The winning contestant of the BBC1 show called How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? will get a contract to star as the eponymous rebel nun in Rodgers and Hammerstein's famous musical in the West End, London, this autumn.
But Equity, the actors' union, yesterday condemned the move as "demeaning" to its members' professionalism and questioned if an unknown newcomer could handle such a role. Even established stars such as Martine McCutcheon and Sarah Lancashire struggled to cope with the demands of a West End run when they appeared in My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls respectively.
Andy Prodger, assistant general secretary, said: "Our members go through all the processes of training and education and go into the profession and work their way up through the chorus. But then an absolutely plum role, the height of any actor's career in musical theatre, is going to be decided not exactly by a lottery, but not very far from it. The point we make is there is nothing harder than doing eight shows a week, six days a week, where a very high vocal range and skill is required. They're going to be judged on what they do in half an hour on television."
Equity, together with the BBC, hopes to ensure proper pay and working conditions. Christine Payne, its general secretary, said: "I would much rather that this programme was never made. In the face of determination... our priority as a trade union is clear - to protect those young performers from exploitation."
However, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who turned to talent show TV after talks with the Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson fell through, insisted he was thrilled the search would be open to anybody. "I have always had a passion for discovering and nurturing new talent and this will be a fantastic opportunity for a young artist to become a real star," he said. "Never before have young musical theatre performers had such an opportunity to show their talents on prime-time television."
Insiders point out that professionals are not prohibited from taking part, which will involve open auditions in Belfast, Cardiff, Manchester, Edinburgh and London. A panel of experts will whittle the hopefuls down to 50 potential Marias. Ten will make it through to the television shows where they will undergo training and perform live for the panel and the public who will vote.
Peter Fincham, BBC1's controller, said he expected the project to capture people's imaginations. "The combination of The Sound of Music, some of the biggest names in theatre and a hunt for a new star is irresistible."
An open audition for the six Von Trapp children in the show will take place this Thursday at 9am at the London Palladium.
Because of laws governing child actors' hours, the producers need to find three sets of children to share the roles, which range from 14-year-old Friedrich down to Gretl, five. This autumn's production is a long-held dream of Andrew Lloyd Webber and will be the first in London since Petula Clark starred a quarter century ago in the part made famous by Julie Andrews in the 1965 film.
When opportunity knocks...
Three years ago Channel 4 and the English National Opera looked for a one-off amateur singer for Verdi's Rigoletto. A total of 2,500 applied and the series won record TV audiences. The winners, Denise Leigh, who is blind, and Jane Gilchrist, secured recording contracts.
THE PLAY'S THE THING
A new Channel 4 series looking at what it takes to be a successful playwright received the work of 2,000 previously unproduced writers. They will be judged by a panel of experts, including actor Neil Pearson, above, which will choose one to get a full West End production.
The follow-up to Operatunity gave showbiz hopefuls a chance of a one-off guest spot in the musical Chicago. Several subsequently won proper contracts, including Donna Hazelton, who took on the role of Mama Morton, and Rebecca Dent, who secured a part in Saturday Night Fever.