"How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?," which premieres on BBC America Sunday night, may have the most unwieldy if self-explanatory title in television history. But in a landscape that lately seems dominated by audition-heavy musical competitions, it is refreshing in its simplicity.
Three years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber (inevitably prefaced by "legendary composer") wanted to stage "The Sound of Music," featuring a Maria who was younger and more mischievous than past incarnations. He also wanted, as reality TV luck would have it, an unknown. (You know these legendary composers and their whims.) So the call went out across the land for all young girls who ever dreamed of being Julie Andrews to come and give a panel of judges -- Lloyd Webber, theater producer David Ian, "Torchwood's" John Barrowman and vocal coach Zoe Tyler -- everything they've got.
For American audiences, the symphony of regional accents alone makes it worth watching.
Following on the heels of "Any Dream Will Do," in which Lloyd Webber sought a lead for "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Maria" will make you laugh a bit, cry a bit and, of course, burst into snatches of familiar song.
For fans of "The Sound of Music," or musical theater in general, "Maria" is required viewing. (One can easily imagine parties springing up, similar to the costumed celebration that occurs every year at the Hollywood Bowl.) Beyond the pleasure of watching a bevy of fresh-faced young women "give it a go" and seeing the now fairly familiar range of judges' reactions ("You're not Maria" is the show's auf Wiedersehen), the larger and more interesting theme of what makes a stage star quickly emerges.
Although this is a television show that Lloyd Webber and his chums clearly control -- how big a surprise can that phone call be when there's a camera crew in your living room? -- it is also a genuine casting process. At the end, the winner will go on, did in fact go on, to star in the production, and Lloyd Webber does have a very specific sort of Maria in mind. Watching the wide variety of contestants, it's striking how often passion or attitude can trump technical ability -- it's not a soundtrack, after all; it's musical theater.
In the pilot, the multitudes are to be whittled to 50 women with enough promise to advance to Maria School -- and who among us hasn't dreamed of going to Maria School? -- where they will be coached in voice and acting. From there, the group had to be pared to 10, only then to be thrust into the studio competition phase, where the public could finally have their say.
Although Lloyd Webber could save a competitor from being thrown out, when it came to the final three, he had to live with the choice of the British public. (The play was staged in 2006 to favorable reviews and the winner/star's contract extended considerably.)
Obviously, the drawback of seeing a show that's 3 years old is that it's very easy to find out who won (if you don't know already). But that's not the point, is it? The point is to see what it takes to be Maria, or at least Andrew Lloyd Webber's version of Maria, and to watch a group of women with a rather disparate array of talent try to figure it out as well.
'How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?'
Where: BBC America
When: 7 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: Not rated