Bette Midler, Michael Ball, Whoopi Goldberg, Will Smith… is celebrity endorsement of musicals the future of theatre?

It’s one thing for a star name to be jettisoned into a musical to liven things up and provide some celebrity “tits and ass”. But what about celebrities simply endorsing a show because, well, they can?

Bette Midler performing at Caesars Palace

Bette Midler performing at Caesars Palace

This comes after news that the Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, will act as a “producer” on the new Broadway production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Palace Theatre in New York, running from 28 February.

Midler is joining a growing list of celebs on both sides of the Atlantic who are investing their time and money in shows without feeling the need to haul themselves on stage, from Elton John bank-rolling gay play Next Fall, to Will Smith and Jay-Z  injecting a million dollars into Fela! – which is coming to the National Theatre next month.

And in the UK let’s not forget Whoopi Goldberg’s involvement in Sister Act, providing money and showbiz face-time, but with minimal artistic input from the lady herself (not counting the few days she actually starred in it).

Michael Ball has also recently lent his cash and name to the Chichester transfer of new musical Love Story, which opens at the Duchess Theatre next month.

All this is nothing new in TV land, where getting an executive producer credit on a show is contracted as part of the deal and relates to getting some extra dollars. It’s the stuff of a million US dramas where the headline star is given an Exec Producer credit.

Michael Ball and the cast of Love Story

Michael Ball and the cast of Love Story

But in the UK, is there still an expectation that anyone with Producer in their title should actually do just that, and even carry the can for the production?

You only need to look back to “executive producers” Ant & Dec and the TV phone voting scandal to see how wrong it can go, and how the title does carry some responsibility for the way the show is made and marketed.

So is this the way that theatre is going? Musicals have become a big, global business with millions of dollars at stake, so attaching a star name like Bette Midler, Michael Ball and Whoopi Goldberg to a project – especially a project without any onstage star names – seems like a clever marketing ploy.

It could also be a genuine way for the celebrity endorser to broaden their career in entertainment and become engaged and active in the business of putting on shows rather than just starring in them – something that Michael Ball seems to be doing.

And despite Bette Midler pumping a rumoured “significant” amount of money into Priscilla, she has also met with the director of the show, Simon Phillips, and given him extensive notes on his new production, and plans to attend rehearsals ahead of the pre-Broadway try-out in Toronto next week to add her thoughts (we’d love to know what Simon Phillips thinks of this input!)

If celebrity endorsement of shows is the shape of things to come, and is sold to us as something more than just an investment and a credit above the title, we will need to hear from the celebrities themselves about why they want to be involved. Bette’s Priscilla press release quote about her participation simply confirms our worst suspicions: “A new star on Broadway and her name is PRISCILLA!! So much fun, it’s practically illegal!!  In fact, it IS illegal in four states!!”