She was the first person to tread the boards in England as Maria in The Sound of Music and has now passed her skills on to the next generation of actresses. Jean Bayless talks to CATHY SPENCER
Julie Andrews, Jean Bayless and Connie Fisher – to see them together would bring a tear to the eye of any dedicated The Sound of Music fan.
While Julie Andrews and Connie Fisher are well known for playing the part of Maria – it was actually Jean Bayless who brought the part to the UK.
The 80-year-old actress has dazzled audiences on stage and screen, from treading the boards with Audrey Hepburn to starring in Crossroads.
But the role she will be most remembered for is when she was the first actress in Britain to play Maria in The Sound of Music.
The show had been playing in New York since 1959 winning seven Tonys, but it was virtually unknown in the UK.
When Jean was 25-years-old she was sent along to an audition for the part by her agent.
“The songs from The Sound of Music had never been heard in England so my agent got me a copy of it from the States,” says Jean, who lives in Edgbaston, Birmingham.
“I learned the songs and sang at The Palace theatre for the director Jerry Whyte and Gerry Phillips, the stage manager.
“We had three auditions, not like they have on television, and I got it.”
Jean, who had starred with Audrey Hepburn in the show Sauce Tartare, says a few days later she saw a telegram from Jerry Whyte to Gerry Phillips saying “keep Bayless hot!”
“And they did keep did keep me hot – the best burger I ever had was with Richard Rogers, of Rogers and Hammerstein, after he told me I had got the part of Maria,” she says.
“I thought he was going to take me to a fancy restaurant to celebrate but we went to a burger stand in New York. However, I will never forget how good it tasted.”
Jean says when she got the part, Julie Andrews was playing in Camelot in New York.
Jean, who was born in Hackney but was evacuated as a child to Blackpool where she started having singing lessons, decided to go and see Julie after her show.
“Richard Burton came into her dressing room and she told him ‘Jean’s got the part of Maria in The Sound of Music’ and he said ‘Jean’s so pretty she could get anything’.”
Jean still has lots of memories of the famous faces she met along the way, from Elvis to Danny Kaye.
“When I was playing The Boyfriend in New York I met a lot of people,” she says. “I was going to stay in a hotel but Julie Andrews said ‘you can’t be there all by yourself and so I slept on her settee for three months.
“At the time she had a daxon dog and I loved it and so really looked after it. 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.
“It was lovely spending that time with Julie, she is a lovely, sophisticated lady who is very dedicated to her work. Those three months I stayed with her were magical.”
Recently Jean met up with one of the country’s most recent Marias – Claudia Gilmour from South Staffs Musical Theatre Company.
Claudia will beo n stage at The Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton from October 9 to 13 and she was thrilled to get Jean’s advice on playing the role.
“The main piece of advice I can give about playing Maria is to focus on her relationship with the children,” said Jean to Claudia when they met at The Grand Theatre recently.
“When you are singing Do-Re-Mi focus on each child when you are singing their part – it can be hard because you are thinking about your own words, but it will be worth it.
“One main advantage you have is that the audience know the story line and all the songs – when I did the show people knew very little about it.”
Jean says that on her opening night at the Palace Theatre Richard Rodgers was by her side as she waited in the wings.
“He held my hand and said: ‘Good luck and don’t worry. I haven’t had a good review since Oklahoma’ and on I went with a dry mouth,” she says.
“The critics were not too kind because they thought it was too sweet, but it ran for six years and everyone loved it.”
Jean says she was close to the famous contralto Constance Shacklock, who played Mother Abbess.
“She was wonderful and every night before she sang Climb Every Mountain I would put my head on her shoulder and she would whisper ‘Dear God help me’ in my ear, as the song was a difficult one,” she says.
“When I left the show it was hard – we were so close we couldn’t even say goodbye.
“I still meet up with members of the cast. Barbara Brown, who played Liesel came to visit me recently and we sang ‘You are 16 going on 17’ together – she married Nicholas Bennett, who played opposite her as Rolf.”
Before taking on the role of Maria, Jean had trained at the Italia Conti Stage School, been in pantos at the Palladium and in 1954 she appeared with Norman Wisdom in a Christmas show.
She was even the only female chef to work at the Crossroads motel when she played Cynthia Cunningham from 1971 to 1974.
“I would love my four grand-daughters to see Crossroads – if one of the stations could pick it up I think it would be a joy to watch,” she says.
“People rushed home to watch Crossroads because they adored it.”
It was in Birmingham in panto, that she met her husband David Johnson, who was a blind date.
They went on to have two children – Adam, and Daniel who owns Roberts Jewellers in Corporation Street and Temple Row, Birmingham.
Jean says that just like Julie Andrews and Connie Fisher she had to have surgery on her throat.
“I met up with Julie Andrews and Connie Fisher at the recent Julie Andrews’ Gift of Music concert at the O2 Arena,” she says.
“I will always treasure the photo of the three of us together.
“Everyone asks what we were laughing at. When the photo was being taken Julie said ‘We don’t say cheese – we say moneeeey’.
“It made us all laugh – it was great being together.
“If I could go back, and just do one show for one night it would always be The Sound of Music.”