It all started when Scarlett Johansson pulled out of a West End production of The Sound of Music almost a decade ago. After a four-year search for a new leading actress, a televised talent contest called How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? was launched by the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. The TV show won an Emmy, the West End musical starring the winner made £10m (Dh56m) in advance ticket sales, and dozens of spin-off contests from around the world followed in the programme's wake.
The latest, Over the Rainbow, hit UK television screens on March 26, when the process of culling thousands of applicants in the search for a single actress to perform the role of Dorothy (and a dog to play Toto) in a West End staging of The Wizard of Oz began. The TV show is presented by Graham Norton, has a judging panel that includes the former child star Charlotte Church, and is presided over by Lloyd Webber, who gets his own throne.
It follows the same formula fans of The X Factor will be familiar with: tear-inducing rejection scenes, heartwarming renditions of popular songs, and people promising to put in mathematically impossible amounts of effort (in the first episode of Over the Rainbow, one hopeful promises to give 150 trillion million per cent). The TV show, which airs in a prime Saturday night slot, has been doing well in the ratings, and is likely to ensure healthy ticket sales for the production of The Wizard of Oz it is affiliated with. A recent poll showed that programmes such as How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria, Grease is the Word, I'd Do Anything and the rest attract new audiences to West End shows.
Half of those polled said that a musical theatre-based reality show had made them more likely to see the musical featured on TV, and a quarter said that TV talent shows had sparked an interest in straight theatre, as well as musicals. Countries including Canada, the Netherlands and Belgium have produced their own versions of the shows but it's in the UK that they've been credited with the biggest impact.
In the words of the producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, whose company owns seven London theatres, there's "no doubt" that shows such as Over the Rainbow have had "a tremendously beneficial effect on the West End". London's theatreland had a recession-busting record year in 2009, with box office revenues of more than half a billion pounds (Dh2.8 billion). With happy audiences, happy investors in the arts, and happy TV execs, it seems like a win-win situation, but there are risks involved in leaving the casting of a massive musical up to the general public. The actors' union Equity came out against the trend in 2006, when its general secretary, Christine Payne, said about the BBC's How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?: "I would much rather that this programme was never made, and I am certain that the majority of my members would agree with me."
Worries voiced by Equity included the possible exploitation of participants in the show - although, in the end, the union negotiated contracts that it was happy with - and the idea that many performers might find the programme "demeaning to their profession". Four years on, its stance remains the same. "We don't like this way of casting leading roles in the West End," the Equity spokesman Martin Brown said. "We don't think it pays proper respect to the professional performers who work there."
Lisa Martland, who edits an annual musical theatre supplement for the industry journal The Stage, agrees that performers' jobs shouldn't be underestimated. "Training in musical theatre is vital," she asserts, and points out that many finalists in the reality TV shows have extensive training, which is downplayed as part of the "rags to riches" story arc that's forced on candidates. "A 16-year-old watching one of these shows might think that you can walk off the street straight into the lead role in a West End musical," she says, "but there's a lot of very hard work involved to cope with the demands of doing seven or eight shows a week. Connie Fisher [the winner of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?] found her voice suffered because of her schedule, and she had to take a break from performing." Another concern is that programmes such as Over the Rainbow rely on conventional stagings of familiar musicals - when working on Oliver! in conjunction with the BBC's I'd Do Anything, the choreographer Matthew Bourne admitted there was never a question that Nancy wouldn't appear in a red dress - and so an overabundance of revivals may drive more innovative work out of the West End.
Martland concedes that musical theatre isn't enjoying the same sort of creative heyday it had in the 1980s, when new musicals such as Cats and Les Miserables were launched. She says that the proliferation of revival shows attached to TV competitions is "part of a wider general trend" towards safe musical theatre, which guarantees high box office returns. In addition to revivals such as The Wizard of Oz, you'll find the West End dominated by musicals with a pre-existing fan base: either "jukebox" shows which weave a story around a band or artist's back catalogue (Thriller Live, Jersey Boys, We Will Rock You) or TV and film adaptations (Sister Act, Legally Blonde, Hairspray).
In Martland's words, this lack of genuinely new work is "not the fault of these talent shows, but it's exaggerated by them. Whether if they didn't exist a new show would be getting promoted it's hard to tell". Then there's the question of the BBC essentially providing free advertising for the musicals associates with its programmes. Back in 2008, the Old Vic's artistic director Kevin Spacey blasted the corporation, saying that its exposure of certain big-budget musicals was "unfair" and "crossed a line", adding, "effectively this type of programme is just an X-Factor in the theatre. It makes no cultural contribution at all." A BBC spokesman replied that the programmes were not unduly promotional and pointed out that the corporation did not benefit from the musicals' success.
Over on Over the Rainbow's Dorothy Farm, where Graham Norton is overseeing a fierce battle for the lead role in The Wizard of Oz, competition is fierce and emotions are running high. Nine thousand contestants have been whittled down to 54, then to 20, and then to 11, with some very talented youngsters in the running. Lloyd Webber, Church and the rest of the panel are gearing up to make some tough decisions.
"She doesn't have to be conventionally beautiful," Lloyd Webber says of Dorothy. "The main thing she has to do is break your heart." He's not worried about the criticisms: "The fact is, these programmes have turned a whole generation on to musical theatre. "And it's not just musical theatre that has benefited. The West End overall has had its best ever season three years in a row since we started doing these programmes. I'm on the ground floor, and I've seen it happen. It's a whole new ball game now - and I couldn't be happier about it."