Andrew Lloyd Webber created the monster, the great British public created the star – and Connie Fisher, the ‘people’s Maria’, is eternally grateful to both. With her final performance in The Sound Of Music looming, Fisher talks to Caroline Bishop about her very public journey and the support that she hopes will propel her into the future.
Connie Fisher’s dressing room is a notch or two above many others I have encountered. It is more like a hotel suite than a dressing room in fact, with carpet (it even looks clean), comfy sofas, flowers in a vase, and a separate kitchen. What is also evident is the sense of permanence – a framed photo sits on the table and the walls are adorned with cards, pictures and evidence of her award nominations and wins.
She was named Most Promising Newcomer by the Critics’ Circle last year, but Fisher is a newcomer no longer – rather, she is a musical theatre actress with 18 months experience as a leading lady in a major West End show. Two years ago no-one could have guessed – let alone Fisher herself – that this dressing room at the London Palladium would be her home from home for so long, after the Mountview graduate left telesales behind by winning the reality television programme How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? and claiming the prize of playing the singing nun in The Sound Of Music.
Now, the ‘people’s Maria’ is preparing to leave the comfort of her dressing room for a future unknown, after an experience that has been “the biggest learning curve of my life” and a rollercoaster of a journey, to say the least.
When we meet, Fisher has 22 shows to go – she has been counting them down, “not wanting them to slip by so quickly” – and is feeling a mixture of apprehension, sadness and excitement about her impending step into the unknown. Because, until now, the 24-year-old has been swept along on a wave of media hype, public support and fame unknown to any ‘normal’ musical theatre actress. It has been sustained, undoubtedly, by her own talent which meant her stay in The Sound Of Music was extended three times beyond the initial short-term contract (“If the reviews had been awful I suppose they would have been able to get rid of me”). Now, she seems torn between wanting to remain known for playing Maria and needing new challenges. “I just think it’s the right time to leave and to move on to something else and not to be pigeonholed as Maria forever,” she tells me. “It would be nice on my epitaph to say ‘always Maria’, and to be remembered as reviving Maria, but I don’t always want to follow the Julie Andrews roles.”
She flashes her wide smile as she tries to explain her fast-approaching leap of faith: “We were laughing the other day, actually; it’s like, what song could we associate it with? And we said it was Westlife’s Flying Without Wings – because you’re jumping off the edge of a cliff really and you’re flying without wings, you’re seeing where it takes you.”
"It would be nice on my epitaph to say ‘always Maria’"
Fisher often speaks in the plural during our conversation. Though the reality television programme foisted a huge level of fame on Fisher individually, it is clear that since then the actress has gathered an entourage of family, friends and industry figures around her, so that this very solo project has become a joint effort. It is not out of some arrogant sense of self-importance that she has done this, rather, as she talks, it becomes clear that her loyal supporters are a vital safety mechanism, a mattress to help cushion the blows that have certainly rained down during her tenure as Maria.
Those blows came, very publicly, when, four months into the show, Fisher sustained a vocal injury and had to take two weeks off to recover. “Getting ill, when people want to see you most, is so tough. I had paps outside my door saying ‘she deserves it because she went on reality television’. It was an awful, very dark time of my life.” She says her illness was caused by “just sheer exhaustion I think, of trying to please everyone all of the time. As a graduate you never want to say no to anyone. You never want to say no to people coming round to your dressing room, you never want to say ‘no I can’t go on stage because I’ve got a cold’. It’s very difficult to be strong enough when you’re in that position."
Suffering the backlash from the press made her realise that she needed to rely on people fighting her corner. “What I’ve learnt is that you need a great group of people around you to support you and defend you and be there when the lights are off,” she says. “I thought I could cope with it, but obviously after four and a half months I just dived emotionally and physically. Vocally I was just exhausted and I was pulled in so many directions I needed someone strong to say ‘this is what you should be doing, this is what you shouldn’t be doing’.”
The experience, she says, toughened her up considerably. “I could probably cope with a lot of things now that I couldn’t cope with before. A lot of stuff has happened over the year and you just learn to go out there and do your job.”
As well as her personal support network, Fisher seems to be greatly buoyed by the support she still gets from her voting public, who flock to see her in the show. Uniquely, it gives her a level of fame more experienced leading ladies like Ruthie Henshall do not have. Though she doesn’t relish turning up in the pages of Heat every so often, Fisher seems to thrive on it: “Sometimes the fame is difficult to cope with but I really enjoy it,” she says. “It’s weird isn’t it? I always wanted to work my way up the ranks, as Ruthie did, and to be discovered as a sparkly talent. But I think I did that but just condensed into six months really, and you did it so publicly. And that’s where this fabulous support has come from.” She reverts to the plural: “The only thing we don’t like is paps papping you when you’re in your joggers.”
