The first of these – How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? – was broadcast back in the summer of 2006. The series was launched after negotiations to secure Scarlett Johansson to play Maria fell through and, despite an extensive search, the production team were unable to decide on a suitable replacement.
Lloyd Webber approached the BBC to see if they would allow the public to cast votes to choose a previously undiscovered talent to perform in the role through a series of live television shows on Saturday nights. This was the first time such a format had been used and, after it was announced, the idea was criticised by the actor’ union, Equity.
Equity stated that it believed its members would find the series "demeaning to their profession" and that it was not a "proper way" to choose a performer. The first show did receive mostly negative reviews, but Lloyd Webber responded that: “This programme is providing a platform for musical theatre that it has never had before. The only people upset are a few precious luvvies who think things should be done a certain way”.
Actual audience reaction was universally positive with audience figures starting at five million and going on to peak at nearly eight million for the live final show. Resulting publicity, also an issue for some, ensured that by the time the winner had been chosen, the box office advance stood at more than £10 million. Following tremendously positive reviews for the opening night of the production, another one million of ticket sales were processed in just one day.
The success of the series led to its becoming the first in a whole series of West End-themed talent contests produced by the BBC in collaboration with Lloyd Webber. In 2007 we had Any Dream Will Do which went head-to-head with ITV’s bandwagon-jumping Grease Is The Word. Two more shows followed with I’d Do Anything appearing in 2008 and then Over The Rainbow in 2010.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be catching up with some of the winners and also other contestants. We'll see how they coped with reality after the glare of the television lights faded and they began to forge a career in the theatre for themselves.