'Hype', Heathers and Hamilton, or, Why the WhatsOnStage Awards do matter, actually

Last Sunday evening, the great and good of theatreland converged at the Prince of Wales Theatre to attend the 19th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards. The only mainstream theatre awards in the UK to be voted for by the general public, they have become a fixture of the theatre calendar in the West End and beyond, recognising productions from all across the country. The awards are presented at a concert evening, at which - for the princely sum of about £22 - I found myself literally rubbing shoulders with Patti LuPone and loitering in a lobby with the original West End cast of Hamilton. (Honestly, I was very unaware they'd let us normals just hang out in the same spaces as the nominees, and I was Not Ready, sartorially or socially, for that to happen. Next year I'll be chill af, but this year, naah.)

It was a special evening, and I felt pathetically grateful to be there seeing the shows and performances I've loved receive some public adoration. Theatre, and especially musical theatre, is such a fierce source of joy, and to be in a room packed to the rafters with people who love it - people who make it - was a great privilege.

Being publicly-voted awards, the WhatsOnStage Awards are clearly a bit of a popularity contest, and there was some chatter on Twitter in advance of the awards about how they're pretty meaningless, especially compared to the Olivier Awards, the 'real' London theatre awards. I thought that sentiment was a bit mean-spirited and unnecessary, until it came to the last award of the night: Best New Musical. 

The Best New Musical nominees were announced: Eugenius!, Heathers the Musical, Hamilton, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical, and Six the Musical. With the rapturous support Six had in the room, I half-expected that to win, but the name we heard announced was Heathers.

I really, really liked Heathers, but I basically spent the entirety of 2016-2018 as an active, paid-up and deliriously happy member of the cult of Hamilton so my initial reaction was one of outrage - "That's just a factually incorrect decision, and people can't be trusted!" I didn't begrudge the lovely people of Heathers their win, I just disagreed with the outcome.

However, having had a couple of days to think about it, I'm not sure that I feel that way any more. Theatre can do a lot of different things - entertain, teach, move, challenge, shock, amuse. Whatever it does, it does to and with its audience. It is fundamentally a medium that requires people to be watching it, to be drawn into the world it tries to create. A book can be a great book, no matter how many people read it. A great television series can be the greatest show on television, even if it doesn't get the viewership it deserves. But a piece of live theatre needs an audience to exist at all. Sure, you could perform to rows of empty seats, but any actor would tell you - and several did in their speeches on Sunday - that the audience is an essential part of any production.

That is why audience-voted awards are so meaningful - building connections with the people in the room on any given day is what theatre is all about. Whether you're playing to 10 people in a back room somewhere, or to thousands of people each week on the West End, the desired outcome is the same, at least on some level.

When Hamilton opened in London in December 2017 (just days after the cutoff for the 2018 WhatsOnStage Awards, pushed back into the later eligibility period by construction delays at the Victoria Palace Theatre), it was with a tidal wave of attention. Tickets had sold out in hours nearly a year in advance, there were millions of words in thousands of thinkpieces online, and the opening night was literally reported on the news. This was an unprecedented event, and it was practically unavoidable. 

If any theatrical production had hype, it was Hamilton. It was talked about by your aunt on Facebook, who, to your knowledge, had never seen a West End show before in her life. Obviously, I am a fan of the show: I think it's one of the greatest pieces of art I've ever seen (and so does Michelle Obama). But it's not just me, her and every progressive celebrity on Twitter between 2015 and 2017; it had near-universal critical acclaim too. I could go on forever, but the point is this - Hamilton was the most popular new musical to arrive in years. 

And yet, it was not voted the Best New Musical at the 2019 WhatsOnStage Awards. There's arguably a case to be made that the timing of the delayed opening night was a factor: when the voting opened for these awards, Hamilton had been running for a year already, and other newer shows had arrived since and captured the voters' imaginations. Maybe it would have won had it not been delayed, but that argument does a great disservice to last year's very deserving winner, the luminous Everybody's Talking About Jamie, a uniquely British success story which went from BBC Three documentary to regional theatre production to taking the West End by storm.

There is no point in wondering why Hamilton didn't win without talking about the show that did. Heathers ran for 12 weeks at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket after a developmental run at The Other Palace earlier in the year and was, in its own way, a phenomenon too. Since starting public life as a concert at Joe's Pub in NYC in 2010, it has been through various regional workshops and productions, culminating in a 2014 off-Broadway run which produced a fantastic cast recording. Based on a hit cult film, and armed with a really great cast album, Heathers was able to build its own hype, albeit in a slightly more understated way than Hamilton. When Carrie Hope Fletcher got on board for the 2018 production, it reached critical mass.

