Singer and actress Helena Blackman became a familiar face to millions of TV viewers earlier this year on How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, the BBC One reality TV programme to cast the lead of Maria von Trapp in the new West End production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. She earned the nickname “miracle Maria” after Andrew Lloyd Webber rescued her from expulsion four times. She went on to battle it out in the final two with eventual winner Connie Fisher.
Trained at Guildford School of Acting, prior to How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, Blackman’s professional credits included Grab Me a Gondola, Spirit of Fire, Jack and the Beanstalk, Howard Goodall's 20th Century Musical Greats and the European tour of Beatlemania. She also worked as a principal singer at Tokyo Disneyworld in Japan.
Following the TV programme, Blackman competed in the annual Voice of Musical Theatre competition, also reaching the final. And, at the Cardiff Festival of Musical Theatre, sang in the David Heneker Centenary and S’Wonderful concerts and played the title role in Gypsy.
This week, Blackman opens as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the final in-house production at the existing Leicester Haymarket. At the end of January, the building closes its doors, ceasing producing activities for at least a year before relocating in 2008 to a new, £52 million, state-of-the-art, city centre theatre, under a still-to-be-announced new name.
The Wizard of Oz is directed by Haymarket joint artistic director Paul Kerryson, who commented on the casting of Blackman: “We are all thrilled that Helena will be swapping the habit and the hills for a Leicester trip down the yellow brick road complete with live dog and a team of 75 Munchkins. Dorothy is the perfect antidote to Maria, and I am sure that Helena will fit those ruby slippers perfectly.”
Date & place of birth
Born 10 December 1982 in Southampton.
Lives now in
Earslfield, south London.
Guildford School of Acting.
Why did you want to become an actor?
When I was four or five, I went through a period of wanting to be a pop star and singing along to Kylie Minogue. It was when my mum took me to see an amateur production of Gypsy when I was nine or ten that I really got inspired. Then in secondary school, I started doing some school plays and realised I had a talent for it.
You recently did a concert production of Gypsy at the Cardiff Festival of Musical Theatre.
Yes. It’s odd that the two shows that have come up for me this year have meant so much: Gypsy was the show that first inspired me and The Wizard of Oz was the first time I was on stage as a child. In Cardiff, we had an extraordinary time. Kathryn Evans (who was due to play Mama Rose) was in an accident a week before the event. Mama Rose is such a massive role. The story really is all about her so, if she’s not great, the rest of the cast can’t necessarily carry it. Luckily for us, Rachel Izen stepped in. She’s larger than life and she did a fantastic job. She was very brave to take it on at such late notice. I don’t know how she did it.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I’ve always loved interior design and I’m good at colouring and sewing and painting. Or maybe something to do with social sciences. Something creative.
What do you consider your first big break?
Going to drama school was one of most amazing things in my life and then graduating and getting an agent. And, of course, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? was incredible. It’s given me some great opportunities. I believe that, with my training and determination, I would have got there myself, but maybe not so soon.
What’s your abiding memory of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?
The girls. Just having a laugh with them. I’ve made some fabulous friends out of it. It’s an experience that we can only really share with each other. It was crazy. Other people wouldn’t understand. I thought it was great. I love watching reality TV shows myself. It was fantastic being part of one.
How has your life changed since the programme?
I don’t think it’s really changed. It’s busier, that’s for certain, and there’s a lot more variety in what I’m doing and being offered. If I’d won How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, of course I’d be doing The Sound of Music now, but I wouldn’t have had the variety so I feel lucky in that way. Also, I’m getting to meet and work with some fantastic people – so many different producers and writers and performers. It’s nice to have so many projects on the go. But I haven’t changed. It takes a lot to bowl me over - I get over myself very quickly and just get on with it.
After The Wizard of Oz, I’d love to do a Sondheim with Paul Kerryson. And I hope to work with Julia McKenzie again. She was amazing on Gypsy. I also really enjoyed working with Warner Brown in Cardiff.
Favourite musical writers
I love Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and all that classic stuff. And of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber. He’s writing a new musical…. I’m just getting into the music of David Heneker. He wrote Half a Sixpence, Charlie Girl and Irma La Douce, and his centenary was celebrated at Cardiff this year. His music is absolutely beautiful. I also like Stiles and Drewe, Stephen Schwarz, and Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza. I like to discover new writers too and do anything I can to help promote new musicals.
What roles would you most like to play still?
The two big ones, probably for any musical theatre actress, are Christine in The Phantom of the Opera and Cosette in Les Miserables. I’ve auditioned twice for Christine and got close so I’m hoping at some point I’ll get the chance to play her. I’d also love to do West Side Story and any Rodgers and Hammerstein, especially Julie Jordan in Carousel. Also anything in Sondheim, although there are very few younger roles for women in Sondheim so maybe that’ll be later on in my career.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Avenue Q. It’s absolutely brilliant. I think it’s the best show in the West End for reaching out to the general public. If you’re not a fan of musicals, you’ll still love this show. It’s hysterical.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
When I went to secondary school, it was drama-orientated. Now it’s been turned into a technical college. So much money is now being put into technology that the arts are forgotten about. Getting kids involved in the arts is the best way to keep kids on the straight and narrow. It certainly kept me from drinking cider and made me a much more rounded person. If we could plug more productions and festivals, especially at regional theatres, we could encourage a lot more people to go to the theatre. The interest is there. I’m a strong believer in that. The success of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? shows there are a lot of people out there who love musical theatre.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Judy Garland, she’s an all-time favourite of mine.
Favourite holiday destinations
When I was a kid, I loved going to London but I live there now. I love the countryside. I love England so I always look forward to coming home.
Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Harry Potter! I’ve also just read Jane Eyre. I watched the TV programme and fell in love with Toby Stephens. I’d love to be in a costume drama someday, but that will probably never happen because I’m known now for musicals. I love all the Brontës’ books.
Why did you want to accept the part of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz?
I did the show at school when I was 12 and played Dorothy then too so I knew it very well. It’s fun, colourful and bright and one of the best fairy tales ever written. I also really wanted to work with Paul Kerryson – everyone told me how brilliant he was – and it just sounded like great fun.
How do you feel about the film?
Like The Sound of Music, I think The Wizard of Oz is a film that everyone’s watched. Probably more so. I could believe it if someone told me they hadn’t seen The Sound of Music, but I’d be shocked if they said they hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz. It’s just repeated on TV so often. I must have been tiny when I first saw it. I remember recording it and watching it over and over. I wanted to be Judy Garland. She’s such an icon, even more so than Julie Andrews for me. I love her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.
You attended the opening night of Wicked. Does seeing that show change your perspective?
Yes! I can never look at the Wicked Witch of the West the same way again. I almost wish I hadn’t seen it because in Wicked you end up hating Dorothy. Still, in doing The Wizard of Oz, I’ll feel like I’m a little part of Wicked too. And being part of hit like that is great!
What’s your favourite number from The Wizard of Oz?
Definitely “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. It’s so gorgeous, but the whole score is fabulous.
The Leicester Haymarket closes in its current incarnation after this production. Does that add any significance for you?
The Leicester Haymarket is such a prestigious theatre so doing any show here is an honour, but the fact that’s it’s also their closing show does make it special. It’s great to be a part of history.
What are your future plans?
Unemployment? I have no plans at the moment. I’d like to think there will be more shows, but if not, I’ll go back to the regular world of work. I teach four- to seven-year-olds on Saturdays and after school with a company called Perform that’s run by my partner so I can always do that. I’ve also just made a voiceover CD and will be sending that out.
The Wizard of Oz runs at Leicester Haymarket from 1 December 2006 to 20 January 2007.