Gone With the Wind was set to be the biggest show in town. Cast member Ray Shell gives the inside story as to why it flopped so badly
Thursday June 12, 2008
Every night, as I make my final entrance through the audience of Gone With the Wind, past rows and rows of empty seats, I think: this can’t be right. Gone With the Wind was supposed to have been the theatrical event of the year – what happened?
Now that our closing date looms – this Saturday, after less than two months in the West End (we were originally booked until January next year) – it’s a question that everyone has been asking. All 36 cast members have sat in their dressing rooms wondering what, exactly, strangled this production from the moment we moved into the theatre.
What happened was that we rehearsed, very happily, a script that was almost five hours long, starting in early February. The mood was upbeat and we were working with the don of British theatre, Sir Trevor Nunn – what could possibly go wrong? We were confident that Gone With the Wind would run and run, no matter what the critics said. Yes, we had doubts about the music and the length of the script, but we were confident that our director would make it all come good with a sprinkling of that Nunn magic. And then the cuts began.
Our producers had assembled a world-class cast, made up of members of hit shows such as Cats, Les Misérables, Starlight Express and My Fair Lady. But Gone With the Wind is really all about four people: Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie and Ashley. If you haven’t read the book and know only the film, Prissy and Mammy are in there, too, but that still leaves 30 other actors needing something to do. So we became narrators, Nicholas Nickleby-style. And when the cuts began, the obvious thing to go was the narrating. Nunn tried to cut as much as he could without igniting a mutiny, but I’m sure the grumblings must have reached him. When we previewed the show, it was still nearly four hours and 20 minutes long.
Previews are meant to be the point in a production’s life where a show can be tried out before an audience, to see what works and what doesn’t. They used to be an intimate affair, and there was a certain bond of trust between the performers and an audience who had paid less to see the unpolished version. But in the internet age, those days are over.
Before we had even left the theatre on the night of our first preview, our fate was sealed. I went home that night to read damning comments on a blog called the West End Whingers: the knives were already out, sharp and bloody. Still, I didn’t lose any sleep; I knew that Nunn would fix it, and the following week he cut another 20 minutes out of the show. It wasn’t enough. When we opened towards the end of April, the show ran at an incredible three hours and 40 minutes, with an interval. The critics buried us with one word: long.
Long is a word that scares a credit-crunch audience, who will think twice about paying £60 (top price) to see a production they may have to miss the end of if they want to catch their last (expensive) train home. It’s also a word that scares an audience whose attention span has been frazzled and shrunk by the multimedia demands of the 21st century. If you’re going to do long, then you’d better get in your explosions and helicopters and adrenaline rushes in the first three minutes: the days of a slow story build-up are gone.
A week ago, I tried to introduce my 19-year-old nephew to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. I couldn’t believe he’d never seen the greatest gangster film ever. But no bullet is fired or blood spilt until at least 30 minutes into the film; you’ve got to get through the wedding, the gradual introduction of Michael Corleone and the rest of the family before the guns go off. With a yawn, my nephew told me he was bored and asked if we could play Grand Theft Auto IV instead.
It’s not that the necessary adrenaline rushes aren’t in the script of Gone With the Wind. It’s more that the cast had learned and discarded several versions of ever-decreasing scripts, so that the main thing on our minds on opening night was remembering to perform the correct, current version. Had we been able to delay opening for another two weeks, I’m certain we’d still be running. As in most things, practice makes perfect. It’s only by owning a show completely that a cast can feel confident enough to transport an audience to another time and place, without the joins showing.
Gone With the Wind now runs at three hours 10 minutes, with an interval. We get standing ovations every night, but this will not save us, and that makes me sad. I am proud of our work and know that, given time, we could have found our audience and given Cats and Les Mis a run for their longest-running-musical titles. The show we’re now performing is not the one the critics saw, but we’re still damned by those terrible reviews. Just as the owners of the Titanic didn’t anticipate the need for extra lifeboats – why, when their ship was deemed unsinkable? – nobody thought we’d need a money chest to keep Gone With the Wind afloat. We planned for every eventuality but failure.
· Ray Shell plays Pork in Gone With the Wind, and is the author of Iced (HarperCollins). The musical is at the New London Theatre (London, WC2) until Saturday. Box office: 0844 412 4654