When Danny Bayne fought it out with Anthony Kavanagh and Susan McFadden took on Michelle Antrobus in the final Grease Is the Word Saturday night television battle to become the West End’s new Sandy Olssen and Danny Zuko in Grease, producer and panelist David Ian opened the show by telling the four young finalists that, life was “going to change for the two winners forever” and advising them to hold their nerve, do their best and hope that the viewing public would choose the right couple.
An hour or so later, four million viewers watched 24-year-old McFadden and 19-year-old Bane scoop the popular vote and step out as winners. They were indeed the right couple, dead ringers for John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in the classic 1978 high school movie, and as Ian predicted, from the moment they launched into “We Go Together” and did their first “shoo bop shoo wadda wadda yipitty boom de boom”, their lives have changed, no question.
“I was in a kind of dream world for at least two days afterwards,” Bayne tells me. “We had loads of press stuff to do and then it was straight into rehearsals. While we were in Grease Is the Word, it was non-stop week after week, but now it’s got even busier. I’m loving every minute.”
McFadden continues: “Obviously there was a lot of hype around immediately after that Saturday night, but all of that goes away very quickly. We’re both real people with our feet firmly on the ground. We know we have to work hard on the production before we open in the West End. It’s the only way to get where you need to go.”
We’re meeting in a conference room in Ian’s Covent Garden office, Bayne with his slicked-back black hair and Kent cockney accent and McFadden with her blonde locks and smooth Dublin brogue sitting side by side and taking a break after rehearsing the show’s big hand-jive routine.
“Rehearsing Grease is like a non-stop fitness regime. Within the first 20 minutes on the first day we were both absolutely drenched in sweat. We have personal trainers too, so even before we start work, we’re at the gym,” says Bayne, who reminds me that his background is totally non-showbusiness (“Mum works in a shoe shop and Dad’s a car mechanic”). He was a scholarship student at the Italia Conti Academy when he decided to enter the TV contest: “I’ve always had a passion for musical theatre, and I’ve had small parts before and did bits and bobs in panto, but this? It’s something I could only have dreamed of doing.”
West End via Dublin
Looking back over the past 18 months, McFadden says her life has also changed beyond recognition. After a career in Ireland performing in shows since she was six years old, including playing the title role in Annie at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre when she was 12, she decided to head for the West End’s bright lights.
“I was a complete unknown with no formal training and while I went to auditions, for the first year I was also working in Harrods spraying perfume. In Ireland, theatre is a small industry and there’s not much competition. I was lucky enough to be in that small circle and work constantly. In London, I soon learned that I was ten a penny. I’d audition with a hundred other girls who looked like me, sang like me, talked like me and were probably better than me. It was so hard, I lost all my confidence.”
She heard about the Grease Is the Word auditions in January, after a pantomime season in Wakefield playing Cinderella. “Experienced actors I had worked with said I shouldn’t enter because I’d lose any credibility. But I’d been sitting around for weeks doing nothing so I thought, why not have a go? And here I am. It’s hard to believe now that only a few months ago I was depressed and thinking about going home to Ireland.”
One of the gang
Bayne and McFadden now join a small and exclusive club of West End lead performers chosen by public vote via reality television, with How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’s Connie Fisher still climbing ev’ry mountain in The Sound of Music at the London Palladium and Lee Mead now slipping effortlessly into Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Adelphi. Broadway has its own club; Max Crumm and Laura Osnes were also selected to portray Danny and Sandy via viewer votes cast on the NBC reality series You’re the One That I Want.
But when thousands of wannabes fall by the wayside and many more obvious no-hopers are allowed through just to provide a good laugh for the viewers, isn’t the Maria, Any Dream Will Do and Grease Is the Word format simply encouraging the deluded? Discovering untapped talent is one thing, but perpetuating dreams of instant fame and easy West End stardom can be cruel.
For an answer, I turn to David Ian himself, one of the most powerful men in British showbusiness who played a key role in both the BBC’s Maria and ITV’s Grease Is the Word and who famously took out a second mortgage to finance the first West End production of Grease in 1993. “I think they achieve precisely the opposite,” he responds. “Any young performer who reaches the later stages of one of these competitions truly starts to experience the focus and dedication it requires to play a lead in musical theatre. They’re pushed very hard during the week before the live TV shows, and it is very noticeable as to those who don't have what it takes.”
New platforms, non-core audiences
TV talent shows, Ian adds, have helped attract a new and “non-core” theatre audience to the West End and raised the profile of musical theatre. Would he like to see more shows cast this way? “It can work well if the role in question is extremely well known to the public,” Ian believes. “Maria, Danny and Sandy are iconic insofar as the public know the parts so well due to them having been made so by famous by Julie Andrews, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in the respective movies. I would consider casting in this way again if I were involved in the right show, but have no plans to at the moment. I'm sure there will be others.”
Meanwhile, Bayne and McFadden are far more involved with perfecting the moves to “You’re the One That I Want” and practising their vocals on “Hopelessly Devoted” and “Summer Nights” than playing the fame game. “I’ve always loved the movie of Grease – we were always watching it at home when I was a kid – but my ambition is not stardom,” says Bayne. “I just hope I can show people that I have the all-round performance skills to make Danny Zuko a great character. That’s my only ambition.”
“This has been a great platform for us, but we know we have to work hard from now on,” adds McFadden. “I've seen how fame affects lives. It’s not always a bed of roses. Because of my brother (who found fame in Westlife), I have a realistic view. I just want success in my career, and hopefully it will give Danny and me an opportunity to do other things in the future.
“Let’s face it, we can’t be doing Grease forever, otherwise we’ll end up the oldest Danny and Sandy in history.”
Grease opens on 8 August 2007 (previews from 25 July) at the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre. A longer version of this article – including an interview with Lee Mead - appears in the July/August issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!