On Sept. 16, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?"—the first live, TV elimination show to cast a stage leading lady—produced a result. Connie Fisher—dubbed Intense Maria by show host Graham Norton—will play Maria Von Trapp in the London production of The Sound Of Music beginning Nov. 5. No wonder co-producer Andrew Lloyd Webber has been, in his own words, "Von Trapping it," a witty subversion of Cockney slang. No other theatrical doyen has risked his credibility by casting a major part via a TV audition show.
The basic format followed the intimidating model set by popular UK import show, "The Weakest Link," fronted by the icy Anne Robinson. Young hopefuls sing their hearts out for a panel of four theatre professionals. The judges are leading man John Barrowman, vocal coach Zoë Tyler and co-producer David Ian, who, along with casting vote panellist Andrew Lloyd Webber, will produce the show at the London Palladium.
So far, Webber's decisive, casting vote has sealed the fate of finalists. No longer. Since last week's semi-final, he's at the mercy of the voting public and their phone-vote preferences. In that way, the show's shockingly democratic; it genuinely reflects popular taste.
To date, the show's sparked heated debate in London's "luvvie-land." As a hugely visible audition process, it's an audacious and unprecedented challenge to established theatre entry routes. If anything, the controversy amuses Webber. Last week, he treated his remaining three hopefuls to dinner at London's prestigious Ivy restaurant, but fully expected to be hissed on entry, rather like his iconic Phantom of the Opera. "They [the luvvies] are all furious," he has said. "[But] some think it's a way of making musical theatre accessible." Indeed. Even pop Svengali Simon Cowell—who created a rival talent show called the "X-Factor"—is said to be an avid fan of "Maria."
Still, faced with the reality of living with a choice beyond his control, Webber seemed distinctly ill at ease. "The public has a huge responsibility," he reminds host Graham Norton, "because it could be taking some young girl's life before she's ready for it and destroying it."
Not that the crowd share his scruples. Swooping camera pans reveal a studio audience entirely lost in the moment, include several cheering, male nuns. It's hardly surprising. Six thousand hopefuls have been whittled down to an initial twenty, then ten, and now three, two of whom will be eliminated tonight.
But there's barely time to ponder raindrops on kittens before a Technicolor parade of the seven eliminated Marias is unleashed. Still swooning from the impact of shock-and-awe frocks, we cut to the ironic tale of Beautiful Maria Siobhan, named for obvious reasons; she's the most luscious eye-candy in sight.
One of tonight's three finalists, she only re-entered the show as a result of one of the girls dropping out. Almost irritatingly upbeat, she's smiling-eyed and full of herself, and selected to tackle Burt Bacharach's "Anyone Who Had a Heart."
"It's a song that can be acted completely," said Webber. "It also needs total commitment." In the event, Siobhan displayed neither, even in a dream of a little black dress and ruby spike heels straight from Oz. Shaky-voiced and over-emotive, she was am-dram angst personified. Even David Ian, her strongest supporter to date, seemed concerned. "You look absolutely gorgeous," he said, "but you were above and below the bridge all the time. And you do struggle to show passion, but you have to lay it on the line tonight." Vocal coach Zoë Tyler, however, offered nothing but praise: "It's always a joy to hear your beautiful voice." John Barrowman also conceded that he thought Siobhan "a definite contender." Webber, though, looked deeply troubled. "You did go out of tune," he emphasized, "and if I let you loose in the Palladium, I'd be deeply worried."
Cut to Miracle Maria Helena, who's been saved four times so far by the grace of the Lord. Far less smug than Siobhan, she endearingly describes her involvement with the show as "mind-blowing." Rather like her performance tonight, in fact, a chic and sexy take on "Cabaret." Sheathed in fuchsia satin faced with black lace, she pours through awe-struck chorus boys with an ice-clear soprano, cheekily peaking twice to ecstatic applause. Zoë Tyler, quite suitably, was impressed. "That was fantastic," she beamed. "I am so thrilled for you. That is how good you are." John Barrowman relished "a leading lady performance," and even David Ian—noted for heavy criticism of Helena—did an about-face. "I eat my words," he smiled, "you've won the public over. And you've won me over." But always gracious in praise of obvious merit, the Lord offered the most encouragement. "What a delicious ham to pull those notes off—twice! Absolutely fabulous. Well done, darling, well done."
