In July 2006, 200 young women, all determined to don a habit and declare The Hills Are Alive at the top of their voices eight times a week, were introduced to our Saturday night television screens in a programme that would come to start a revolution in the world of theatre. Whether you loved it or hated it, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? glued the eyes of over seven million people across the UK to the drama, jazz hands and new-found glamour of West End casting.
Since that first series, which resulted in Connie Fisher taking to the London Palladium in the first revival of The Sound Of Music for over 20 years, the public have voted in their masses for wannabee Josephs and the perfect Rydell High couple in 2007, feisty but vulnerable Nancys in 2008, and most recently for the forthcoming production of The Wizard Of Oz, finding not only a Dorothy worthy of stepping into Judy Garland’s sparkling red heels, but a Toto that is a suitable fit for the iconic character’s basket.
Based on a formula by the theatre impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, in a similar vein to X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, the public’s appetite for such programmes seems to have no bounds, with High School Musical’s Troy being cast on GMTV and a wealth of international spin offs such as Op Zoek Narr Evita (the Netherlands’ Looking For Evita) and a Canadian version of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? headed up by English judges Lloyd Webber and John Barrowman.
Facing possible humiliation, a live audience, rejection, a high chance of having to wear a series of not-so-flattering outfits and sing a song picked for you which may have originally been sung by some annoying pop star with no link to theatre – Man I Feel Like A Woman! being one such example – and a terrifying public vote, as a journalist remaining firmly behind the scenes of the theatre world, it is hard to imagine why anyone would possibly want to put themselves through such an experience.
“We got down to the final 10 and it was really quite serious, and we began to think ‘Jesus, one of us could actually win this thing.’”
When speaking to successful alumni of this exclusive group of TV stars, far from being driven by a burning passion to step into the iconic role they were auditioning for, they seem much more jovial, with Niamh Perry of I’d Do Anything fame claiming one of her reasons for auditioning was “an excuse to get out of school for a couple of days”. Similarly Aoife Mulholland, who came fourth in How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, first auditioned with her course-mate Abi Finley “for the craic” and didn’t realise quite what she had got herself into until she found herself doing surprising well: “The initially stages were just a bit of fun. We kept getting down to the next few rounds and when the two of us got down to the last 50, we kind of looked at each other and said ‘oh God, it’s getting a bit serious now.’ Then we got down to the final 10 and it was really quite serious, and we began to think ‘Jesus, one of us could actually win this thing.’”
Having faced numerous auditions across the country to reach the final group, each Saturday evening the contestants faced the even more frightening reality of performing live and being critiqued by judges including actress Sheila Hancock, actor Barrowman, presenter and actress Denise Van Outen, singer Charlotte Church, producer David Ian and of course Lloyd Webber himself. This is where the pressure really started as Perry explains: “The audition process is so tough and obviously they’re making a TV programme as well so you get added drama to it. People like John Barrowman are touching you on your shoulder and you’re out, that kind of thing obviously wouldn’t normally happen in a normal audition, and having cameras in your face the whole time, it’s just getting used to it. It was exciting as well, I suppose. It was completely different to anything I’d ever experienced before that, so it was really good fun, but there was a huge amount of pressure.”
The first male reality talent show winner Lee Mead points out, it is not just external factors that pile the pressure on: “I think a lot of pressure is bought on by yourself. I always tried to take each stage as it came along and never expected too much. It was very intense. But an amazing experience. Performing to millions of people live each week was just incredible. It also made you raise your game.”
The contestants of these talent shows don’t just face the pressure of a live performance and being cut down to size by a celebrity judge. Behind the scenes of Lloyd Webber’s BBC programmes, the final contestants share a house together in West London, placing competitors side by side for a gruelling six day working week away from their families and familiar routines. But as recent Over The Rainbow contestant and current star of Grease, Lauren Samuels explains, it wasn’t all bad: “A lot of the time it was just like one big slumber party. It was great to be given the chance to talk to each other and to have that support there.” Perry agrees: “We lived in this gorgeous mansion in Hammersmith right by the river. We were treated so well. We didn’t really have to worry about anything else, our accommodation and our transport were sorted, we literally had to do grilling rehearsal schedules but everything else was taken care of.” Even a house full of men survived the close proximity, with Mead saying, “We also shared rooms which at times could become annoying as you would need your own space. But as the weeks passed, there would be less people in the house meaning you’d end up having your own room. I enjoyed the banter with the guys though. We had some good laughs.”
“It was full on, we really didn’t have time for anything else, every spare minute you had you were on the phone, trying to catch up with people.”
Although the public response to the this relatively new genre of television shows has clearly been popular, the main criticism regularly thrown at the programmes is the fact that the winner – who, in some cases, has spent just a couple of months training – will perform a lead role on the West End stage – a coveted dream by many to say the least – therefore taking the role away from someone who may have been training and working in the industry for several years.
Whether you agree with this thinking or not, it would be distinctly unfair to say the contestants get an easy ride, Hammersmith mansion or not, as Perry explains: “We would leave the house at 08:00 every day and be at training for 08:30-9:00 and we’d be working for about 12 hours. Monday was our day off and then we worked Tuesday to Thursday rehearsing and routine-ing and then Friday was rehearsals in the studio. Saturday was the live show and Sunday was when you’d get given the songs for the next week. It was full on, we really didn’t have time for anything else, every spare minute you had you were on the phone, trying to catch up with people.”