Although the involvement of a leading actress with a pre-existing profile - Fletcher has a popular YouTube channel and has written several bestselling novels - must be helpful for the marketing team and shift some tickets, it is too simplistic to suggest that her involvement is the only reason it won the award. After all, she was in the national tour of The Addams Family musical in 2017 and that show didn't take home the Best Regional Production award it was nominated for, despite Carrie herself winning Best Actress in a musical, a title she picked up for the second year in a row on Sunday.

I saw Heathers twice during its West End run. It was a wonderful show: funny, dark and entertaining. It is also a show about - and in many ways for - young women. The nights I spent at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket during its run were some of the most exciting nights out I had last year. The energy in the theatre was palpable - the audience was electric and ready to have a good time. This mood did not go unnoticed by critics, with Sarah Crompton writing for WhatsOnStage, "There are nights in the theatre where I feel that I am watching a different show than everyone else. So it was at Heathers. I was mildly entertained at points, but the sheer raucous noise of the thing put my teeth on edge. Yet all around me, was an audience whooping with joy." In a harsher version, Ann Treneman of The Times wrote, "It's not that good. But don't tell the distinctly twentysomething audience. They cheered everything. Every song was greeted like a long-lost friend, every minor joke indulged."

Several other reviews have a similar perspective: 'Yeah, it's not very good, and for some reason teenage girls like it, but what do they know?' It's been nearly a decade since I was a teenage girl, but I am still so incredibly bored of this take. The idea that young women are human beings should not be revolutionary, and yet somehow we are still talking about this. Plenty of writers before me have written much more eloquently than I could on the subject, like Brodie Lancaster in her 2015 essay for Pitchfork, Pop Music, Teenage Girls and the Legitimacy of Fandom, where she states it plain: "The presence of teen girls offers up a handy barometer: if they like something you can rest assured it’s not worth a serious listener’s ear."

To be clear, I am not saying that any negative reviews were entirely motivated by misogyny - I've handpicked quotations from longer and more nuanced pieces, and everyone is entitled to hold their own opinions anyway. It's also worth noting that Heathers was hardly a critical flop - it got lots of positive 3 and 4 star reviews. It's just very boring and a little disheartening to note the slightly patronising tone of some opinions floating around on Twitter and in reviews, and I'm becoming increasingly wary of anyone who seems to dismiss out of hand something made or loved by women. Being popular among young women does not inherently make something bad, and being revered by critics does not inherently make something good.

At the end of the day, the WhatsOnStage Awards are voted for by members of the public and therefore the shows that win are the ones that deserve to win because they got the most votes. I may not - and personally do not - agree that Heathers is a better musical than Hamilton, but enough people voted for it and it deservedly won the award. If young women (and men!) want to go and watch girls in colourful blazers belt out perfect pop-rock showtunes while the thrillingly vulnerable bad boy leads them murderously astray - and the numbers would suggest they do - who am I to say that that's less valid and legitimate than anything else?

The audiences allow theatre to happen - they buy the tickets, and tell their friends about great shows they've seen, and allow themselves to be taken on journeys by the storytellers on the stages. Every part of the entertainment industry has its gatekeepers - the critics, the producers, the directors, whoever - and as long as those positions continue to be predominantly filled by people who share the same set of characteristics (older, white, male), publicly-voted awards will be a vitally important part of awards season - a chance for the audience's voices to be heard.

I, for one, can't wait to attend the 20th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards and see what weird and wonderful (and totally legitimate!) choices are made next year. Rachel Tucker for Best Actress in a musical, PLEASE!

Some more thoughts and references...

While doing a bit of reading for this piece (research? I know!), I came across some interesting stuff.

Noted teen idol and seemingly all-round good dude Harry Styles said this brilliant quote in this Rolling Stone profile in 2017: "How can you say young girls don't get it? They're our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don't lie. If they like you, they're there. They don't act 'too cool.' They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick." 

More articles on teen girl tastes:
Why must we hate the things teen girls love? - Laura Moss, mnn.com
The Social Implications of Dismissing “Boy Bands” - Heidi Samuelson, Medium
In Defense of Fangirls - Sandra Song, Pitchfork

Writer and reviewer Victoria Sadler wrote this excellent piece last year: We Need More Diversity in our Theatre Critcs

And finally, our WhatsOnStage Best Actor in a musical winner 2019, Jamael Westman (and Tommy Kail, director of Hamilton) said this lovely thing about the joy of being creative and the futility of awards anyway:

"We're wild horses who just want to run, someone else puts colours on our back and calls it a race."