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Connie Fisher on making the transition from screen to stage

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For the last of the Screen to Stage interviews we come full circle and talk to the winner of the first series –  How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? Connie Fisher. After winning the part of Maria, which she played in the West End and on national tour, she appeared in They’re Playing Our Song and can soon be seen in the national tour of Bernstein’s Wonderful Town.

As the Maria show was the first of its type, did you know it would take off so well?
No, I had no idea at all. I had just left drama school (Mountview) in 2005 with a degree in musical theatre. I had planned to follow the conventional route – you know, ensemble, or a tour or even a West End show – just to get any experience I could, and work my way up through the ranks. But, well, things didn’t happen quite the way I had planned it.

I worked in Pizza Express]and then in telesales. I had heard about the auditions well before I saw the advertisement. I phoned my agent and said that I really wanted to be seen for the role of Maria. He phoned the casting director,David Grindrod who actually had seen me many times auditioning for other musicals, like Mamma Mia, The Woman in White and Phantom of the Opera, but he said: “She can’t be seen for the part. If she wants to be Maria she’ll have to go on the television programme”.

In a radio interview, Andrew Lloyd-Webber said that he was looking for a “shopgirl”, you know, someone who was working in Woolworths. Well, telesales and pizza delivery isn’t that different, and I had nothing to lose. I’d always been the bridesmaid and never the bride but, as I was now coming straight out of drama school, I was ready to be given a job.

So I decided to audition in Cardiff as I thought there would be a lot less people than there would be at the London auditions. I arrived really early and was 17th in the queue but, even in Cardiff, there were 5000 girls behind me.

Did you ever believe in the live finals that the role was yours for the taking?
I think, because we were kept in a house surrounded by paparazzi and because you are relying on the votes of the general public, I had no idea. Because we weren’t really allowed “out” you don’t get a sense of reality, of what’s actually happening. We had a “Maria Mother” called Colette who looked after us and I remember being out with her and passing a magazine stand.

She was ushering us into a car but I quickly grabbed a copy of Heat magazine and in the back it said: “Will Connie scoop the prize she deserves”. I was stunned. I couldn’t quite believe that it was there in print, that my face was in a magazine and that someone thought I could win.

You see, I was surrounded by tremendous talent and a lot depended on what song you were given. We had no choice in that. I kept asking for soprano songs so I could show off my range and I kept getting pop songs like “Shout”. All I could think was – how am I going to show that I’m Maria?.

As I got, week on week, good comments from the judges I started to think that maybe I wasn’t so bad after all. I didn’t really know what winning meant at the time, I didn’t realise that it would be a lot more than just getting a part in a show. It would be a whole life change.

How did life change once the TV cameras went off?
Well, literally as the cameras went off and someone shouted: “and we’re off air”, Lloyd-Webber was hugging me and then he said: “Right, no celebrating tonight, get some rest because we start recording an album on Monday”. I was like, oh, okay, right, so I didn’t even have a glass of champagne or anything.

But it wasn’t really like it was over, it was more a beginning. I had so much still to do. I kept thinking that now I had to prove myself, to the audience and to the critics – but the support I got was just unbelievable.

What was it like to walk out onto the stage of the London Palladium?
Just amazing, I love the Palladium. It’s almost hard to go back there now because we were there for so long and we held the audience’s attention for almost three hours every show. It’s almost like we owned that space, and now going back there is a bit weird because you want to do it all over again. It’s such an amazing space.

And then there was the national tour.
Yes, for 18 months. It was equally as thrilling to do that. It never got stale or boring, it was always fresh and I don’t know if it was the kids in the show, or the songs, or maybe the people I met after each show.

They reminded me, every day, that there was a new audience who had never seen it before and who had come along to see the person they voted for on television. I was really grateful for the opportunity. I think I got to play most of the major playhouses in the country, and now I’m about to play a few more in the Wonderful Town tour.

Yes, you’re opening at The Lowry (Salford). How is it going?
It’s great. We’re in “tech” rehearsals now and we did six “dry runs” last week so we’re well ahead of schedule and … Hello, oh, please excuse me, but my costumes are just arriving and I’m seeing them for the very first time. We’re going into wigs later, so I get to try my wig on for the first time too. This is really exciting.

We were working with the Hallé Orchestra yesterday and this morning and singing with them is just unbelievable. We’re got the full 55- piece orchestra for two weeks, which is really a rarity. Just to link back for a minute to the reality TV, I did find that there was a sort of stigma attached to it.

As soon as I won it I was sort of typecast into Julie Andrews’s shadow. In all my concerts I was asked to sing from The Sound of Music and there was no variation from that theme. It was cool for a while, but after playing Maria for a few years you start to think that there’s got to be more parts out there for me.

Straight acting parts maybe?
Well, I haven’t been seen for the Royal Shakespeare Company and I haven’t been seen for the National Theatre, but I really would love to do straight acting, having done some in television. I’d love to do a play, a comedy, maybe even a farce, something like that. I’d really love to do Shakespeare.

Did you get the part of Ruth Sherwood in the conventional way?
Oh yes, I auditioned for the part at Glyndebourne, which was very exciting. It was all very scary too. The pressure was on because I really wanted the part and usually, when I really want something, I don’t get it. I was so thrilled to get the role as the show is so high energy, so colourful, really fun.

There’s no Nazis or climbing wooden mountains in it, so I feel like it’s a new chapter. It’s given me the opportunity to develop as a character actress. It is wonderful to be under the direction of Braham Murray, to have a choreographer like Andrew Wright and a musical director like Sir Mark Elder.

How is your voice doing now?
Being told a couple of years ago (I don’t know if you know this), that I would never sing again because of a condition I was born with, and losing my soprano register, my world was sort of turned upside down.

But to come back and say that I can do character roles and I can do this voice or that voice, and if the audience enjoys it, I’ll feel like I have really opened that new chapter. I’ll no longer have to mourn not being able to hit a top B flat every night.

What happens after Wonderful Town?
Well, I’ve been doing a lot of stuff in Wales, because I live in Cardiff now. I’ve filmed a second series called Connie’s People for BBC Wales and I also present a show on Radio Wales. I’m also making my début in Casualty this month and my character has been asked to return, so I start filming that two days after I finish Wonderful Town.

Although I would absolutely love to see the show carry on and transfer to the West End. I think that’s what London needs now is a bit of fun, a bit of colour, and this is the perfect show to offer that.

Connie Fisher can be seen in the national tour of Wonderful Town at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton (29 May-2 June), the Theatre Royal, Norwich (5-9 June) and the New Victoria Theatre, Woking (19-23 June).


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