The Sound of Music comes to Birmingham Hippodrome on 13 July starring Connie Fisher, winner of the BBC show to choose a Maria for the latest revival. She is the latest in a long line of Marias and Roger Clarke has been talking to Jean Bayless, who now lives in Edgbaston, Birmingham, who was the very first Maria in Britain when the show originally opened at the Palace theatre in the West End in 1961 on 18 May - 49 years ago . . .


How did they solve a problem like Maria?

THE THREE MARIAS: Jean Bayless, (left) Julie Andrews and Connie Fisher at the recent Julie Andrews' Gift of Music concert at the O2 Arena. Picture courtesy of Adrian Jackson, Executive and Artistic Director, Lichfield Garrick

IF Andrew Lloyd Weber thought he had problems finding his Maria for his revival of The Sound of Music in the West End it was nothing compared to the difficulties faced by the London producers when the show first reached these shores almost half a century ago.

It was 1961, long before the internet, the World Wide Web, email and even a year before the first grainy experimental transatlantic television broadcast using Telstar – it lasted 18 minutes, all that could be managed in each 150 minute orbit.

Even the first transatlantic air service had only started three years ago with BOAC and the de Havilland Comet, the world's first jet airliner.

Rogers and Hammerstein's last musical had opened on Broadway in November 1959 with a 46 year-old Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as Captain Von Trapp. It had won sevenTonys with the original cast album selling 3 million copies but with limited communications Broadway and even the USA were a world away.

The Sound of Music was virtually unknown when Williamson Music, a division of The Rogers & Hammerstein Organisation, announced auditions for a new musical in the West End.

One of those sent to attend by her agent was the 25 year old Jean Bayless.

Pictured right Jean as Maria in the first British production of The Sound of Music in 1961

 Not that she was an unknown; she had appeared in the West End while still at the Italia Conti Stage School, been in pantos at the Palladium and had taken over from a certain Julie Andrews in the Boy Friend on Broadway.

She said: “I only knew about The Sound of Music through my agent because we were all sent for an audition to the Palace Theatre. The Sound of Music music had never been heard in England so he got me a copy of The Sound of Music from the States which I learned and sang at The Palace for Jerry (Jerome) Whyte (director) and Gerry Phillips, the stage manager.

“We had about three auditions, not like the television things, it was just musical comedy people, and I got it and had a telegram from Jerry Whyte to Gerry Phillips saying “keep Bayless hot!” and they did keep me hot and flew me to New York where I auditioned for Richard Rogers.”

It was Rodgers who would have the final say – Hammerstein had died of cancer shortly after the Broadway opening. Hammerstein's final song, incidentally, had been Edelweiss which had been added shortly before the show opened during rehearsals in New York.

“I was rehearsing singing, and I was extremely nervous and when I started to sing Richard Rodgers said 'Jean, you have got the part of Maria so just sing'. From that moment I just sang on the stage and I did it and he took me for lunch.”

 “We went for a hamburger and I had a lovely lunch with Richard Rodgers having got the part of Maria and that was that.” 

“Jerry White directed it here, although Joe Layton (musical numbers) really directed it but Jerry took all the kudos. He was the sort of go-between.

“When I got the part Julie Andrews was playing in Camelot in New York so I went up to see her because I had replaced her a few years before in The Boy Friend in New York so I knew her well and had lived with her. I saw her in Camelot and then went backstage to see her and told her. Richard Burton came in her dressing room and she told him 'Jean's got the part of Maria in The Sound of Music' and he said 'Jean could pretty much get anything'. So I met Richard Burton which was nice.

“I lived with Julie for three months while I was rehearsing for The Boy Friend. She was finishing and about to go into My Fair Lady and I lived with her and Millie Martin (Millicent Martin who was also in The Boy Friend) and another lovely girl who has since died sadly. 

Pictured right, Jean as Polly with John Hewer in the Broadway production of The Boy Friend after taking over form Julie Andrews 

“I was at the Piccadilly Hotel in New York and they said: 'You are not going to live there on your own' and moved me in with them and I slept on the settee in their apartment. I did The Boy Friend for three months in New York then took it on tour around the USA for two years.” 

