Behold, a star is born

Channel 4 is hoping to do for the musical what it did for opera with a talent quest to put a new name in West End lights. James Rampton meets the hopefuls

The application form for
Musicality, Channel 4's new search for a West End musical star, starts by asking: "Can you sing, dance and act, all at the same time?" Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? But, of course, this apparently straightforward proposition is much harder than it sounds.

The application form for Musicality, Channel 4's new search for a West End musical star, starts by asking: "Can you sing, dance and act, all at the same time?" Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? But, of course, this apparently straightforward proposition is much harder than it sounds.

Sitting in on the first two rounds of auditions for Musicality brings home to me quite how challenging the art form is. It's tricky enough as it is to recite your lines, without having to keep them in tune and watch where your feet go. At one point, the programme director, Matthew Whiteman, wanders over to me and quietly whispers that the walk-down from Chorus Line that the contestants are vainly trying to master is in severe danger of looking like "a pile-up on the M4".

Later, Gareth Valentine, one of the Musicality judges, who has been musical supervisor on Chicago, Miss Saigon and Anything Goes, expresses his exasperation with a troupe of applicants who appear to have been born with malfunctioning vocal cords as well as two left feet: "It looked like Dr Harold Shipman, the Musical - OAPs half price!" At another moment, he calls a disastrous dance routine the product of "the Douglas Bader school of choreography".

Yet it is the very difficulty of performing musical theatre to anything approximating a competent standard that, the makers claim, elevates Musicality above the level of your bog-standard TV talent show.

In a break between auditions, Whiteman underlines how hard it is for the aspirants to cut it as all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting performers. "In the business, they talk about musicals as 'the triple threat', because they require you to sing, dance and act simultaneously. For every great endeavour, there's an equally great sacrifice. These contestants will have to give everything they've got - and more."

OK, so musicals may demand greater amounts of blood, sweat and tears, than, say, Pop Idol. But will Musicality really be different from the other TV talent searches? What is its unique selling point?

The producers - who were also responsible for Channel 4's Operatunity, last year's award-winning quest to find an opera diva - acknowledge that the first problem they have to overcome is the naff, "coach party" image of musicals. After all, if you're in sophisticated company, would you rather admit to a loving for Racine or a desire to wave a tartan rug along to the Rod Stewart musical Tonight's the Night?

"For some people, musical theatre falls between two stools," concedes Roy Ackerman, the executive producer of Musicality. "It's neither pop nor high culture. Theatre producers don't think, 'I'm going to win an OBE by promoting musicals.' But in New York the musical is a very cool art form. We're aiming to make musicals cool over here." It may be a big ask.

The other hurdle for the producers of Musicality is that certain highbrow critics regard musicals as fundamentally frivolous. It's a charge that Whiteman is swift to refute. "Musicals are as meaningful as anything else. Anything that is life-enhancing is by definition important. We all need an imaginative landscape, a folkloric element, in our lives - whether it's played out in drama, film or soap opera. Why should it be any less valid because it's in the form of musical theatre?"

Whiteman hopes that the series will persuade people of the emotive power of the genre. "The world of musicals is where we all want to be," he suggests. "If you're madly in love with someone, wouldn't you want to sing to them and dance down the streets with them? Characters in musicals are all ordinary people who, at the same time, are reaching for the stars. They want to bring song into their lives. It's an amplification of the way we'd all like to be - romantics constantly surrounded by music and light."

The prize for which the Musicality romantics are vying is a one-night-only role in the current West End production of Chicago, which will be broadcast live on Channel 4. There's no shortage of competition: Ackerman's team has already had to whittle 2,000 applicants down to 200 hopefuls - and they're very hopeful. Ackerman believes that, as with Operatunity, viewers may well find themselves moved by the contestants' urge to better themselves. "Here are a group of human beings trying to do something they've never done before," he says. "This venture has an inspirational quality. These people are not applying to Musicality in order to get on the cover of Smash Hits, but because they love musical theatre."

The contestants I talk to over lunch at the auditions, in the Hampstead Theatre, seem to concur. They are positively evangelical about the magic of the musical. Neil Craven, a 25-year-old primary school teacher from Cardiff, says: "Musical theatre is just a unique form of entertainment - it's warm and heartening. Pop music will come and go, but musicals live on forever. Shows from the 1920s are still revived again and again."

