ABI Finley was in tears after winning through last night to the next round of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?
The Prestwich student’s performance was criticised by the judges after she had sung Nobody Does It Better in the first live BBC1 show, having shone in rehearsals.
But Abi, 23, now one of nine girls hoping to land the role of Maria von Trapp in a new London Palladium production of The Sound of Music, had an explanation. She couldn’t hear the music.
“Vocally, you were so tight tonight,” said vocal coach Zoe Tyler. “Nobody does it better? Unfortunately, they do. You had some bum notes, which I was really shocked to hear, quite frankly. You’ve got to do better.”
Abi responded: “It gives me something to work towards next week, doesn’t it?”
Co-producer David Ian, who like Andrew Lloyd Webber, has put £2m into the West End musical, said: “For Abi to be in the abbey – we can’t have bum notes in the abbey.”
Lloyd Webber, finally given a chance to show his real personality on primetime TV, is looking for a thoroughly modern Maria for the production, which opens in November.
“Well, certainly Abi ticks the box of being modern, and it would be a wonderful way of looking at it.,” he commented.
He then told her: “Abi, of course, you’ve got this wonderful character, you look like a tomboy. I fear it’s true – but I think it was nerves tonight – that you were a bit off key. I think you really can pull something out of the bag.”
Abi had followed Aoife Mullholland, 28, from Galway – her friend from the Central School of Speech and Drama – on to the stage. Both are pictured (right) with host Graham Norton.
And it was left to John Barrowman, a real star of the judging panel, to give them some good news. His verdict? “Yes, they both are definitely leading lady material.”
Graham revealed in the results show that Abi had been “flawless” in rehearsals. She also had a large, and very loud, group of supporters in the studio audience, some wearing “Abi Abi Abi” T-shirts, displaying her photo.
Did she feel she had let them down? “I did,” Abi confessed. “I did go and have a little bit of a cry afterwards. But the support has been so utterly fantastic, that, to be honest, I couldn’t hear the music – but I would not have changed that support for the world.”
Asked if she accepted the judge’s criticism, she replied: “Hey, no-one argues with the landlord.”
More emotion followed as Abi won through to next week’s second live show after the public vote. In the usual strung-out-in-no-particular-order way of these TV moments, she was the fourth last Maria to learn she had been “saved”. Within seconds, tears of relief were flowing down Abi’s face.
The two girls who received the fewest number of votes – Laura and Helena – then had to sing again for Lloyd Webber. He could save only one, and chose Helena, who had actually come last in the public poll, meaning it was so long, farewell, to Thames Valley police intelligence officer Laura Sicurello, 26, (below) – the first Maria to exit.
Several things struck me about last night’s show, including the fact that Graham Norton was back to his sharpest form. He knows this series is a hit – and has the potential to do some damage in the ratings. Next week’s edition starts at 6.50pm in a direct clash with the first in a new season of The X Factor.
I spoke to Abi before last night’s performances and was impressed with her down-to-earth attitude and engaging sense of humour.
“The Sound of Music was the musical that I grew up on,” she told me. “At the age of three I watched the video religiously every single day. And then we’d to go to Heaton Park and I’d run over the hills, spinning round. If there were ever any steps about, I’d always be on them doing Do-Re-Mi. It took me hours to walk up any staircase – going back and forth.”
Coming to the end of her MA course in acting and musical theatre, Abi and some of her friends auditioned for Maria in Manchester. “We decided to make a whole weekend of it. We checked into a nice hotel, so that if we didn’t get through, it didn’t matter. But somehow they put us through.
“Ever since I can remember, the dream was to be in musical theatre and get to the West End. I joined the local amateur dramatic societies and was doing charity concerts around Manchester. It’s always been what I want to do.”
As reported in a previous blog, mum Deborah, a local amateur dramatics stalwart, is one of her inspirations. “The house was always full of music because of my mum. If anyone’s suitable for the role of Maria, it’s her. There’s no-one more Julie Andrews than my mum. She just missed the age limit.”
Abi’s previous winning performance was on a slightly smaller scale to her live TV debut in front of millions. “I went to a Sing-A-Long A Sound of Music with my mum at The Lowry about a year ago.
“I won a DVD for my costume. I went as one of the puppets in the lonely goat herd – ‘one little girl in a pale pink coat heard’ – and my mum was working me with the sticks as I walked along the stage.”
Viewers last night saw how the potential Marias have already been taken to the London Palladium by Lloyd Webber and stepped out on stage. Can Abi picture herself back there on opening night? “I think so. I’m going to rely on Andrew to let me know.
“I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. And if by some wonderful stroke of good fortune, I get this part that I’ve identified with and grown up with all my life, it would just be a dream come true.”
Click here for the official BBC Maria site.