When The Sound of Music opened in London it was just a new Rodgers & Hammerstein musical for an audience who knew little about it. There was none of the hype, YouTube, TV appearances, CDs or publicity machines that swing into action to herald a new production today.

Jean said: “On my opening night at the Palace Richard Rodgers held my hand at the side of the stage and he said: 'Good luck and don't worry. I haven't had a good review since Oklahoma' and on I went with a dry mouth and started to sing on the rock.

“The critics were not too kind but it ran for six years and everyone loved it. I was in just over two years. I did eight shows a week. We didn't have mics, we had foot mics, but not as they have now. We did matinees and evening shows and you just got on with it. And we didn't get paid what they get now, now it is a different wonderful world.”  

With the problem of Maria solved, Maria now had a problem of her own - a four year old son, Daniel. With a husband, David, a busy director of a London Carpet firm, a Scottish nanny became as essential to the success of The Sound of Music as its star.

Pictured right, Jean helps cut the birthday cake at the firt anniversary of The Sound of Music at The Palace Theatre with a smiling Richard Rodgers in the background 

She said: “She was the most amazing, wonderful nanny. I was going to have Daniel and was appearing in pantomime with Bob Monkhouse in Manchester so advertised in The Lady for a nanny, she answered the advert and was with us for about 10 years.

“She was amazing. I lived in Knightsbridge when I was in The Sound of Music and used to catch the number 19 bus outside the Palace back to our little mews cottage. She made it very easy for me.”

In New York, incidentally, she was Jo Ann Bayless, a name change brought about to avoid a name clash with a popular American comedian and comic actor of the time called Gene Bayliss.

It was a different spelling but it sounds the same so to avoid confusion Jean became Jo Ann which could perhaps explain why her impressive Broadway credentials had not created waves as big as might have been expected back in her native Britain.

She almost returned to the West End soon after The Sound of Music in the World and Music of Ivor Novello with John Hanson but Bernard Delfont lost his nerve believing Hanson was merely a touring provincial performer and would not go down well in London - and she did have some later television success as Mrs Cunningham in Crossroads.

Pictured left, Jean with John Hanson in The World of Ivor Novello

What she describes as the tragedy of her life though is a throat operation some 17 years ago. “I miss my singing voice. I could have done follies and many more shows. I should have had a second opinion. Like Julie Andrews, like Mille Martin we had these bloody throat operations. You should not have your throat tampered with.

“I had a minor operation, thank god there was nothing wrong, I think a nodule or something, but my singing voice was never the same afterwards. My middle register had gone. There was none of that ease anymore and my confidence had gone. I didn't have my lovely, talented voice any more. I can sing a bit and that but is not the same. To say I sort of retired . . . I didn't have that voice anymore.”

Jean, who lives in Edgbaston, still has a mass of memories with famous names dropped into conversation like remembering old classmates though a life of shows and cabaret. Some of the memories breathed again last weekend when she met up once again with Julie Andrews at her former flatmate's Gift of Music concert at the O2 Arena.

The pair hugged long and warmly and Jean said: “We talked about the old times and about our throats and operations and losing our voices. She was lovely. I used to wake up in the morning and I always had to know where my voice was so I used to do a little exercise. I did it when we lived together and I did it again backstage and she remembered. She used to say she could never sing for the first couple of hours.

“I have more voice left than she has and battling with a voice when you have had a throat operation is very hard and I was with her every step of the way.”

Also at the concert was Connie Fisher, the current Maria, who solved Andrew Lloyd Weber's problem, and who will be starring in the show when it comes to Birmingham Hippodrome in July.

So for one night only, as they say,  the movie Maria, the first British Maria and the latest answer to the problem came face to face to span more than half a century of The Sound of Music. 

Pictured right, Jean, front left. early in her career with Audrey Hepburn, front right and Marcel Le Bon in the revue Sauce Tartare at the Cambridge Theatre in 1949.   

If you want to know just how popular the musical still is today then Google The Sound of Music and you will be engulfed by 76,200,000 results.

The Sound of Music runs from 13 July to 21 August at Birmingham Hippodrome.

Roger Clarke

The 1961 original prorame - half a crown a song

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