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Magazine Issues » November 2021

Opinion: Once more, with feeling

Elizabeth_PfeutiLike the financial district, Theatreland is a jewel in London’s crown. It attracts billions of pounds in tourist dollars and is renowned the world over for its professionalism and jazz hands. It is also a bit of a closed shop for those who don’t fit the conventional styling of leading men and ladies, despite having talent, drive and the mythical X-factor.

Like finance, the performing arts sector has struggled to embrace the full diversity of its audience. Theatres from Covent Garden to the South Bank are not packed with beautifully preened singers and dancers, who all have top-class performing art degrees, just as asset managers’ customers don’t all share a similar educational and social background. Both sectors have overlooked certain sectors of society, fearful of breaking the mould that set many of them on the path to stardom. Therefore, both may have traded in the innovation and inspiration that would have come from outside their narrow hiring circles.

For the theatre, this has meant failing to access the audiences that can now (thanks to technology) access content that appeals to their tastes. For finance, it means missing out on the potential for investment returns and new clients. The CEO of a large European pension fund once told me that the finance sector would rather fail together than succeed individually by thinking differently. My friends who run a performing arts school can predict with almost pinpoint accuracy their students who will make it and those who won’t, despite having equal talent.

But there are signs that people are thinking differently – and they are thinking differently about people.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I treated ourselves to tickets to Hamilton, the show that has taken musical theatre by the scruff of the neck and shaken it. We watched around 30 young people we had never seen perform before – some of whom had no conventional training – recreate a historical drama set more than 300 years ago and receive a standing ovation.

The cast were a mix of races and ethnicities, shapes and sizes. Not one of them would have turned up in A Chorus Line, I am willing to bet – and that is the point. Hip hop may not be your thing, but, for a moment, just stay with me for the message.

Hamilton, an immigrant and orphan, was given an opportunity, thanks to someone taking a chance on his hard work and intellect to shape the global financial system we have today. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator, wrote the musical so he – a Puerto Rican, slightly built man – could get a leading role. The show offered true innovation; a genuinely different experience for the audience and, for its performers, the chance to grab a career they may not have been able to access ten years ago. The world of theatre is not weaker for it. Check the ticket stubs.

The Hamilton audience was younger than any I have seen in the West End and they were engaged. Tickets for these shows are expensive, but for something that speaks to them, audiences are willing to pay. If nothing of the above resonates with you about why diversity matters, it is this: fund management’s audience is changing, quickly. Thanks to technology, it is not captive anymore; it has a whole world of options. To grab the audience’s attention requires innovation and an understanding of what it wants – and it is not reruns of Phantom of the Opera.

Alexander Hamilton introduces himself with the refrain that there are “a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait”.

If I were you, I wouldn’t wait.

By Liz Pfeuti

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