Maria, Joseph, Nancy, Dorothy and erm, Jesus. They’ve all got something in common. No, they’re not the top five names gay men choose for their new pet pugs, but they’ve all been the subject of an Andrew Lloyd Webber TV talent show search. But are we really choosing the next big West End star ourselves or are the shows nothing more than a publicity stunt to get bums on seats?
Back in 2006, our favourite Austrian nanny burst onto our screens for a reason other than the usual Boxing Day Sound of Music repeats. Musical guru Andrew Lloyd Webber was searching for a leading lady to play Maria in the story about the Von Trapp family, and he wanted the TV viewers to decide who got the once in a lifetime opportunity. Alongside judges Zoe Tyler, David Ian and theatre hussy John Barrowman, we watched as ten potential Marias were whittled down to just one; Connie Fisher, who let’s face it, had been a dead cert for the part from the offset.
Connie looked like Julie Andrews, sang like Julie Andrews and pulled off an apron like none of the other contestants. So had we just witnessed the ‘hardest and longest audition of the girls’ lives’ or just witnessed a clever marketing ploy? Reports emerged that Fisher had been planted among the general public during auditions, already with the guarantee of winning. After all, when Connie went on to pastures new, Lord Webber pulled a rather clever stunt by having new Maria, Summer Strallen, appear in Hollyoaks playing a more heightened version of herself. We watched as Strallens’ character auditioned for The Sound of Music, got the part, and then started in the real West End version. That Lord Webber is a wily one…
The graduates of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? went on to varied levels of success, with third place finalist Siobhan Dillon recently starring in the musical Ghost, and Connie herself even enjoying a brief foray into television. Unlike X Factor, we didn’t suddenly have several badly produced albums in the charts, but instead the girls went onto West End stardom, a respectable end to the show.
A year later, it was the turn of the boys. Clad in rainbow coloured jackets, the search for a male lead to play Joseph began. Any Dream Will Do was based on the same format, with the addition of Denise Van Outen on the judging panel, and we were treated to nine weeks of hunky tenors fighting for the chance to take their place treading the boards. After a tough battle – and loin-cloth week which was definitely our favourite – Lee Mead from Southend-On-Sea was crowned the public’s winner. Suspicions began to arise again though, as it seemed as though Mead was the winner from the start. He was given the best songs throughout the competition to show off his vocal ability, he’d already had a taste of the West End stage, and he later went on to marry judge Denise Van Outen.
Criticism also came from my personal favourite Joseph, Daniel Boys, who hit out at Lord Webber’s claims that he originally wanted to cast a performer who was ‘different from the normal Joseph stereotype’, by pointing out that throughout the competition any of the boys who wouldn’t normally have been cast as the leading man were eliminated for that very reason. Mead was a completely stereotypical choice for the part. That’s not debating his talent and suitability for the role, but when you market a show on searching for something different, then cast the part in the same way that’s been done for the entire history of the show, you have to question Webber’s motives for televising the audition process. Like Connie Fisher, did Lee Mead have the part in the bag from the start?
The Joseph alumni went on to work in showbusiness, with pretty much all of them having the opportunity to wear the coat of many colours at some point during the musical’s never ending tour. And here’s one for the fact fans – third place finalist Lewis Bradley is the brother of X Factor girl of the moment Amelia Lily. Remember that one for your next pub quiz.
Next up, in 2008 it was the turn of the Nancys. No, I’m not talking about 75% of the Any Dream Will Do boys, but a competition to find everybody’s favourite East End girl for a new production of Lionel Bart’s classic musical, Oliver!. This time, the outcome appeared to be slightly different. From the outset it was obvious that Irish lass Jessie Buckley was the judges’ firm favourite for the role. Never in the bottom two, and constantly showered with praise from the panel, it looked as if there was another plant in the audition process. What Andrew and company hadn’t bagged on was Blackpool’s Jodie Prenger, who, with her tales of lost love and powerful singing voice, made the audience’s hearts melt and their hands reach for the telephone. It was clear to see that theatre producer and new judge Cameron Mackintosh was less than impressed with the result. Both himself and Lord Webber had picked Jessie as their winner when asked by host Graham Norton during the finale, and Mackintosh looked visibly upset when Jodie was announced as victorious. Was this the first time that the clever mind of Lord Webber had faltered? I’m not accusing the phone lines of being fixed or rigged in any way, but it seemed clear in the first two formats of the show that Fisher and Mead were who Lord Webber wanted for the role, and who’s going to disagree with the most influential man in British theatre?
