Andrew Lloyd Webber has today (1 February 2008) revealed the full extent of his ruse to cast Award nominee Summer Strallen (pictured) as the new Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music via the hit Channel 4 teen soap Hollyoaks (See News, 4 Jan 2008). As officially confirmed today, Strallen takes over from How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? victor Connie Fisher in the musical the West End’s London Palladium from 25 February 2008.

Lloyd Webber, making his acting debut, appears in his third and final episode of Hollyoaks tonight, when the storyline for ‘Summer Shaw’, Strallen’s character reaches its climax. Shaw, an aspiring actress who dreams of West End stardom, was introduced in the series last August. In this week’s episodes, a desperate Shaw came to London and started to stalk Lord Lloyd Webber. The composer relented and gave her an official audition, which a nervous Shaw fluffed.

However, in tonight’s episode, the wannabe waits for the impresario outside the Palladium and, after breaking into a pitch-perfect performance of songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, an impressed Lloyd Webber asks “Do you see that sign saying Stage Door? Would you like to walk through that door one day?” before announcing that he thinks she'll be fantastic as the next Maria.

In fact, Lloyd Webber admitted today, the real-life Summer had been cast as Maria six months ago. He had the art-imitating-life idea when Hollyoaks producers approached him about “doing something interesting” after his BBC success with Any Dream Will Do and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?. He told today’s Evening Standard: “I immediately thought, we’re recasting Maria – I wonder if we could blur fact and fiction?”

TV producers bought into the idea and so did Strallen, who was sworn to complete secrecy. Not even other members of the Hollyoaks company were told about their new colleague’s true identity and purpose until after the key episodes involving Lloyd Webber were filmed in December. The actress said: “It was horrible having to lie to people.”

Theatregoers are already familiar with Summer Strallen, of course. The niece of Bonnie Langford, daughter of two dancers and younger sister of Mary Poppins Scarlet Strallen is currently in the running for Best Actress in a Musical in our Theatregoers’ Choice Awards for her role as stage starlet Janet Van de Graaff in the short-lived Broadway transfer of The Drowsy Chaperone (click here to vote!). She was also Award-nominated (and Olivier-nominated) for the 2006 revival of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend at the Open Air Theatre. Her other West End musical credits include Guys and Dolls, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Cats and Scrooge.

The Sound of Music premiered on Broadway in 1959, when it won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The show first opened in London in 1961 and its last London revival was in 1981, both productions having record-breaking runs. The 1965 Hollywood film, which starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, won five Oscars, including Best Picture.

The London revival is directed by Jeremy Sams and designed by Robert Jones, with choreography by Arlene Phillips, sound by Mick Potter, lighting by Mark Henderson and musical supervision by Simon Lee. It’s presented by Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian, the Really Useful Group and Live Nation. The production is currently booking until 29 March 2008. In last year’s Theatregoers’ Awards, The Sound of Music won Best Musical Revival and London Newcomer of the Year for Fisher, while How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? was named Theatre Event of the Year.

The current cast also features Simon Burke (Captain von Trapp), Fiona Sinnott (the Baroness), Paul Grunert (Max), Amy Lennox (Liesl), Luke Fredericks (Rolf), Margaret Preece (Mother Abbess) and Fisher’s fellow How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? finalist Aoife Mulholland (alternate Maria).

- by Terri Paddock