John Simpson, a bearded 36-year-old who by night has been playing the lead in an amateur production of Fiddler on the Roof in Northamptonshire and by day works on the help desk of a building society, reckons: "For those two-and-a-half hours in the theatre, you lose yourself. It's a universe where you can make fantasy into reality. Remember that line from Cabaret - 'Leave your troubles outside'? At the end of a performance, you see a sea of smiling faces in front of you. They've forgotten all about the problems in the rest of their lives. That's a richly rewarding experience."

Other contestants enthuse about the sheer kick of performing in a musical. "If I'd ever done drugs, I could compare it with that," smiles Nerida Griffiths, a 31-year-old amateur performer and secretary from High Wycombe. "But because I do musicals, I don't need to do drugs. When you come off stage, you're just buzzing. You can't get to sleep."

There is a refreshing diversity about the contestants. With a pupil-to-pensioner age range of some 50 years, they include several teachers, students, IT workers, salesmen and unemployed people, as well as a karaoke hostess, a flight controller, a police support officer, a design engineer for surgical instruments, a barman, a physiotherapist, a customer adviser in the soft furnishings department at John Lewis and a security guard at the Houses of Parliament (no, he isn't wearing tights).

The producers have rejected the bias towards "body beautiful" candidates favoured by other TV talent shows. "We have an all-shapes-and-sizes approach," Ackerman contends. "These people don't look like Pop Idol contestants. They range from someone who looks like a young Julian Moore to someone who works in Tesco."

We seem to have in insatiable appetite for these talent hunts. According to the Musicality contestant Cy Wooldridge, a 32-year-old banker from Birmingham, "these programmes give us raw emotions, and we love nothing better than seeing other people cry. When there is a car crash on the motorway, traffic builds up on the other side because everyone slows down to look. This will be like watching one long car crash.

"But you can also relate to how the contestants are feeling. I don't care who you are, when you're watching something like Operatunity, you can really identify with what they're going through. Everyone has had a moment where they're waiting for someone to make a decision that could change their lives."

Simpson agrees: "My wife and I followed Pop Idol, and often shouted at the contestants, 'Go home, now.' There is very definitely a theatre-of-cruelty element. Everybody loves pantomime villains. Pop Idol is designed to make us think, 'This is cringe city.' But for all that, it's compulsive!" Simpson is quick to add, though, that Musicality is a very different kettle of fish. "Here they're not setting you up to take the mickey. There's no Simon Cowell indulging in character assassination."

Kerry O'Dowd, a 21-year-old from east London who earns her corn as a "living statue", thinks that "in Pop Idol they're not looking for talent; they're just looking for a marketable product, people they can promote as dolls. I'm not interested in becoming a pop idol. I want to become a West End idol - or at least an East End idol.

"Vocally, the Pop Idol contestants are not that special and their personality isn't allowed to come out at all. The judges on that show are only looking for a look. This takes the performers much more seriously."

To emphasise the point, the Musicality judges dream up imaginative ways to get the best out of the contestants. For instance, Mary King, who is artistic director of The Knack, a performance skills course at English National Opera, and who previously made a splash as one of the Operatunity panel, conducts a revealing one-on-one masterclass with O'Dowd in which she tries to get her to loosen up.

King tells her pupil that her jaw is too tight. "You're gripping England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In fact, you're gripping for the whole of Europe. You know when you go to the loo or you're lifting a heavy object? That's what you're doing when you're singing. It ain't gunna happen like that. You need to be free." King makes O'Dowd stick her fingers in her mouth in order to relax it for singing.

Moments like this indicate the educative quality that gives Musicality the edge over some of the more superficial and sadistic TV talent shows. Denise Hodgkiss, a 51-year-old schoolteacher from Surrey, reckons that: "Everyone will come away from here having learnt something. I've learnt that my jaw needs realigning - maybe I need plastic surgery. I've also learnt how to use my diaphragm when I'm singing. But most of all, I've learnt that you're never too old to learn new tricks."

Wooldridge also thinks that viewers will be taken aback when they see on Musicality just how much work goes into performing a musical and how much latent talent is out there. He believes the series will help overturn many popular misconceptions about musicals.

"I perform in musicals and people don't say I'm a sissy to my face, but they may say different things behind my back!" he laughs. "Amateur productions of musicals have a bad reputation. But I think when people see Musicality they will be pleasantly surprised.

'Musicality' begins on Channel 4 tonight

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