For two months this fall, millions of television viewers in Britain watched the public audition of ten show business virgins for the role of nun-into-nanny Maria in Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian's revival of The Sound of Music at the London Palladium. The winner, voted by the public, was 23 year-old Welsh unknown Connie Fisher, who stormed the first night on 15 November and delighted even the critics.
It is an astonishing story. For me, Connie was obviously the safe bet, although she had too many teeth and too much get-up-and-jolly-well-go for my taste in musical theatre heartthrobs. However, her Maria, in the end, is the best you could possibly imagine: vibrant, funny and fearless.
How odd this show must have been with a 46 year-old Mary Martin. I saw the first London production with a statuesque contralto, Constance Shacklock (she used to sing "Rule Britannia" at the Last Night of the Proms for years on end) exalting us, as the Mother Superior, to "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."
Since then, the show has languished in the purlieus of camp, as a "Sing-along-a-Sound of Music" evening - bring your own wimples, lay out your lederhosen - unassisted by the interminable, squeaky-clean 1965 Julie Andrews movie and bland London revivals with Petula Clark and Liz Robertson (the late Alan Jay Lerner's seventh and last wife).
So the big news is that Jeremy Sams's revival, designed by Robert Jones, lit by Mark Henderson and choreographed by Arlene Phillips, is a triumphant rescue job, revealing the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1959 show (their final great collaboration) as an unequivocal masterpiece; no longer "The Sound of Muzak", and certainly not "The Sound of Mucus" (as Pauline Kael dubbed the movie).
Apart from the drama of casting Maria, there was a last minute hiccup when the actor playing Captain von Trapp (Simon Shepherd) was fired after two previews; apparently, his performance wasn't "working." In stepped the reliable Alexander Hanson (who took over lead roles in both Sunset Boulevard and Aspects of Love in London for Lloyd Webber) to create a memorable portrait of a man suspended between a national crisis and an emotional decision.
For The Sound of Music is about two big things: how to submit to the spirit of music ("Do-Re-Mi" explains how to write a song) and how to stand up for what you believe in. The Captain renews his paternal role with his over-disciplined brood of children thanks to Maria's agency as a brilliant teacher, and he finds his dignity in resisting the Nazi occupation. The hills the von Trapp family climb in the end are the Alps; an escape route to Switzerland after their concert is hi-jacked by the Nazis as a propaganda exercise.
All this is thrillingly laid out in the production. Lauren Ward makes something really fascinating of the snobbish Viennese baroness whom the Captain is prepared to marry until Maria intervenes. Lesley Garrett, an ENO light opera favourite, is a marvellous, humorous, humane Mother Superior with a glorious voice. And Ian Gelder, long one of our best, most unsung supporting actors, gives the performance of his career as the slippery agent Max, inventing ready solutions until caught in a web of his own devising. All the children are delightful.
The musical direction by Simon Lee - also responsible for Evita this year - is outrageously good, honouring not just Rodgers and Hammerstein, but also the imperishably brilliant orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett. Two songs from the movie are included - "I Have Confidence in Me" and "Something Good" - and both are slotted in perfectly.