TV talent contest. But one shadowy impresario has set the musical theatre world abuzz with a new talent search bringing together Twitter, YouTube and a live final in the West End.

@Westendproducer announced his ‘Search for a Twitter Star’ competition to his 15,000+ followers in April, inviting actors to upload video of themselves performing a musical theatre song and tweet it to him. The anonymous tweeter has won a devoted online following, largely for his catty and hilarious insights into the life of a theatrical bigwig. But he deserves credit for pioneering a new mashup of TV, theatre and social media.

More than 600 videos were submitted, and @westendproducer is set to announce a shortlist of 40 entrants (20 men, 20 women) imminently. The quarter-finalists will then have until 13 May to record another song from a specific musical theatre genre before voting is thrown open to the public.

The competition will culminate in a live performance at London’s Lyric Theatre on 9 July, accompanied by a live orchestra and judged by a panel of industry experts including leading lady Louise Dearman, casting director Anne Vosser, agent Gemma Lowy-Hamilton and musical director Mike Dixon. Unusually for a West End show, the audience will be actively encouraged to keep their phones on and tweet throughout the performance.

We spoke to Mike Dixon (below) to find out what to expect from the final. Mike has more than 30 years’ experience as an MD, arranger and music supervisor, and is currently rehearsing Street of Dreams, the Corrie extravaganza musical opening at Manchester Arena on Wednesday night, which he says has been “quite a giggle”. He is also no stranger to TV talent contests, having worked on shows from Pop Idol to Miss World. But he won’t be going for the Simon Cowell approach: “My take on it is that you don’t diss people – I try to give them some positive feedback”.

Mike said he would probably not watch the contestants’ videos before the final. “I kind of prefer to be there and see instantaneously what’s being presented rather than being over-prepped,” he says.

Can a YouTube video give an accurate idea of someone’s talent? “Actually, I think it’s probably quite difficult because people can do things to their voices on a YouTube video,” Mike says. “They can treat their voices a little bit – I don’t know whether they have – but when people are going to be with a live orchestra without any gizmos apart from a microphone in front of them, that’s going to expose them. We’ll see whether people really can do it.”

One of the entrants hoping to make the final 40 is Alexandra Da Silva (right), a third-year actingstudent at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. She says today’s performers would be “crazy” not to use Twitter for the opportunities it offers – she found out about the competition through friends’ tweets.

Alexandra submitted a performance of Jonathan Reid Gealt’s song ‘Quiet’, taken from a gig last year. “I’d completely forgotten it had been filmed,” she says, “and then I thought, oh, I’ve got that kicking about, I’m going to give it a try… It’s kind of a win-win situation, because even if you don’t get chosen for the quarter-finals or the semi-finals or whatever, you’ve got your video out there.”

@Westendproducer has been giving feedback to most entrants, and described Alexandra’s video as “a passionate, moving performance”.

Alexandra says she would be reluctant to enter a TV talent search along the lines of I’d Do Anything or ITV’s forthcoming Superstar (which will cast Jesus and Judas for an arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar): “I guess a few years ago I might have done, but I think now they’ve become a lot more about selling a sob story rather than selling the talent.” She says #searchforatwitterstar is “more about the person, because you get to choose what you upload –for the quarterfinals and semifinals as well.”

Does she worry about getting flak from the YouTube haters? “That’s the risk you’ve got to take,” she says. “You’re not going to please everybody in anything you do, and I think putting something on YouTube is just the same as going on stage. It might be on a larger scale because more people see it, but you’re always going to get criticism as a performer.”

The search is on. But will @westendproducer be unmasked in the process? Mike says he is still stumped: “None of us know who he is. I thought we might get to meet him but I don’t think we will, he’s seeming to manage to keep his identity secret. It really is extraordinary.

“At the beginning of the year I went to the opening night of Pippin at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and tweeted something about it, and then 10 minutes later he tweeted me back saying he’d been standing right next to me.”

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