"What I’ve learnt is that you need a great group of people around you to support you and be there when the lights are off"
The public can be fickle though. What with another reality show in the offing, to cast Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Oliver!, I wonder if Fisher is in for a fall. The public may have followed her progress while she is in The Sound Of Music, but whether their interest will be held during the months she is away from the stage filming her TV debut remains to be seen. Fisher, however, believes in her public and thinks they will stick with her on this new leg of her journey. “People who voted me in have watched me learn, I think. They’ve been watching my progress, very publicly, through the Maria programme, through the auditions and watching you excel on television and then watching you in rehearsals, the documentary they made on the show, watching the show progress… I’m learning all the time and I think people will watch me learn on the television as well. I really appreciate their support in not slamming you down for wanting to learn.”
Fisher also has one very important person on her side who will ensure she doesn’t fall to the wayside: Andrew Lloyd Webber. The West End’s premier theatrical Lord, who made the actress his guinea pig through the reality TV show he devised, is like a “father figure”, says Fisher, who can’t speak more highly of him. “My mum said ‘you cannot marry him though, he’s already married Connie, you’re not the next Sarah Brightman!’” she jokes.
“I’m just very, very grateful that he has taken me under his wing,” she says seriously. “He is very famous for nurturing talent. He created this kind of monster, this amazing experience, and I think he is well prepared to support you in it, and he’s very supportive and he’s very generous with his time and his advice. There’s really nothing that he won’t do to help you.”
Contemplating the speech she will give at her leaving party, Fisher seems genuinely emotional. “It will probably just say thank you to Andrew. Thank you times a million. Because he’s not only plucked me from obscurity, but changed my life and I’m still here two years later, with a job, enjoying it, and the prospect of a future because of his support and his belief in my talent as well.”
Fisher is all too aware of what could have been, if she hadn’t entered the TV programme. “It actually breaks my heart to think where would I be,” she says. “I know that there are so many friends and people I went to college with who are still stuck there [without a job]. And it’s heartbreaking to see the talent go to waste. It’s so easy when you’re in the inside, but when you are on the outside looking in it seems a really tough place to get into.”
As the poster girl for reality casting, Fisher is quick to sing its praises; she emphasises the fact it has brought new audiences to the West End and created a “real hype around musical theatre”. She has even encouraged some of the young Sound Of Music cast to go for the role of Oliver in I’d Do Anything. Nevertheless, she does have concerns: “I think it’s gone a bit crazy, the amount of people that have gone for it now. I worry it might turn into an X Factor – because it started off as Pop Idol and everyone will remember Will Young, as I hope they will remember Maria and Connie, but I kind of worry that the more they do the less they will remember, and they might be desensitised by this kind of process. I think perhaps they should stop after this one.”
Much like Young, whoever comes after Fisher cannot take away the fact that she was the trailblazer. “They can always give me a call!” she laughs, offering her services as advisor to the new competitors. Although, her experience differs in some ways to those who come after, like Lee Mead, who won last year’s Any Dream Will Do to play the lead in Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “Lee will come across things that are Lee Mead’s issues, like his loin cloth falling off,” she laughs. “That would never happen to me!”
As the first to be cast in such a way, Fisher is also the first to strike out on her own, the first to attempt to prove that she is not a “one-trick pony – because I’ve always known that I wasn’t”. She is tackling this in the same ambitious, ebullient style that saw her determined to play eight shows a week at the beginning of her stint as Maria. Following the filming of ITV drama Caught In A Trap (to air in October), in which she is to play an Elvis-obsessive (she is going “a bit method” and hoping to pop over to Graceland for research purposes), Fisher will be back on stage in the summer in her own touring show, Connie In Concert. Plus, at Easter, she releases her second album, a collection of newly arranged musical theatre tunes she has “Connie-fied”, as she puts it.
"Lee will come across things that are Lee Mead’s issues, like his loin cloth falling off. That would never happen to me!"
She talks about all this eagerly, keen to tell her voting public what she is doing next, as though she feels accountable to them for the career they helped launch. Though she wants to show them “all the different sides of the crystal” that is Connie Fisher, her heart remains in musical theatre, and in this she is willing to wait for the right role to make her post-Maria return to the stage. “I think you have to wait for the right thing to come along, rather than jump into something that people know you can do. There’s always telesales for a while!” she quips. “D’you know, I think I’d get more sales in advertising space now than I used to!”
Whatever she goes on to do, and however much she wants to prove she can do more than Maria, Fisher will always be associated with the role she feels she was “destined” to play, and that’s the way she likes it. When she comes to sing her opening line for the very last time – ‘My day in the hills has come to an end I know’ – Fisher will hand over her comfortable dressing room at the London Palladium to incoming Maria, Summer Strallen, safe in the knowledge that however long the show runs for, it “will have a little imprint of Connie” upon it. She hopes that the great British public will never forget. “It’s incredible how it changed my life and I really don’t want to lose that. I think even when I leave The Sound Of Music people will stop me and say ‘you’re Maria’,” she smiles. “And I’ll never mind.”
Connie Fisher’s last performance as Maria in The Sound Of Music is on 23 February. Summer Strallen takes over from 26 February. em>CB