Jean Bayless: First actor to play The Sound of Music’s Maria in West End

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Anthony Hayward
·5 min read
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<p>Bayless arrives at a theatre in London for a rehearsal in 1958</p> (Getty)

Bayless arrives at a theatre in London for a rehearsal in 1958

(Getty)

Jean Bayless, who has died of bone cancer aged 88, soared to stardom as Maria in the original West End production of The Sound of Music, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s show described by one critic at the time as “tuneful treacle”.

But another insisted that the “sugar icing should only worry those with digestion troubles”, adding: “Jean Bayless, a lovely convent postulant, sings her way into the hearts of the seven motherless children of Baron Georg von Trapp (Roger Dann).

“She eventually leaves the convent for good – to become the Baroness.”

When the show opened at the Palace Theatre, London, in 1961, Bayless was following in the footsteps of Mary Martin, who had starred in the original Broadway production in New York two years earlier.

Bayless even learnt to play the guitar for the musical, which was set in pre-Second World War Austria, complete with snow-capped mountains and whistleable songs such as “Do-Re-Mi”, “Edelweiss”, and the title composition (“The hills are alive…”).

She landed the role after three auditions and was flown to the US to meet Rodgers, who took her out for a meal.

“I actually anticipated a rather splashy lunch at somewhere like the Waldorf Astoria, but Mr Rodgers took me for a hamburger at a little joint just round the corner from the theatre,” she told Geoff Bowden, editor of the British Music Hall Society magazine Call Boy. “However, so elated was I that I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed a hamburger more!”

In 1965, Julie Andrews took the role of Maria Rainer for the film version.

Earlier in her theatrical career, Bayless had enjoyed Broadway success when she took over from Andrews as Polly, the female lead, for the last two months of Sandy Wilson’s musical The Boy Friend at the Royale Theatre, in 1955.

Because there was already an American choreographer named Gene Bayliss and a comedian called Gene Baylos, she performed in it as Jo Ann Bayless. During this time, she also shared a flat with Andrews and her co-stars, Millicent Martin and Dilys Laye.

When she continued in the show for a two-year American tour, she marvelled at meeting Mae West, Tyrone Power, Danny Kaye and Elvis Presley.

A rare television part for Bayless, between 1972 and 1974, was as Cynthia Cunningham in the motel soap opera Crossroads.

The glamorous, well-spoken chef was estranged from her husband and flirted with a host of men, including Timothy Hunter (played by Derek Farr), nephew of motel boss David (Ronald Allen), and “toyboy” Dave Cartwright (former bodybuilder John Hamill).

The role united Bayless with Noele Gordon, a friend from her musical days. They had appeared together in a Humpty Dumpty pantomime at the London Palladium (1951-52), when Gordon – who had a secret, 20-year affair with theatrical impresario Val Parnell – had trusted Bayless to help her prepare for nights out.

“I remember doing her hair,” recalled Bayless. “She’d be going out to dinner, very glamorous, after the show. I used to put it up in a ponytail for her and off she would go to have a lovely dinner with you-know-who!”

Jean Anne Bayless was born in London in 1932 to Florence (nee McNeill), a cleaner, and Henry Bayless, who worked in a cigarette factory.

After being evacuated to Blackpool to live with her grandmother during the Second World War, she sang in a choir and took singing lessons.

Back in London after the war, she attended school in Tottenham, leaving at the age of 14 to take a job at a local Co-op.

At that time, she also sang at her father’s working men’s club, where the pianist spotted her talent and arranged an audition at the Italia Conti stage academy, which offered her a scholarship.

Like fellow students Anthony Newley, Millicent Martin and Nanette Newman, Bayless was given the chance to appear in West End shows.

She starred as Rosamund in the school’s annual Christmas production of Where the Rainbow Ends, Clifford Mills and John Ramsey’s fantasy play featuring children on a magic carpet, at London’s Cambridge Theatre in 1948. She also sang in the children’s chorus of Covent Garden operas.

A big opportunity came on BBC radio when, in 1949, billed as “Little Jean Bayless”, she sang “I Was Never Kissed Before”, from the musical Bless the Bride, in the first episode of the talent show Opportunity Knocks.

Within months, she was appearing in the London stage revue Sauce Tartare (1949), then its sequel, Sauce Piquante (1950), both at the Cambridge Theatre.

The first was broadcast on BBC television, and well down the cast-list with Bayless in both was Audrey Hepburn, just before she became a Broadway and Hollywood star.

Between summer seasons and pantomimes, Bayless was back in the West End, at the Prince of Wales Theatre, for the revue Fancy Free (1951), starring Tommy Trinder, and The Norman Wisdom Show (1954).

But Bayless’s career stalled briefly after her big chance on Broadway in The Boy Friend. She returned to Britain and, still credited as Jo Ann, starred in Harmony Close, a musical that flopped at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1957.

More successful was Highland Fling, a popular TV sitcom in which she appeared that year.

Bayless bounced back on stage, reverting to her real name, with an appearance in the popular Edinburgh revue Five Past Eight when it moved to the city’s Lyceum Theatre in 1959, before fame came with her two-year run in The Sound of Music, which proved to be her career peak.

Later, following a throat operation, she branched out into non-musicals, on tour as the title character’s mother, Andree, in Gigi (1983) and Mrs Bradman in Blithe Spirit (1984), and at the Garrick Theatre as Eleanor Hunter in the latter days of the West End farce No Sex, Please, We’re British.

In 1957, Bayless married David Johnson, owner of a jewellery shop, who died in 2008. She is survived by their two sons, Daniel and Adam.

Jean Bayless, actor, born 29 June 1932, died 5 February 2021

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