“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”


According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “[t]hat is the question that only you can answer!” As long as you live in Canada, that is. Next year, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/David Ian production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music will make its North American debut in Toronto. And the role of Maria von Trapp will be cast the same way the West End version’s was: via a reality show titled How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

I have mixed feelings about this. Mostly, I find it horrifying to watch the American Idol-ification of musical theater. But as critical and dismissive as I’m inclined to be, I cannot ignore the fact that the West End production has been not only a commercial success, but a critical success as well.

The format of the BBC show was somewhat similar to the format of American Idol. The producers held open auditions and selected approximately 50 aspiring Marias to attend “Maria School.” Eventually this group was winnowed down to 10 aspiring Marias who were given catchy nicknames such as “Sexy Maria,” “Tomboy Maria” and “Romanian Maria.”

One Maria was eliminated each week until voters eventually chose “Telesales/Intense Maria,” Connie Fisher.

David Ian brought an American version of the show to NBC last summer: Grease: You’re the One That I Want.

It was horrible and wrong, and I watched almost every episode of it. Grease opened on Broadway last month to lackluster reviews — many of the titles of which were some variation of the obvious “Grease, You’re Not the One That I Want.” But the show is still filling almost 90 percent of the seats nightly, at a time when many Broadway shows are filling only 60 or 70 percent of their seats.

In addition to the commercial reasons for this type of casting gimmick, there may actually be artistic reasons. Well, perhaps not artistic, exactly, but something. Although Mary Martin originated the role of Maria von Trapp onstage, Julie Andrews, star of the 1965 film version, utterly and completely owns it.

The Sound of Music is one of the most popular movies of all time. (Watch a clip of “Do Re Mi ” here.) Consequently, casting Maria may actually be a problem that must be solved; it’s quite a challenge to drum up interest in anyone else playing the lead. (That partly explains why I had little interest in seeing the 1998 Broadway revival of The Sound of Music, despite the fact that Rebecca Luker is a talented Broadway performer.) While I suspect there are better ways than reality TV to solve that particular problem, I cannot argue that the chosen method does not work.

Of course, none of this addresses the corollary issue: why does Andrew Lloyd Webber — master of bombast — have anything to do with The Sound of Music? But that is a question for another day.

So, Canadians, do you plan to watch? And has anyone seen either of the reality show musicals? What did you think?

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