Sound Of Music star Connie Fisher finally makes her Sheffield début next week with the revival of a Bernstein gem. David Dunn talks to her
A LITTLE like all those X Factor graduates, Connie Fisher has had to deal with the double-edged sword that is reality show fame.
The singer and actress who won the BBC’s How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? has, of course, since proved her worth in the West End.
But the Welsh performer admits she’s had to work at not becoming the next Julie Andrews after her success in The Sound Of Music, a long-run into which she was ultimately voted by viewers of the Saturday night talent contest.
“That opened so many doors, but for a while it was hard to escape the stereotype of Julie Andrews,” admits Connie.
“For three years, every night, I played the same part. I could have played her for years and years but I needed to break that mould. So this part for me is very different.
“Julie Andrews actually said to me ‘go and do something completely different, go and show them what you can do otherwise you’ll only ever play the parts I played’. So to get to play something different is a thrill.”
And the national reviews that preceded the three-month tour of Wonderful Town supported her judgement.
Leonard Bernstein penned his ‘forgotten musical’ before global phenomenon Westside Story. It tells the story of aspiring writer Ruth Sherwood, arriving in 1930s New York City with her beautiful younger sister Eileen.
Bursting with dreams of riches and romance, they meet an array of characters who expose them to the full colour of the Big Apple.
Wonderful Town first premièred in NYC in 1953 where it won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. More awards met its 2003 revival, but the musical comedy hadn’t been performed in the West End since 1986, until Royal Exchange Theatre artistic director Braham Murray helped put it back out there.
Connie says she sang plenty of Bernstein while training but hadn’t heard of Wonderful Town, which boasts bold and lively, if largely unfamiliar, songs.
“It’s a dusty musical we’ve pulled off the shelf like it’s a new show, really.
“It makes it feel like we’re bringing something to life. It was due a revival, a resuscitation.
“The great thing is it was written two years before West Side Story and if you love that you’re going to love WT.
“Nobody dies, I’m not chased by Nazis. It’s a family show, funny for all. And it’s great to play a character part rather than a generic juvenile lead who gets the man. I have to really work for my man in this show.”
Among the cast of 40 actors and dancers is double Olivier Award-nominee Michael Xavier (Love Story, The Phantom Of The Opera) and Lucy Van Gasse (Love Never Dies), all backed by a 17-piece orchestra musically directed by the Halle’s Mark Elder.
Connie, meanwhile, has to get her talents around an Ohio accent. “I’ve always loved an accent and I love using it in a character, particularly in musical comedy. It always makes it funnier.
“The accent helps to differentiate that we are from out of town, outsiders.
“We take that artistic license to make it a little bit broader sometimes just to differentiate to the English ear that we are different from those in Manhattan.
“There are so many accents in our show, there’s lots to tune into so it’s really important to make your character stand out that way.
“You’ve got to be aware of going into generic American, use those vowel sounds the right way. We have a vocal coach on the show and we’re lucky to have a prestigious creative team.”
Wonderful Town is at the Lyceum from Tuesday until Saturday. Tickets £22.50-£39.50 from box office or via 0114 2496000 and sheffieldtheatres.co.uk
Former Maria now has to live like a nun
IT’S been an eventful few years for Connie Fisher since coming to the attention of the nation.
Already building a healthy career with her luscious dulcets and bubbly outlook, it was Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s prime-time TV vehicle in 2006 that took her career to the next level.
She later appeared in They’re Playing Our Song and has released two albums but her career nearly crumbled when the singer had to undergo an operation on her vocal chords for a condition she’s unlikely to ever be truly rid of.
She admits it was touch and go for a while as to whether she’d sing again.
“I think it always will be. It’s never going to be what it was,” she says ahead of Wonderful Town opening on Tuesday. “I thought I would never sing again so to be singing again in any capacity is a thrill. I’ve been doing eight shows a week for many weeks and this role has to be a real transition for me – it had to take me into a different box.
“But I have to live like a nun, which is a bit ironic. I don’t drink in the week. I steam a lot, I look after myself. And if you love your craft, love going on stage, why wouldn’t you do that?
“I love this part. It’s got a lot more numbers than I imagined. It’s vocally demanding and it’s brassy. In fact, it’s much more demanding than Maria. When I took this role I didn’t realise how demanding it was. I never go back to my dressing room in the show, except in the interval.”
Originally based on an autobiographical story by a writer called Ruth Turney, pivotal to Wonderful Town is sister Eileen who always gets the man.
Connie says she can draw comparisons and contrasts between her character and her own romantic life.
“I’ve always hung around girls who always get the man, always win them over with their looks. I’ve always been the funny one who has to win them over with my wit,” recalls the 28-year-old who met her now husband on a railway platform at Cardiff.
“We spoke for seven minutes, I got on the train, he didn’t, and then he worked out who I was through somebody who happened to be the conductor of Welsh National Opera who happened to be working with Bryn Terfel who I’d sung with at a festival a year before.
“I never thought I’d see this man again so it was unbelievable. One of my favourite films has always been Sliding Doors but I never thought it would be a reality. Everyone finds their partner in different ways.”