Shirtless Josephs and ruby slippers: Remembering Andrew Lloyd Webber’s bizarre reality TV empire

For a moment in the 2000s, talent shows to find the next star of the stage were all the rage. Isobel Lewis revels in their unique high campness alongside former contestants

Sunday 12 December 2021 08:06
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<p>These musical shows, presented by Graham Norton, brought together two seemingly oppositional forces and shook the industry</p>

These musical shows, presented by Graham Norton, brought together two seemingly oppositional forces and shook the industry

A man stands on a brightly lit stage, holding back tears as his coat of many colours is stripped away and his dream comes to an end. The year is 2007 and he has been eliminated from Any Dream Will Do, a reality TV series to find the star of a new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. He must now gather himself enough to belt out “Close Every Door”. Implausibly, the screen test was even more OTT. “Originally, in the pilot episode we filmed, we were topless – but the feedback was it was ‘too gay’,” says former contestant Daniel Boys with a laugh. “So they gave the vests to us, which I’m not sure helped that much.”

From 2006 to 2010, the BBC and musical theatre were in big business together, producing four reality TV series in which West End leads were picked by public vote: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? (The Sound of Music), Any Dream Will Do (Joseph), I’d Do Anything (Oliver!) and Over the Rainbow (The Wizard of Oz). Copycat series Grease is the Word and Superstar followed on ITV, the latter of which Lloyd Webber also worked on. In fact, reality TV was big business full stop: at the time, shows like The X Factor and Big Brother were at their peak and there was a sense that just about anything could be given the talent show treatment. The glut was such that they were even parodied, in Peter Kay’s 2008 comedy special Britain’s Got the Pop Factor... and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice.

Presented by Graham Norton, these musical shows brought together two seemingly oppositional forces and shook the industry. The famously hard-to-crack, traditional world of the showy West End was mixing with the cutting-edge genre of reality TV, where talent is not a prerequisite to be a star. The stage was being democratised – for those willing to put themselves through the reality show ringer, at least. Actor Lauren Samuels, who is currently starring in the national tour of Mischief Theatre’s Groan Ups, had an agent from drama school, but still had to queue up alongside the thousands of other wannabes in Over the Rainbow. “[My agent] said, ‘Look, there’s these reality TV show things going on. I can’t get you a private audition, but if you’ve got nothing to do today, go along and see how you fair,’ so I did,” she tells me.

Every Saturday, these hopefuls would warble their way through showtunes and pop songs, dreaming of winning over the judges and the public. At the head of the programme was Lloyd Webber himself, who was referred to as “the Lord” and offered critiques from a golden throne like a gothic Simon Cowell, the ominous opening chords of “The Phantom of the Opera” blaring with his arrival. Subtle these programmes were not. But they also got the general public invested in theatre, with Cowell saying in 2008: “What the BBC does is very good for the West End because it reminds millions of people what the West End is all about – they’re going to sell a lot of tickets off the back of that”.

These series turned those dreamers into stars, too, with the public casting Connie Fisher as Maria, Lee Mead as Joseph, Jodie Prenger as Nancy and Danielle Hope as Dorothy. Yet fast forward more than a decade and it’s the non-winners who have had the most successful careers. Jessie Buckley may have a Bafta nomination and currently be starring in a jaw-dropping production of Cabaret, but a certain demographic will always picture her awkwardly struggling to put one foot in front of another in a lime-green satin halter dress on I’d Do Anything. Many of the biggest names in the UK musical theatre scene – Samantha Barks (Frozen the Musical), Rachel Tucker (Come From Away), Sophie Evans (Wicked) – got their big breaks on these shows, with many other alumni still working throughout the industry.

What made How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? and the like so captivating was their willingness to embrace both reality TV and musical theatre in all their extremes. The contestants had to rehearse multiple solo, duet and group numbers a week, but also lived in a Big Brother-esque house with the paparazzi camping outside. The showbizzyness of it all prompted snobbery within the industry – something many of the contestants say they still feel to this day – but there was a sense that this was the future of theatre casting, so buckle up.

The idea of the open audition reality show format was to find fresh faces for the lead parts, those of people who may not have found their way onto the stage otherwise. But, as Boys, who has since starred in West End productions of Avenue Q and Falsettos, points out, “Andrew Lloyd Webber originally said he wanted a cross between Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake [for Joseph] and I’m not sure whether any of us were particularly that.” For all their cries about challenging ideas of who could play these big roles, the contestants were overwhelmingly white – as were all the winners.

