The BBC recently broadcast a documentary about Connie Fisher, called I’ll Sing Once More – there is still some time left to watch it on iPlayer. It is billed as the story of Connie Fisher’s ‘attempt to cure the loss of her singing voice with the help of voice builder Gary Catona, the man credited with saving Whitney Houston’s voice’. Interesting and touching though it is as an exploration of the emotional and physical journey she has been on, it is the story that doesn’t get told that is really intriguing.
Here is the ‘girl’ who won the first Andrew Lloyd Webber TV casting show ‘How Do you solve a problem like Maria?’ amidst public hysteria, and helped to popularise a format which seemed to deliver publicity and profit beyond Lloyd Webber’s wildest dreams. Well, he must have had some reason for repeating the exercise another four times. Perhaps we are naive, but whilst Lloyd Webber can hardly be held responsible for ruining her voice, he is strangely absent from this story. With admirable courage, Fisher puts herself through the emotional wringer once more to see if she can rebuild her voice, as well as revisiting the surgeon who may still hold out hope for her. She is also searingly honest about her obsessive personality and the damage she did to herself by using steroids to keep going instead of allowing her voice to rest. But what does all this say about the industry? Comparisons have often been made between Fisher and Julie Andrews, but the tragic figure this brings to our mind is Judy Garland, surrounded by people ‘helping’ her to keep going with the prescription drugs upon which she became dependent.
The most telling ‘confession’ comes from Ted Chapin, president of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the organisation which owns the rights to ‘The Sound of Music’, someone purporting to be one of the ‘good guys’. Commenting on Connie’s schedule, which included eight shows a week on top of publicity appearances, he pointed out that this was an exceptional case. She had been chosen by the public, and she felt an obligation to turn up for every performance. “I wonder” he muses, “in retrospect whether that wasn’t part of the problem, and whether if she had been given some time off, or been given two performances a week off, as other people are in the theatre, whether the problems that she ended up having with her voice would have happened, or would have happened so seriously.” But of course, we know that there was a back-up plan in place. As we have previously posted, experienced West End performer Emma Williams was lined up as an ‘alternate’ Maria, but mysteriously disappeared from the picture just as Connie Fisher’s unanticipated popularity became apparent. But it gets better: Chapin goes on to say that “I will confess that I wanted the best for Connie more than I wanted the best for the Sound of Music…and because I had grown to like her and care for her I wanted the best for her whatever that was.” And that says it all. Goodness knows what help there would have been for a less ‘likeable’ performer.
Despite wanting to downplay Connie Fisher’s musical theatre training at the time of her victory, by referring to her as a telesales worker, the fact remains that while she was trained, she was not experienced. In the introduction she says herself that she “jumped the queue.” It is rare for recent graduates to jump into starring West End roles for a reason – they are unlikely to have the stamina and technique to manage the schedule. Not only was she inexperienced but she was young. Who was helping her to protect an asset that should have lasted her a lifetime? Exploitation doesn’t really cover it, and with a televised audition process, it could be argued, that there is already a bias towards the most extreme personalities, those who are most willing to humiliate themselves and defer to the process, and least likely to take care of themselves by taking a step back when they need to. Reality is the one thing that tends to be noticeably absent from reality TV.
And in Connie’s documentary, there is a striking echo of the rigours of casting by TV, when she attempts to have some lessons with voice builder Gary Catona. Courageous, foolish, or just so used to living her life in the spotlight that she doesn’t notice the cameras? We are not sure – perhaps it’s all three, but she particularly struggles with his method, which requires his pupils to ‘sound ugly’ before they can sound beautiful. She is in tears much of the time, whether with the joy of getting her voice back or the horror of having to make horrendous sounds. Yet surely it is essential to all kinds of performing to be able to stop watching yourself and let rip. This is one of the cruelest aspects of the casting shows themselves. After all, each contestant is eliminated after giving their ‘worst’ public performance. At least normal auditions allow the losing candidates some dignity in their failure.
Which brings us back to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Perhaps the saddest moment of all comes near the end of the programme, in which Fisher is offered the possibility of another surgical procedure on her throat. Understandably cautious, she then reveals that “Half the battle with my operations was that I spent all the money I earned playing Maria on being Maria, and I can’t really afford another operation”. It is heart-breaking to hear, and somehow symbolic of her whole predicament. The casting process identifies her forever as a single character in a show, because that is what suits the producers. Her long-term career doesn’t matter to these people, and in this brief insight we see a desperation to hold on to her association with the role which ultimately seems to have been self-destructive. Would multi-millionaire Lloyd Webber step in to pay for surgery for his protegé? We’ll never know.
One thing we do know is that Lloyd Webber is campaigning to have the UK laws around children working in the theatre relaxed to allow for longer hours and shorter breaks. For him, the regulations which are there to protect young performers are just ‘red tape’ holding him back. His new show ‘School of Rock’ will now open on Broadway because (surprise, surprise), the rules are more relaxed over there. Children are children, however talented they may be, and they have needs outside their performing careers. If the most prominent names in show business can’t see that, what hope is there for adults?