Criticism emerged after Prenger was only given an initial sixth months in the role of Nancy, compared to a year for previous winners Fisher and Mead. Also, posters advertising the show seemed to promote Rowan Atkinson playing Fagin and Burn Gorman as Bill Sykes more, with Jodie’s name being at the very bottom of the bill. Evidence perhaps that this was not the Nancy outcome producers had hoped for.
Most of the potential Nancys disappeared into West End obscurity, but Jodie had a brief stint on Loose Women, and has enjoyed a blossoming theatre career since leaving the show. Fourth place finalist Rachel Tucker has been spending the last two years painted green and suspended over Victoria in London, playing the lead role in Wicked, and third place performer Samantha Barks is about to hit the big time after being cast as Eponine in the film version of Les Misérables, alongside Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. Not bad for a reality show…
A two-year break preceded Webber’s next TV offering, after he said he wouldn’t do any more shows in this format. Perhaps the triumph of Jodie winning had put him off leaving the casting process in the hands of the public; however, he couldn’t keep away for too long and Over The Rainbow appeared on our screens in 2010, looking for an actress to play Dorothy Gale in Wizard of Oz. Similar to the original idea behind Any Dream Will Do, the initial audition stage was looking for somebody who was unlike your usual sweet girl in the gingham dress. Webber said, ‘I don’t want to go for a Dorothy who’s all peaches and cream. Anyone like Avril Lavigne or a bit like Amy Winehouse would be great.’
Of course, the winner Danielle Hope was nothing like Avril Lavigne or Amy Winehouse; she was a completely stereotypical Dorothy, even similar in looks and voice to Judy Garland. So why bother conducting a nationwide search for something ‘different’, when the end result was eleven girls who all could have walked into an audition room, away from the public eye and bagged the role. Yes, these shows are extremely entertaining, but has it really come to a time when people will only go to the theatre when they believe they’ve cast the role themselves? Surely the huge appeal of Wizard of Oz itself would be enough to fill an auditorium.
Earlier this year, after another two year gap and a move to ITV1, a second male version of the format was launched to find a performer who could take on the difficult role of Jesus, in Lord Webber’s own musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Crammed into just a week and a half of nightly shows, rather than the usual weekly Saturday night performances, the show quickly whittled down the potential Jesus’ to winner Ben Forster. This time around, the team were looking for a rock star who could play Jesus and fill an entire arena with their performance, and they did stick to this when picking their top 11 finalists; however, winner Ben was probably the least ‘rocky’ of them all.
It also became clear earlier on that public favourite Nathan James was extremely unpopular with the panel, with judges Jason Donovan and Lord Webber continually putting Nathan down for his ‘bad attitude’ backstage after a spate of faultless performances. Nathan was clearly the best man for the job with an incredible rock voice. Wasn’t that what they were looking for in the first place? After a particularly brutal verbal attack from Lord Webber onstage one night, Nathan suddenly found himself in the bottom two, and surprise surprise, the judges sent him packing. Was he really that bad? Finalist Niall Sheehy told us in an interview earlier this week, ‘The public only see one side of things, and we are then privy to the rest…but I think the thing to remember is that they are making a TV show and if every comment was positive, the audience would get bored. Everyone watching could see and hear how unbelievable Nathan’s vocals were, and he’s a larger-than-life character, so I’m sure he’d be the first to admit that this gave them an opportunity to pick holes in his performance.’
We think we’re fully in control of who we pick as our winners for these types of shows, but really, aren’t we being influenced the entire time to go with what producers want us to pick? Ben was continually praised throughout the competition, even though his performances were fairly average. Other contestants David Hunter and Niall gave far more powerful and entertaining all round offerings, but it seemed the panel wanted Ben, and Ben is what they got.
At the end of the day though, these programmes are extremely entertaining, and unlike X Factor, I don’t feel dirty watching them, because the contestants genuinely have talent. The winners aren’t thrust into the spotlight, they are nurtured properly with the help of industry professionals to go on to have rewarding careers, predominately in theatre, which is obviously the main point of the TV show in the first place. If more people end up buying a ticket to a West End show because they’ve watched the audition process from the comfort of their own home, then so be it. The more ways we have to keep the beauty of the theatre alive, the better.
So come on Lord Webber, what show is next?