ABI Finley aims to be one of your favourite things after winning through to the final ten in a TV search for a new West End star.
You may have seen the Prestwich student impress producer Andrew Lloyd Webber on Saturday’s edition of BBC1’s How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?
Now Abi, 23, could be in line to take the starring role in a new production of The Sound of Music, which opens at the London Palladium in November.
Her ambition is “to be the first Jewish nun”. That will be tested when we get to vote for our favourites in a six-part series of live shows, hosted by Graham Norton, starting this coming Saturday. And there’s already been a twist in the tale.
The Sound of Music phenomenon has been discussed in a previous blog. For this latest stage show, there were originally 6,000 girls hoping to climb ev’ry mountain. On Saturday we saw the 54 taken to Maria School in London reduced to 20, who were then invited to Lord Lloyd Webber’s country home at Sydmonton in Berkshire.
Abi – pictured above and below with her new hairstyle – and the other 19 potential Marias performed there in his private theatre in front of a celeb audience, which included Cilla Black, Michael Winner and Sir David Frost.
More importantly, also watching and making their decisions were the judging panel of co-producer David Ian, leading man John Barrowman, vocal coach Zoe Tyler, along with Lloyd Webber himself. Their job was to pick the final 10 girls for the live BBC1 shows and the public vote.
Abi was chosen to go through on stage along with fellow finalist Aoife Mullholland, 28, from Galway. They are already good friends, having been fellow students at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and went to the Manchester auditions together.
Among those to lose out were sweet A-level student Briony Price, 17, and – it appeared – fashion student Siobhan Dillon, 21, from Staffordshire, whose exit looked a little unjust.
Siobhan had been an early favourite but was ill during the final seven days up to Sydmonton and had problems with her voice.
Originally, the judges placed her in their final 10. But then a dispute over two other girls led to the inclusion of both – and the exclusion of Siobhan.
On Saturday night we saw Siobhan and outspoken Emilie Alford, 22, from Slough, stepping forward on stage with just one place left. Emilie had already fallen out with voice coach Zoe and was sure she was going home. She was wrong.
Siobhan took her exit with good grace and didn’t blame the judges. But what viewers have yet to see is how she was later called back to join the final 10 after Emilie pulled out.
A spokeswoman for the show told me that Emilie wanted to concentrate on her operatic career. That’s what she had originally trained to do, and she was worried that work to develop a stage musical voice might jeopardise her first love.
Abi comes from an Orthodox Jewish family and says she is similar to the young Maria von Trapp, played by Julie Andrews in the classic 1965 film.
“We’ve both had bad experiences of short hair, have a love of music, can’t stop singing wherever I am, have tomboyish qualities, rapport with kids and the ability to fall in love with a man with large feet!”
She adds: “I first made people cry singing Edelweiss on my play school stage at the age of three – although that might just have been because they wanted me to shut up.”
One of three sisters, Abi has an MA in acting and musical theatre. She describes herself as a fun, party girl who likes a night out and was always the last to wake at Maria School.
Although she performed in many amateur dramatic shows, this was her first professional audition. Her two biggest inspirations are Barbra Streisand and her mum Deborah, who is a stalwart of the Manchester amateur dramatics circuit. She performed when she was pregnant with Abi and says her daughter would kick to the time of the music.
Abi’s previous claim to fame is that she met Take That at the age of 10 while they were doing a photoshoot in the street – and she blushed when Jason Orange ruffled her hair.
The 10 potential Marias will perform live for the nation this weekend with songs chosen to test whether they can play one of the most prestigious roles in musical theatre.
The two with the lowest number of public votes perform again for Lord Lloyd Webber, who gets the chance to save just one. The last show in the series will feature the final four survivors, this time with no casting vote from the theatrical peer.
Other finalists include former Essex shop assistant Leanne Dobinson, 20, who taught herself how to sing, and Thames Valley Police intelligence officer Laura Sicurello, 26.
It looks like a winning formula for the BBC, who know they will soon be facing a Saturday night ratings battle with the return of The X Factor. And it’s also, of course, shifting a fair few tickets at the Palladium. Lloyd Webber might describe this public search for Maria as one of the biggest risks of his career, but he’s not daft.