With the new production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ about to open and comments from previews already on the web, we have been revisiting some of the history of previous TV casting shows, and in particular, the issue of formal training for the contestants. As a recent article in The Stage shows, this is still a live issue, perhaps more so than ever with increases to tuition fees looming. This article catalogues some of the training and experience that Danielle Hope, the new star of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ has already received at the age of 18, pointing to the way that this is often downplayed on TV casting shows.
If we look at the history of the original Lloyd Webber outing, ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria?’ this tension is all too evident. Let’s go back to December 2005, before the show had begun airing. In an interview with Whats On Stage Emma Williams discusses her aspirations for the future. When asked if there were any parts she’d love to play, she says that “I’ve always wanted to play Maria in The Sound of Music. It’s one of those roles that sticks in your mind, it’s just been something that I’ve always wanted to do….. I’m not a fan of reality TV, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s idea of casting for the new production through that is great if it’s leading to the outcome of finding new talent – and, believe me, I’ll be queuing up!”.
Well, it appears that Emma did not have to queue up in the end because she was employed by Lloyd Webber as an alternate for the then unknown winner for four performances a week. Even then she was an experienced West End performer, having starred in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ with Michael Ball. If her name sounds familiar now, it may be because of the universal acclaim she has won for her performance in Love Story. We were certainly impressed, and she has also been nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award. Some may remember a row that ensued when Williams pulled out. We will never know the truth, but this was the first casting show, and the popularity of Connie Fisher was clearly not anticipated. Williams’ performances were reduced, and Lloyd Webber referred to her as an ‘understudy’ at one point. The rest is history.
But what of Connie Fisher? Lloyd Webber had justified his use of the TV casting show by saying that many stage schools churned out identikit singers often lacking the personality that he was seeking for Maria, according to ‘The Times’. He also did not want a clone of Julie Andrews. It is interesting to note that many of the comments on youtube mention Connie’s likeness to Julie Andrews. And as for drama school, Connie was awarded a full scholarship to the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London, from which she graduated in 2005 with a first class degree in musical theatre. We feel it would be fair to say this was downplayed. As non-viewers of the show, we only ever heard of Connie as working in telesales.
As the shows have developed, the habit of downplaying formal drama training has continued. We did watch ‘Any Dream Will Do’, and would never have known from that that Daniel Boys went to Drama school – according to Whatsonstage he left to join the UK tour of Rent. He was only ever depicted as an office worker. Danielle Hope appears to be the latest example. Meanwhile Lloyd Webber is personally funding runner-up Sophie Evans on a year’s training at the Arts Educational School in preparation for her appearance as alternate to Danielle Hope. We have come full circle.
It seems the days when Andrew Lloyd Webber would openly pour scorn on drama schools with the words ‘The only people upset with Maria are a few precious luvvies who think things should be done a certain way.” may be gone. He does know the value of training. It’s just that he also knows that audiences love an ‘overnight success’ story. And popularity means profit. Last week we heard that advance ticket sales for ‘The Wizard of Oz’ were already in excess of £10 million – he’s obviously doing something right. Or wrong, depending how you look at it.