Going in to the show at 17, you might presume the process would be extra tough on Perry as a teenager, but the current Love Never Dies star claims not: “I left school for it and everything was very new and exciting and grown up and I think for me, if I’d been working in the West End for a few years or I was trying to break into the industry having trained, then I would have felt the pressure more because you’re more aware of yourself. I think I just went along with it.”
“People think that we don’t work hard for things, but we do, we audition just like everyone else does and sometimes it doesn’t work in your favour because of where we’ve come from.”
Having just a few amateur shows under her belt and no formal training, Perry is the classic example of someone who became vulnerable for attack by the press and industry insiders. However, she is keen to work hard to remove any preconceptions people might have of her, claiming winning the role of Sophie in Mamma Mia! as her biggest achievement – quite something when you factor in that Lloyd Webber wrote the role of Fleck in Love Never Dies just for her – after taking Lloyd Webber’s advice to spend a year playing small fringe roles to prepare herself to win such a role off the back of her talent, rather than her name.
However, like many, she experienced animosity from other musical theatre actors whose path to the stage was considerably different and longer than hers had been: “I remember going out for a drink with some of the older cast members of Mamma Mia! and they were talking about the day they found out I was playing Sophie and they were all distraught that Mamma Mia! had gone down the reality route. And then everything clicked into place and I did the job properly. They wouldn’t have told me that if they weren’t pleasantly surprised that I could actually do what everyone else could do. But it’s something that I’ve accepted, you come up against that all the time, it’s a knock on effect of the path that I’ve chosen and I’ve accepted it now. People think that we don’t work hard for things, but we do, we audition just like everyone else does and sometimes it doesn’t work in your favour because of where we’ve come from, but I think I know how to handle it now, thank God.”
In contrast, Mulholland – who since leaving How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? – has gone on to play Roxie in Chicago, is currently in Legally Blonde The Musical, and actually played Maria when it was recommended that Fisher cut down on the number of her performances – trained at Central School of Speech and Drama and was 27 when she entered the talent search. The sudden strict routine of the programme was inevitably harder to deal with: “It was tough and we weren’t given any choice of songs. That was tough but then again, the training we got in that house was amazing. We were having one-on-one singing lessons and dance and acting with guys from RADA teaching us. It would cost thousands and thousands to do in the real world and that was two months of intense training so that was invaluable what I got out of that.” Although she came from a trained background, Mulholland faced the same preconceptions as Perry did leaving the show, initially facing resentment when she joined the cast of Chicago until she proved her credibility: “I can see how people can get a bit frustrated with it, thinking someone’s just got a fast track into their career. But then again, because it’s such a tough thing to go through, I don’t think anyone can look at somebody and think they’ve got a step up because it is an awful, awful pressure to go through. If you have an off week one week and you sing a bad note, then people remember you as being that girl that sings badly.”
It is for this reason that Mead and Perry agree the shows are not for everyone, with Perry putting her success down to her laid back attitude and ability to coast through the emotional ups and downs of such a bizarre existence while taking part in the unique casting process and Mead commenting: “You are very exposed. More than you would be for a normal audition process.”
Many choose this exposure and are drawn to the new found fame they would receive on the programme, though the majority of musical theatre stars are usually able to walk down the street without so much as a jazz hand of recognition. However, in a strange twist on the reality genre, in 2007 the twice Laurence Olivier Award-nominated actress Summer Strallen appeared in teen soap opera Hollyoaks for three months in a publicity stunt which led to her character winning the role of Maria and leaving to star in The Sound Of Music, which she did to its London closure in February 2009. The storyline which crossed fiction with reality made Strallen famous with not only a theatre audience, but also with teenagers, the tabloid magazine reading public and men with a passion for Hollyoaks babes. The project was a mystery even for the actress herself to begin with: “I was called for an audition for Maria in The Sound Of Music but wasn’t told anything other then. I went back once after to meet Andrew then was asked if I wanted to be involved in what they were calling “The Project”.
“If it gets people coming to the theatre more, I can’t complain.”
Having trained professionally and appeared in The Drowsy Chaperone, The Boyfriend, Cats and Guys And Dolls, seemingly being cast from Hollyoaks to the West End stage placed Strallen in the position of being mistaken for a ‘reality’ television star. However, Strallen never had any doubts about setting herself up in such a position claiming “When Andrew Lloyd Webber asks you to do anything it’s very hard to say no” and that where people thought she had come from “didn’t matter to me because either way the people who wouldn’t know were having their first experiences at the theatre because of that and that was enough for me”. In a similar vein, having had the opposite career to many of the contestants from the television casting shows, she harbours no resentment for their ability to win leading roles, stating “If it gets people coming to the theatre more, I can’t complain.”
This is the true success of reality casting shows. With numerous winners and runners up scattered in shows across the West End, the popularity of theatre grows as people want to see the performers whose journey they have witnessed in all television’s obtrusive detail up close and personal on stage. The stage shows become must see productions as the tension builds, contestants are voted off the TV series and the direction of the final product become clearer. With the last three years breaking all London theatre box office records in a time when the rest of the country was facing economic crisis, thanks must be paid to these programmes and the enormous success they have had drawing new audiences into theatre. Love them or hate them, they may be just what we need in the face of what looks to be another difficult few years for the economy and the arts as a result.
Mead (Wicked), Samuels (Grease), Mulholland (Legally Blonde The Musical), Strallen and Perry (Love Never Dies) are all starring in shows that are taking part in this year’s record-breaking Kids Week which offers one free ticket for every full-paying adult ticket bought. Visit www.kidsweek.co.uk to book tickets.