Never underestimate Andrew Lloyd Webber. Artistically, he still continues to shock and awe. Who else would risk finding his next, leading lady on live, elimination TV? But that's precisely the set-up with "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?," the BBC's new, weekly TV series that's instantly enthralled viewers. Broadcast each Saturday night in the UK to breathless millions, the show's a salutary riposte to lazy notions of industry nepotism. There's no favoritism here; Lloyd Webber's far too passionate about his work to green-light incompetence. Even burdened with a huge work-load—global, back-to-back launches of his evergreen shows—Webber's hands stay glued to the selection process.
From moment one, the opening titles of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" grip like a vice. Not seen it yet? Don't despair—there is a lifeline. Playbill.com will bring you weekly synopses until U.S. broadcast dates are confirmed. So, let's begin…
Scene one. Hordes of identikit Marias pour over Austrian mountain-tops to that iconic title tune, viciously ripping each other's wigs off. The sub-text? Never bow down in false reverence ("The Sound of Music"'s huge, cultural legacy has even spawned a punk-rock take featured in the titles). This show's not for the faint-hearted; abandon hope all amateurs who apply here! Not that we're talking Larry King gravitas. First and foremost, the show is fun. How could it be otherwise, with fey, Irish comic Graham Norton as the host, fresh from fronting Brit-smash "Strictly Dancing"? For those unfamiliar with the man, imagine Joan Rivers channeling Harvey Fierstein, and fill in the blanks.
Witty, irreverent and unafraid to pop Webber's more pre-occupied bubbles, Norton's the lightning-rod that earths the show. Probably, he's even sanctioned the spooky, "Phantom of the Opera" riff used to herald the Webber's every appearance. "Does that happen when you use the loo?" Norton quips, to Webber's good-humored chagrin.
Episode one opens with 6,000 hopefuls flocking to Webber's call, only to be cut down like chaff. A tough call? Sure, but that's showbiz, and it gets worse. Three additional judges—Brit voice-coach Zoe Tyler, The Sound of Music co-producer David Ian and feisty music-theatre prince John Barrowman—flash their critical teeth when needed. Cue a cattle-call whittled down to a mere 50, wannabe Problems Like Maria. Still, Webber's taking no chances; he brings four, last-minute reserve Marias along should the others die as we watch. Predictably, the rank and file get disgruntled; "Do we even stand a chance now?" they moan in protest. They needn't have worried. In the event, three of Andrew's reserve Marias fall without honors.
Maybe he's too much the perfect aesthete in his requirements. Co-producer David Ian coldly stresses the need for any potential star's bums-on-seats appeal. It's take-no-prisoners time; girls get almost physically sick with nerves. Even experience is no safeguard. Prime Rumanian contender Simona has sultry acting skills but heavily accented singing. Will she survive to see a new, West End dawn? And there's potential trouble on the horizon—posh girl Emily. Singled out by Webber himself on an audition tape as the ideal, tomboy Maria, she's blessed with classical training and terminal snarkiness, a ticking, human time-bomb. Further whittling down girls by the time-honored tradition of a mass sing-along and an exclusionary death-touch on the shoulder, Webber's left with twenty possibilities. They face the toughest ordeal yet—singing at Webber's home, a cosy, 5,000-acre estate in the heart of Berkshire, in front of 50, specially invited celebrity guests. Who ever said it's tough at the top? The bottom, on this showing, looks like having surgery without gas.
Still, the musical execution site is, as you'd expect, gorgeous. Sparing no visible expense, the Lord's converted a 17th-century church into a compact, state-of-the-art theatre where the show's sacrificial lambs can strut their stuff. Predictably, nerves cripple many previously perfect high notes as surely as a shot of Mace. But if the singing, to be charitable, is scattershot, a vital, 30-second acting test proves even more of a lottery.
Shockingly, only three candidates—Connie, Irish girl Aoife (pronounced E-fa) and the aforementioned Simona—truly hit the mark. Are there any rays of unexpected light? Yes, surprisingly. Meet Leanne, a pert, funky and wholly untrained wild card from deepest Essex, the Brit equivalent of New Jersey. Completely self-taught (from singing along to CDs), she's a pint-sized powerhouse. "Extraordinary" coo the judges en masse, but the Webber's cautionary admonitions are never far away. "This could be the biggest train-wreck of their lives," he warns, as we cut to shots of waiting celebrities mulling over the virtues of Webber's audacious audition scheme. Mercifully, there is a Lord, besides the composer himself, and today, he's evidently stoking the seeds of human kindness. Film director Michael Winner ( ironically enough, of "Death Wish" fame) considers the whole premise "a great idea." Even more encouragingly, singer Cilla Black—a contemporary of the Beatles—draws parallels between how she and the Fab Four were head-hunted by Brian Epstein in a 60s take on Webber's quest. "You can't hide talent," she States. "If you've got it, it shows."
True, but it's a double-edged sword. Ten finalists, who'll face off in coming weeks and endure votes by public phone-ins, are gruellingly selected. Two, however—snarky Emily and desperate Laura—get summoned for a private re-assessment of their soprano chops, scraping by at the expense of snuffling, flu-struck Webber favorite, Siobhan. Arrogance, though, is a poison waiting to happen, and Emily—convinced of her own, future classical greatness—tells Webber she'd rather pursue her own ambitions, not sully her voice with musical theater. Good riddance, girl, but you've re-opened the door for Siobhan, a sneezing goddess in waiting. Will she fly, and justify Webber's faith in her? Only next week's show will tell.