Yay! As some of you know, I began my stint at Playbill.com writing about "You're the One That I Want," the reality show that picked Broadway's new Danny and Sandy for Grease. Well, I'm very excited that Playbill.com has asked me to write about another reality show…and this time it's from across the pond. Oh! Pardon me, I didn't even realize I wrote that…it's just I've become so "Anglo-cized" from watching BBC's newest West End reality casting show. I feel like such a dumb bloke. Oh! There I go again!
Background info: Andrew Lloyd Webber started the British reality casting phenom with "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?," which was the search for the The Sound of Music's new Maria, or as they call her in London, "Mariar." Connie Fisher was chosen to star and, after a short time, promptly reduced her performances from eight times a week to six. As we all know, Maria is one of the hardest roles to perform. She has to sing a high C in the Quintet, have a dramatic breakdown at the end of Act Two, do "The Dance at the Gym" … what? We're not talking about West Side Story! You're telling me that Fisher claimed Maria in The Sound of Music was a killer? Wow. I guess Debbie Boone had chords of steel (late eighties tour…anybody?).
Regardless, the next show was "Any Dream Will Do," which looked for the next Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph is a fun role, but why didn't they search for the Narrator, too? I'm still obsessed with Laurie Beechman on the early eighties album. If you haven't, you must listen to her belt an E then a G on "Letting out a mighty roar" in the song "Potiphar." Side story: At the recording session, Laurie sang it, and it sounded great. David Friedman (composer of "Help Is On the Way") was the conductor and said to her, "Here's the thing: I know that people are going to listen to this album and obsess about that section. It has to be amazing. Try it one more time." And, she went back and topped herself! Thank you David Friedman for having the foresight to know that I'd be listening to that phrase for many hours in the eighties during my depressing and horrible high school experience. Brava for enabling my disassociation!
Anyhoo, this new show is searching for both the Nancy and the Oliver for the upcoming West End production of Oliver. Here's the serendipitous aspect of this assignment: My first professional job as a child was playing an orphan in the Northstage Dinner Theater production of Oliver! And, the Nancy that they interviewed in this TV show to get her take on the role is Shani Wallis who starred in the movie…and also in my production (ps, she was amazing)! So let's just say, while I saw the little boys auditioning, I was weeping with memories of my boyhood. Speaking of Shani, they interviewed her and she looked great. Although when asked to describe Nancy, she obviously wanted to show the different facets Nancy has but couldn't come up with enough emotions. Her answer was: "Nancy was loving, deep, kind, happy…. (long pause in which I thought she was coming up with an amazing emotion. Then, finally, stated with a 'this one'll shock 'ya attitude)….she was sad!" Wow! What a surprise ending. A woman who is in an abusive relationship for years is also sad! I needed that insight!
Anyhoo, these reality shows always take the title of one of the songs from the show, so instead of awkwardly calling it "Food Glorious Food" or "Oom Pah Pah," they settled on "I'd Do Anything," which shows the desperation of the contestants. I guess they could have called it "Who Will Buy?," but perhaps it was a little too close to how most actors feel at an audition (aka, like a hooker).
One of the two hosts of the show is actor John Barrowman whom I saw here in Putting it Together and who has starred in many West End productions. Suffice it to say, he's a looker and I have a big, fat crush on him. I'm constantly commenting on his cuteness as I watch the show, but, two-faced style, every time my boyfriend says, "Nice arms," I glare and throw him the silent treatment. What's good for the goose is most decidedly not good for the gander. The female host is Denise Van Outen, who's done West End shows like Rent and Chicago but perhaps is best known for standing idly by while David Ian would intone to somebody "You're….not Sandy." Yes, she was the female co-host of "You're the One That We Want," and she's back and better than ever. Well…let's just say she's back.
The first bizarre thing about the show is that they don't call Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber "Sir Cameron Mackintosh" and "Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber," they only use their titles. They literally say things like, "Suddenly, Sir and Lord showed up." Or, "Contestants will perform for both Sir and Lord." It's hilarious! I think they're trying to be funny, but you can never tell with British people. They pride themselves on their understated sense of humor, while I pride myself on selling it to the balcony. Sir is producing this revival, and Lord is simply serving as a judge. The hosts informed us that they've been friends for years and as evidence flashed a horrifying picture of the two of them on a picnic with a shirtless Andrew Lloyd Webber. Note to self: Destroy photos of David Merrick at Fire Island having a BBQ with self in ill-fitting tube top and culottes.
The boys were shown trying out for Oliver singing various songs: some appropriate ("Where is Love?") and some inappropriate ("Defying Gravity"). One kid who they mentioned played three different sports (football, rugby and cricket) counteracted his butchness by singing Christine Daae's "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again." If I had known Londoners were so relaxed about gender, I would have moved there as a child and auditioned with my signature song that I sang around my house when I was seven: "How Lovely to Be a Woman." That always brought the house down. Down to an uncomfortable hush.
