After eight weeks of the BBC One reality TV casting programme How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, and six weeks of public voting, 23-year-old Connie Fisher won the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s upcoming revival of The Sound of Music (See News, 16 May 2006). The production opens at the West End’s London Palladium on 14 November 2006 (previews from 4 November).

On Saturday night’s programme, Fisher (pictured with Lloyd Webber) was up against Helena Blackman and Siobhan Dillon in the last three. The three girls – from the original shortlist of ten, which had been whittled down from an initial 6,000 who auditioned - each had to perform two songs, one chosen by Lloyd Webber, the second from The Sound of Music. Dillon was knocked out after the first round in the live final. In the ultimate contest, Fisher and Blackman reprised their favourite numbers from earlier rounds – “Shout” for Fisher, “Woman in Love” for Blackman – and then performed a duet of the title song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Though Lloyd Webber no longer had the power to ‘save’ one of the public’s least popular contestants - as he had care of a ‘sing-off’ of one of his own songs in previous weeks - he repeatedly made it clear that Connie was his choice for Maria because of her “consummate professionalism” and “consistency” throughout the programme. Connie was also the choice of two of the judging panel, co-producer David Ian and actor John Barrowman, though singing coach Zoe Tyler picked Helena for her “vocal progression”.

Prior to Maria School, the intense training programme the contestants have been undergoing while competing in the TV programme, Fisher, from Pembrokeshire, Wales, had been working in telesales, although she trained at Mountview Theatre School and has previously auditioned for West End roles.

After learning that she’d won what she’s often referred to as her dream role, Fisher said: "I feel on top of the world, thanks very much. I won't let you down. Every night will be an opening night. Thanks for making my dreams come true."

While Musicality found performers for a one-off performance of Chicago and other reality TV programmes have fielded contestants who went on to musicals (See Features, 11 Sep 2006), How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? has marked the first time that the format has been used specifically to cast by audience vote a contracted lead role in the West End.

The programme has attracted criticism from many in the industry but has proved hugely popular with the public. According to the BBC, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? attracted seven million viewers a week – particularly impressive given that it went head-to-head with ITV’s enduring pop talent contest hit, The X Factor - while two million votes were tallied in last night’s final alone. Proceeds (viewers paid 25p to vote) go towards two musical theatre bursaries. The programme’s popularity has also fuelled high demand for tickets for the £4 million production, with a reported £5 million already taken at the box office two months before opening night.

Should Fisher not prove up to the rigours of leading lady-hood, there is a back-up: West End veteran Emma Williams has been cast as an alternate Maria (See The Goss, 28 Jul 2006). Williams created the role of Truly Scrumptious in the stage adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium in 2002 and has since starred in Bat Boy, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and in the West End, Sex, Chips and Rock 'n' Roll at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Promises, Promises at Sheffield Crucible and Tomorrow Morning at the New End Theatre in Hampstead.

No performance-sharing schedule has yet been set for the two Marias and no further casting has been officially announced, although Simon Shepherd is expected to play Captain Von Trapp, with Lauren Ward as the Baroness and Lesley Garrett as the Mother Abbess (See The Goss, 25 Aug 2006).

- by Terri Paddock