As hot as American Idol may be, it is not necessarily the best singing competition on television this spring. That distinction may go to a two-year-old British import titled Any Dream Will Do over on BBC America.
Dream is actually a follow-up to the hit 2006 British search-for-a-star singing competition "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" in which young women competed for the lead role in a West End production of The Sound of Music. This time around, young men are competing for the title role in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. If this format sounds familiar in a bad way, you may be having a flashback to Grease: You're the One That I Want, the abysmal 2007 NBC reality effort inspired by Maria in which men and women competed for the lead roles of Danny and Sandy in a Broadway production of Grease.
I haven't seen Maria, but I did watch most of Grease, so my only prior knowledge of this malleable British franchise -- the brainchild of legendary composer and theatrical producer Andrew Lloyd Webber -- was not particularly positive. But two Sundays ago I was blown away by the outsize talent on display during the first competition episode of Dream. (As with Idol, the Dream competition episodes are preceded by audition shows and semi-final mass-elimination rounds.) Perhaps the Top 12 finalists were all in uncommon top form on the night that show was taped, but most of the guys were easily as talented as current Idol front-runner sensation Adam Lambert, and some of them were even better.
The full season of Any Dream Will Do was originally telecast in 2007, so it may seem like old business. But as they say over at NBC, if you haven't seen it, it's new to you! The winner went on to star in a West End revival of Joseph from July 2007 thru January 2009. He can be easily identified through a simple Google search, so if knowing the outcome is an issue for you, don't surf the Net for anything related to this program. Me, I don't think it detracts one whit from the enjoyment of watching so talented a group of young people go for the opportunity of their lifetimes.
Is it fair to designate Adam Lambert as the barometer against whom one measures the talents of the contestants in Dream? I think so, because this guy has stimulated the Idol audience to a degree we haven't seen since the exciting ascension of Carrie Underwood in Season 4. As good as several of his competitors may be -- especially Danny Gokey, Kris Allen and Alison Iraheta -- Lambert towers above them. There hasn't been so much chatter about an Idol contestant since Sanjaya Malakar, but in his case everyone was talking about his hair. Adam has everyone talking about his talent, and given his uncommon versatility, we're all increasingly eager to see what he will do next. No less a dream-crusher than Simon Cowell actually sprang to his feet last week when Lambert finished performing. Has that ever happened before?
Cowell over the years has been known dismiss certain contestants for sounding too much like Broadway singers, which is certainly better than being told they sound like karaoke croakers or cruise ship performers (two of Cowell's favorite put-downs) but is far below being designated as a possible pop or rock star, a level of success that has sadly eluded most Idol champions. So I wonder what he would make of the Dream finalists (known as the Josephs), all of whom could do well on Broadway and most of whom could likely make a name for themselves in the pop, rock or country arenas.
It isn't just the super-talented contestants that make Dream more fun than Idol. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the premier voice of authority and top judge on the show, gives Dream a dramatic weight greater than that of Idol's four judges combined. The four engaging experts who critique each performance -- actor and singer John Barrowman, theatrical producer Bill Kenwright, actress Denise Van Outen and vocal coach Zoe Tyler -- have more interesting insights to offer than Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Kara DioGuardi and Simon Cowell and seem to take their jobs more seriously than their Idol counterparts. And host Graham Norton, one of the most effortlessly engaging television personalities in the world, keeps everything moving at a brisk clip without any of those uncomfortable attempts at forced humor that continue to compromise Idol main man Ryan Seacrest.
Another reason Dream works so well is that the young singers are uniformly respectful of the grown-up judges. Everything the professionals say matters. Cowell has often commented on the differences between the young people who appear on talent shows in England and those who snarl and growl their way through various American productions. The contestants on Dream are ecstatic when they succeed and crushed when they don't. Their honest displays of emotion add much more to the entertainment value of the program than the snarky responses of some Idol contestants. Then again, maybe Lloyd Webber, Barrowman and their colleagues command more respect than Cowell and Co. It may be that the producers of American Idol can learn a few things by watching Any Dream Will Do, but I think anyone hoping to compete on future seasons of Idol can gain valuable insights from Dream, too.