UPDATED, Tue 4 Apr 2006: This story has now been updated with confirmation of the nationwide TV search for a new Maria.

Though exact dates have still not been set, Andrew Lloyd Webber has confirmed that his long-awaited new stage production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music will open at the West End’s London Palladium this autumn.

A national reality television search to find an as-yet undiscovered star to play the lead of nun-turned-nanny Maria will soon be launched and aired later this year on BBC1 (See The Goss, 2 Dec 2005). Open auditions are being held this Thursday (6 April 2006) for the Von Trapp family children, who will need to be available for rehearsals from September.

The Sound of Music was one of the best-known musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose other collaborations included The King and I, Oklahoma and South Pacific. Based on the 1949 book The Von Trapp Family Singers, written by Maria Von Trapp about her real-life experiences as a trainee nun who falls in love with a widowed naval captain and his children in pre-war Austria, The Sound of Music opened in 1959 on Broadway, where it ran for 1,443 performances and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The story and its score - including "My Favourite Things", "Do-Re-Mi", " Sixteen Going On Seventeen", "Climb Ev'ry Mountain", "Edelweiss", "So Long, Farewell" and the title song - was immortalised for generations of filmgoers by the 1965 Hollywood version starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. The stage show was revived on Broadway in 1998 while, in recent years, a sing-a-long version of the film has become a cult hit in London and on tour in the UK.

Back in September 2002 (See News, 25 Sep 2002), Lloyd Webber publicly announced his plans to present the musical, tipping it to open at the Victoria Palace in May 2003. But at the start of 2003, those plans were postponed - apparently, after doing the maths on the 1500-seat theatre, producers reckoned the show simply couldn't make enough at the box office.

At the 2,300-seat London Palladium, The Sound of Music will be directed by Jeremy Sams - whose credits include Noises Off, Spend Spend Spend, Little Britain Live and the upcoming West End revival of Michael Frayn’s Donkey’s Years - has been signed up to helm the production. The multi-talented Sams is also a composer, lyricist and book writer (of previous Palladium resident Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and has been given the remit of freshening up the musical’s book. Rob Jones will design the new production.

The TV reality casting programme, hosted by Graham Norton and entitled How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? (after one of the songs in the musical), will be aired on Saturday nights later in the year (broadcast dates still tbc). It will begin with open auditions in London, Belfast, Cardiff, Manchester and Edinburgh. Following initial auditions, contestants will undergo training and review with an expert panel – including Lloyd Webber – and will then be voted on by the public.

Commenting on the competition, Lloyd Webber said: “I have always had a passion for discovering and nurturing new talent. This will be a fantastic opportunity for a young artist to become a real star. I’m particularly pleased that, for the first time, the search will be open to everybody. Never before have young musical theatre performers had such an opportunity to show their talents on primetime television.

In the meantime, for this week’s open auditions at the London Palladium, producers are looking for three teams of children to play the six Von Trapp children: Friedrich (14), Louise (13), Kurt (10), Brigitta (9), Marta (7) and Gretl (5). The casting call asks for children who are “well spoken, able to sign and dance, strictly under 5-foot tall and with no fixed braces. The girls should be underdeveloped and the boys’ voice should be unbroken”. Auditionees will be required to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

Currently at the Palladium, high-tech song-and-dance spectacular Sinatra, featuring never-before-seen footage of Ol’ Blue Eyes projected onto 24-foot screens, is booking until 7 October 2006. The Sound of Music is produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group and Live Nation’s David Ian.

- by Terri Paddock