The Nancys first tried out for British casting director Davind Grindrod, and he decided whether they would go to the next level to sing for Denise and John. He seemed like a nice guy and not of those annoying reality show people that enjoy sending people home. My only quibble was that he would move his lips along with the singers. I haven't seen that much lipsynching since a certain Broadway show's megamix. You know the one. If not, I can be contacted at www.sethrudetsky.com. Then, the Nancys sang for John and Denise, who tried to challenge one for being too young (17-year-old boarding-school girl Katie). Katie informed them that Charles Dickens intended Nancy to be 14! Really? Then how old is Fagin supposed to be? A wizened 32? When one woman said that she shouldn't be cut, John retorted with "I know my craft!" Has anyone ever said that line seriously? Is he one of those people who also call his body his instrument? And, does he need anyone to play it? Because I'm available. (Sorry, James.)
Denise and John chose the girls who went to the next level, which was the "Nancy School" (a la "Grease Academy"). Around 50 girls made it, and it was claimed that out of everyone who auditioned, the ratio for making it to Nancy School was in 1 in 600. Really? 600 times 50 is 300,000. Are they saying that the whole population of England auditioned? Doesn't anyone have to go to work?
Like the Grease show, contestants got to stay if they got "You could be Nancy," and they were out if they got "You're not Nancy." The way they told the girls was typical reality-show style, but not even well thought out. Usually, they love to trick the contestants, so they'll say things like "I have bad news. You'll have to leave your family for a while… because you're going to the next level!" But they didn't even take the time to come up with a twist. John would just say, "Unfortunately (pausing while the prospective Nancy's face would crumble)...you could be Nancy!" It's fun to make people's emotions go up and down at your bidding.
I felt that most of the women were great singers. What I loved was the uniqueness of their voices. Sometimes training can make singers voices sound similar to each other, and I felt these women all sounded different from each other. Brava, England!
In the Grease reality show, everyone was constantly hauling out some idiotic pop song to audition with, but thankfully, the contestants on this show sang Broadway: old-school songs like "I Dreamed a Dream," "It's a Fine Life," "Memory" and sometimes obscure stuff from Parade and Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. I was waiting for a medley from Marie Christine, but it was ne'er to be.
As for the Olivers, after the initial audition — where they had to sing and read — 12 boys were told that they made it to the next level by getting a scroll delivered to them, which they were told to read out loud. They were delivered in crazy places like karate class, science lab, after a football game and during a scuba lesson. Surprisingly, they were in shock when they read it. I guess they had no idea what the enormous BBC camera filming them was for.
Back to Nancy. One contestant, Francesca (reality show rule: last names are verboten) came to Nancy School but got sick and couldn't sing. She went home to get better but still wanted to be considered to be in the final 12. To find out if they got to the next level, all the Nancys stood in a room singing "As Long As He Needs Me" and some were sent home. Now, I know this is the way it's done for all professional theatre, but it was moronic to watch. Wait…it's not the way it's done? John Barrowman doesn't walk around at all Equity calls and stealthily put a hand on your shoulder if you're eliminated? They just made that up to further devastate the women? Good show (said British-style).
A final group of around 24 women then did a performance for Lord, Sir, Denise and judge Barry Humphries. He's the brilliant actor who plays Dame Edna, but who also played Fagin in the West End. The women then sang (odd pop choices like "I Only Wanna Be With You) and "danced" (the less said, the better. Imagine the Miss America opening number with British accents). Then, they all hightailed it to The Lord's Sydmonton mansion to be told if they'd be in the final 12. One 18-year-old girl who had just come from being rejected by a theatre school made it! It was delicious revenge on some British "Mr. Carp." And, though she didn't do a final audition, Francesca also made it!
Next, the 12 Nancys and 12 Olivers will begin performing live, and the audience will vote for who goes home. Although there'll be only one Nancy winner, four Olivers will be chosen so they can divide the role. Hmph. Tell that to ol' eight-a-week Andrea McArdle!
The final thing I was obsessed with is the craziness of times of British television. After the first episode they said, "Tune in next Saturday (does anyone watch TV on Saturday?) at 7:05." Five after seven? What? What kind of crazy time is that? Then, literally, the next week they announced, "Don't forget. Watch again next Saturday (get ready) at 6:50." What's with the randomness? Can't anything begin on the hour? Are people constantly gazing at Big Ben hoping for the little hand on the six and the big one on the ten? What kind of life is that?
Ta ta for now and cheerio, and see 'ya next week...at twenty-three minutes to seven.
(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway" and the novel "Broadway Nights." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals and hosts the BC/EFA benefit weekly interview show Seth's Broadway Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama every Thursday at 6 PM. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)