But the open audition format was a rare opportunity for many actors. Evans, who grew up in a working-class community in Wales and had her theatre training paid for by Lloyd Webber after coming second on Over the Rainbow, says she wouldn’t have been “able to afford” a start in the industry without that backing. Any Dream Will Do’s runner-up Keith Jack, who is currently working as a musician and starring in panto, was given a way into the industry that didn’t require racking up debt at drama school. “It’s the best kind of crash course you’ll ever have in musical theatre,” he says.

Daniel Boys, Craig Chalmers, Ben Ellis, Rob McVeigh, Lewis Bradley, Lee Mead and Keith Jack compete to be the next Joseph on ‘Any Dream Will Do’ in 2007

At 17 and 19 respectively, Evans and Jack were among the youngest contestants to compete on their series. In general, the hopefuls could largely be split into two camps, where fresh-faced young actors (sometimes still in school) competed alongside seasoned theatre performers. There was never a set idea which side the judges were looking for – within Over the Rainbow, Samuels felt that she was “penalised” by the judges for having training, while Evans was chastised for being “too young”.

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For most of the contestants, this was their first time in the public eye and on live TV. While there was a certain duty of care for the actors, the usual issues around the ability to nurture young artists within the reality genre were still there. “I remember [EastEnders actor and judge] John Partridge saying, ‘You’ll never fill the space at the London Palladium; you’re not enough of a presence,’” Evans, currently playing Glinda in Wicked, says. “It’s always stuck with me, especially the day that I did then go on to perform at the London Palladium and I thought, ‘Well, I kind of did.’”

The public were ultimately responsible for choosing who won the shows, but Lloyd Webber and the judges clearly had ideas about who they wanted for the role – after all, their money was on the line. Samuels recalls being made to swap songs with eventual Over the Rainbow winner Danielle Hope, days before the final, saying: “When I look back on that now, I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe that’s because they wanted her to have the better song.’” Such plots didn’t always pay off, however. In the I’d Do Anything final, both Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh backed Buckley to win, but Jodie Prenger was voted “the people’s Nancy”. The British public, it would seem, didn’t always want to be told what to do.

Andrew Lloyd Webber sits on his throne as Graham Norton stands with Danielle Hope, the 2010 winner of ‘Over the Rainbow’

Over the course of 13 weeks, thousands of contestants were whittled down, with one cut during each live show. Ask most viewers what they remember from these programmes and chances are, it’s the elimination sequences, best described as part-crazed Lloyd Webber power-trip, part-high camp masterpiece. Think teary-eyed Marias singing “So Long, Farewell”, Nancys taking off each other’s necklaces and, most ridiculously of all, Dorothys handing back their shoes to Lloyd Webber before flying off on a giant moon as he sits beside a pair of ruby slippers in a crystal ball.

Rewatch these clips (something I recommend everyone does), and it’s hard not to laugh at the whole thing. “I watched it all again in lockdown… and I was like, ‘This is absolutely ridiculous,’” Evans recalls of Over the Rainbow. “You know, young girls coming down, all crying hysterically, being asked to take their shoes off to sit on a crescent moon and fly across the stage.” Samuels is in agreement, adding: “We did realise how ludicrous it was… All there was to hold on to was a wrist strap, so I remember saying at one point, ‘What happens if I fall off the moon?’ And they said, ‘Oh no, you’ll likely just break a wrist or something.’”

The last five hopefuls (from left) Abi Finley, Aoife Mulholland, Siobhan Dillon, Helena Blackman and Connie Fisher rehearsing ‘So Long, Farewell’ on ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’

The tears in their eyes, however, were real. “You got really close to the boys that were there and I remember just trying to sing and feeling so heartbroken [that] my friends were leaving,” Jack says. “Even though it was a competition... it was really hard to watch people go and the house getting quieter and quieter.” And for all the challenges of belting out “Close Every Door” through the crying, it was also a chance, Boys says, “to really sing and show Andrew what he’s missing”.

Bring together two of the most “cutthroat” entertainment sub-industries (reality TV and musical theatre) and those who survived had the tools to thrive in the future – even if their peers roll their eyes. “Nobody that has not done it can know how hard it is and how under the microscope you are… it’s something that we all have that other people that have not experienced it don’t,” Samuels says. Now 28, Evans already has an 11-year career under her belt, but still insists Over the Rainbow is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”. “I was scrutinised to my face weekly for like three months,” Evans says. “That’s never ever happened since and I don’t think it ever will again.”

While the Lloyd Webber shows were a short-lived phenomenon, the relationship between reality TV and musical theatre has continued. Rather than the audience voting directly for their favourite Maria or Joseph, it’s the successful Strictly stars who now get to shine on the West End stage, from Hollyoaks’ Danny Mac in Pretty Woman to Olympian Louis Smith in Bring It On. Get the public to see you at your most vulnerable on screen and the stage can still beckon for wannabe musical performers – who knows, you might even be able to keep your shoes on.

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