How do you solve a problem like Andrew Lloyd Webber? This has disturbed me every Saturday night for the past few weeks as I watched How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? on BBC television. The show gets viewers to vote on prospective stars to play Maria in Lord Lloyd-Webber's forthcoming production of The Sound of Music in the West End. Before the viewers are allowed to pass the definitive judgement of who must kindly leave the screen each week, his Lordship pronounces his judgement. Tonight is the not so nail-biting semi-finals.
The programme has, I must admit, had one memorable moment. One of the singers did, as her audition piece, "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel. Lloyd Webber joined with her and started crying. "I always cry with this one," he confessed. "It is because it is the essence of melody." If he were a Liverpool fan he would be crying at every game. Fortunately, Lord Lloyd-Webber supports Leyton Orient; so while he has many reasons to cry, "You'll Never Walk Alone" is not one of them.
But, aside from this wonderfully diverting moment in the programme, I have problems with the whole concept of this TV show. The first is that I couldn't care less which one of these wide-eyed wannabes gets the part. They all seem to me identical with their stage school smiles and underwhelming voices and acting ability.
My second worry is that the vogue for TV contests to woo TV audiences into the theatre is misguided. The last one, Channel 4's The Play's the Thing, wasn't a stunning success. The show in the West End closed early. It's a false assumption to think that people who vote for their favourite Maria are going to fork out £50 to see The Sound of Music on stage.
But most of all I worry about Andrew Lloyd Webber. Of course, as an impresario as well as a composer he is enjoying reviving an old Rodgers and Hammerstein war horse. But is it the best use of his time to be mounting and judging a TV contest to find a leading lady? He is, after all, a composer. That is what he does best. Not everyone is a fan, it is true, but I rather like his stuff. Besides, whatever one's opinions, his track record is remarkable. Would his time not be better spent providing us with a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and letting one of those other West End producers stage The Sound of Music - his old buddy Sir Cameron Mackintosh perhaps?
Come to that, wouldn't the far more interesting reality TV programme be watching Lloyd Webber compose and stage his own show? Instead of seeing these preening starlets go through the motions week after week, we could see something we never see - the art of creation by a composer. We could see Andrew Lloyd Webber wake up with a tune in his head (and I know he does this because he has told me so), play around with it on a piano and eventually put it on the stage.
That would be fascinating, and who knows, that might even woo people into the theatre. Whether it did or not, it would be something approaching a historical document as far as TV arts programming is concerned. Why isn't the BBC brave enough to give us something like that on a Saturday night, rather than the same old format of wannabes in competition for a chance at fame?
I would like nothing more than to see a new, young and enthusiastic audience come to the theatre. But I'm not convinced that How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? will achieve that. Its competent but uninspiring lookalikes have achieved one remarkable thing, though. They have managed to make Julie Andrews look cool.
Another case of bad timing
The conductor Christoph Eschenbach must think that the Proms have got it in for him. In 2001 he was the guest conductor for the Prom on 11 September, and was confronted with a half-empty auditorium. The other half of the audience had either decided it was unsafe to travel or had stayed at home to watch the awful images on television from the Twin Towers in New York.
Last Sunday he came again with the Philadelphia Orchestra to perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and a fire in the Royal Albert Hall's artists' bar that day meant the concert had to be cancelled as the queues formed outside. The fire had caused problems to the venue's electrics, and the hall suffered a power failure. Still, at least Eschenbach had the evening off, and he could have spent his time relaxing in his hotel room, rereading the lines from Schiller's Ode to Joy which are sung by the chorus at the climax of Beethoven's Ninth: "Bright spark of divinity... Fire-inspired we tread thy sanctuary."
* Art is of its time. But so is criticism. The Arts & Books magazine in this paper yesterday reprinted in its First Impressions column the first review of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The critic from the Quarterly Review castigated the character, the story and the novelist for their unChristian stance. She noted the "murmurings against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor ... is a murmuring against God's appointment".
The critic thundered in conclusion: "We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.
Now that's what I call a bad review. Charlotte Brontë should have demanded a right of reply. "Despite what your critic thinks, I am confident that my little story will find favour somewhere."Reuse content