When the West End comes to cruise ships as Cats previews on Oasis of the Seas

About this time five years ago I was hobnobbing with Gloria Estefan as she and six other nautical godmothers launched the Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship. Entertaining the 5800 guests was the Broadway show Hairspray. Now Tracy Turnblad and Link Larkin have made way for Rumpleteazer and Mr. Mistoffolees as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats makes it's debut at sea. I'm back to see what this means for cruise ships and the West End. Moving away from the review shows typical of cruise ships, Hairspray was among the first at sea to tell a story from beginning to end with lead actors and a full supporting cast. It was the closest anyone had got to recreating the West End experience on a ship. It was a success and Norwegian Cruise Lines took on Rock of Ages and Legally Blonde. Royal Caribbean followed that with Saturday Night Fever, Chicago, Mamma Mia and soon We Will Rock You.

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Casting for cruise ships

There were early concerns about quality control, especially the challenge of casting. Cruise ship entertainment is still considered as unimaginative, low-grade cheese by some. Would enough performers of the right calibre be prepared to leave home for nine months to work on a ship? It appears so. Lured by world-class creative teams, state of the art theatres and a chance to travel the world, great performers were soon lining up to audition. As more performers discover the opportunities that ships can offer, the general talent pool casting directors have to work with is growing. Christi Coachman-Orengo, Royal Caribbean's Director of Entertainment told me how their decision to use Broadway casting directors has helped create more opportunities for everyone, “There was an occasion when we cast a role but later realised the singer did not have the vocal range to handle our second production show. In that case, the casting director snapped them up for Broadway.”

Attention span of cruise ship passengers

Most shows at sea have last less than an hour. Hairspray and Saturday Night Fever pushed it to 90 minutes. Cats is different. It's the first time a full-length, unedited book show in its original form has been staged at sea. With Really Useful's creative team collaborating with Royal Caribbean, no one was worried about the quality of the show. The concerns were regarding the audience. Would cruise ship holiday makers want to sit through the full 2 hour 20 minute production? And what about intermission? Seats in cruise ship theatres are not numbered or preallocated so people sit where they like. If they leave the theatre during the intermission would they loose their seat?

I was there for the first preview performance. Every one of the 1380 seats for each show was taken. The air fizzed with excitement. Everyone knew they were witnessing something special. Fears about guests coming and going during the show were largely unfounded. Everyone came back after intermission and no one had to fight for their seat.

What it means for the West End

As more book shows inevitably make their way to cruise ships the West End should be in buoyant mood. It means another income stream for writers and more work for directors, choreographers and technicians. For performers cruise ships are a real alternative to the West End or touring. A third place to do what they love.

In bringing a true West End experience to sea Royal Caribbean were hoping their guests would rise to the occasion. They wanted the same sense of anticipation you'd find in a West End theatre. It was a risk but it seems to have paid off. It's hasn't all been plain sailing but early audience reactions are strong. As Gus the Theatre Cat says, “There's nothing to equal from what I here tell, that moment of mystery when I make history.”