On to Intense Maria, Connie, whose tearful asides to an off-screen camera only emphasized her relentless ambition. Even a mask of melting mascara prompted by temporary self-doubt didn't faze her. "I hope I don't have to marry Andrew to get the part," she quipped, only half-jokingly, "but hey, Andrew…" But even Connie's rampant monomania had to face certain realities. "I'm not Pretty Maria," she sighed.
Maybe not, but she was hugely impressive. If her dramatization—and really, no other phrase can do it justice—of "As Long as He Needs Me" initially offers zero charisma, it quickly became as ecstatically rapt as a Catholic Mass. Truly, it was a veritable Concorde of a performance, first-class all the way.
Even cheeky imp Graham Norton seemed briefly awed. "If you win, you can afford better mascara," he smiled. For notorious hard to please David Ian, the performance was "The total package of talent we need for the show." John Barrowman, too, was equally unequivocal in his praise. "You definitely are the leading lady. You should be Maria." Zoë Tyler, meanwhile, felt she'd witnessed "absolute emotion. You [Connie] really know how to turn on a stage. It was amazing."
Could Andrew quibble with his peers? Of course not—he was probably watching a star being born. "Fantastic," he enthused, "you're a star. I really believe you have a huge future in musical theatre."
Maybe so, but a crucial obstacle remained—the Maria Zone. All three girls had to sing songs from the show in costume, with "no frills and no dancers." To get them in the appropriate mood, a quick flight to Salzburg—where the real Maria Von Trapp lived her famous story—was arranged. And how could they visit without recreating that iconic, "Sound of Music" opening live in the mountains? "You know, that's goose-bump time," smiled a delighted Andrew.
Did it work? Were they channelling Maria's spirit live on air? Not Siobhan. Even singing "My Favorite Things," ideally suited to her high, sweet voice, she came across as a strident hussy with no audience connection and staccato, kindergarten phrasing. Predictably, David Ian still thought she'd be "delightful," but confessed he was still waiting for "an emotional explosion." John Barrowman also found her "so watchable," while Zoë Tyler felt the selection was sung "really beautifully." Mercifully, Webber supplied some overdue common sense. "I don't think you're quite ready to take on a huge theatre," he said. "I think your nerves will get to you." Dear, dear. Miracle Maria Helena's "Do-Re-Mi," by contrast, was totally assured. "What a transformation!" raved David Ian. "I take my hat off to you." Zoë concurred. "I knew you would stun everybody," she said. John Barrowman agreed. "You could do the job," he said. Evidently, Andrew's faith in his Miracle Maria was justified—and then some. "You'd make a wonderful Maria," he said, "but I don't know what more I can say. It's definitely down to the public."
Intense Maria Connie, however, and her "Lonely Goatherd," ramped the superlatives still higher. "That was so brilliant," gushed Zoë. "She's the best person here," declared David Ian, while John Barrowman found Connie "compelling to watch." Astonishingly, Andrew himself punched the air in bliss. "Consummate professionalism," he enthused. "Absolutely amazing."
Meanwhile, the phone votes had come in—and Siobhan was out, to her evident chagrin. Which left Connie and Helena to go head-to head in the viewers' hearts, and reprise their greatest moments—Connie's "Shout" and Helena's "Woman in Love."
Shrewdly, the show follows the show-biz dictum of "always leave them wanting more" with the results show aired later the same evening. Transmitted fashionably late this time—all the better to heighten the tension?—the show treated us to Andrew's thoughts on his brainchild. "Helena, for example, came from really nowhere. It's proved something that nobody thought could happen with this show." Indeed. One breathless hour later, the "People's Maria" was chosen - Intense Maria, Connie. In the passionate diva game, consistency beats beauty every time. The public has spoken—and we have to respect their call.