As a little girl Helena Blackman loved to sing songs from hit musicals like The King and I and The Sound of Music.
Then when she grew up, it was one of those Rodgers and Hammerstein productions that turned her into a TV talent show star.
A tour in another show by the composing and writing duo – South Pacific – followed. And now Helena is celebrating her love for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work with an album of their songs.
For the runner-up of TV’s How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? – the show that searched for a star of The Sound of Music – it seemed like an obvious recording to make.
‘Rodgers and Hammerstein have always been part of my life. I’ve been singing the songs since I was little,’ she explains.
‘And then with the TV show and South Pacific, everything’s pointed in that direction. No-one really seems to be recording music like that any more, but they’re the most famous musical theatre songs ever. It seems silly not to still be doing them.’
But Helena’s The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein offers a refreshing take on the much-loved songs, and also includes some lesser-known tunes.
‘We sat in a room with a massive book and selected the best. We went through a hell of a lot of them. But it was actually a relatively easy process,’ she says. ‘I wanted it to be an album for everyone, so we picked songs people knew but gave them a fresh vibe.’
The album includes hits that most people will have heard, including Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music and Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific.
But it also features tunes that might be new to many listeners’ ears. Even the more familiar songs, including Helena’s favourite I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, have a fresh slant.
‘Melody is always relevant, it never goes out of fashion. It’s the way of arranging a song that makes it more modern,’ says Helena, from Locks Heath.
She adds: ‘I love I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair. It’s got this big funky band, like a swing band, and it gets really jazzy.’
Helena came second to Connie Fisher in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2006 search to find a Maria for The Sound of Music. But she says that’s a position that has suited her just fine.
‘It was the best thing for me. I wanted the time out and I was relieved that the process was over. Now I think about how much variety I’ve had in my career and how much has come my way. I wouldn’t have had that so quickly if I’d gone straight into The Sound of Music. I also didn’t want to lose sight of what keeps me ticking outside of the industry. My friends and family are very important. I would have been thrown straight in at the deep end and I’ve avoided that. I’ve got to do it at my own pace.’
Helena’s pace is still pretty quick for most people. Since 2006 she has appeared on three albums and starred in the West End premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Saturday Night.
As a soloist Helena’s favourite moments have been performing with and working for composers Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stiles & Drewe, Kander & Ebb and Charles Miller, as well as singing for the Gershwin and David Heneker families and BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night.
She also headlined the tour of South Pacific for over a year and was nominated for a TMA Theatre Award. Playing to packed houses up and down the country was pretty exhausting but Helena never tired of it.
‘It was so lovely going around the country and visiting all these places that I’d never really seen. I’d never been to Manchester, Liverpool or York. I feel much more rooted in the UK now. And it was a pleasure to appear in all those lovely old theatres.’
And she adds: ‘It can be tiring but you don’t really get bored of the show you’re in. In a three-hour show there’s always something new to find. And I loved the fact that we were taking it around the country. It’s so expensive for people to get to London so it was great to take it to those different audiences.’
But now 28-year-old Helena is back in the capital and enjoying the home she bought a few years ago. Recording has given her a more settled life.
‘It’s a bit more like having a normal job,’ she laughs. ‘I bought my flat three-and-a-half years ago but I’ve only lived in it for the total of about a year. It’s been really nice to explore my local area and decorate my home and live normally for a while.’
But she always welcomes the chance to visit her family home. Helen loves performing locally and getting the opportunity to stay with mum and dad, Jenny and Barrie.
The stage star, who grew up as Helen Rees but changed her name for Equity purposes, performed at Southampton’s Mayflower when she was touring in South Pacific. And more recently she appeared at Southsea’s Kings Theatre in Portsmouth Does Variety – a show in aid of the Rowans Hospice, Cystic Fibrosis Trust and Kings restoration.
She says: ‘I love coming home. I’ve had so much support from the south coast, everyone’s been really good to me. And it was a big concert and for charity. It was a no-brainer for me really.’
And of course she stays with her parents when she’s working in the area.
‘It’s great. I don’t think my mum would like it if I didn’t stay with her. They’ve come to see me in things all over the world too. I think they like the opportunity to travel but they love the shows and meeting all the other performers and musicians.’
Helena is now busy with the release of the album and beyond that, she’s unsure. It’s a natural position for a performer but Helena never gets used to the uncertainty of her profession.
‘Everything always worries me. If I’m in work, I’m worried about it. If I’m not in work, I’m worried. I always wonder if this job is going to be the last one. I don’t think I’ll get out of that mindset, I’m not that ignorant any more.’
But she plans to be back treading the boards before the end of the year and she would also love to do a bit of television and radio presenting.
Meanwhile, she’s promoting the album.
‘I’m really pleased with it. And I’m very humbled by the people who have worked on it.
‘We’ve had the best musicians in the country and everyone, from the sound team and the mixing master to the people who have appeared on it, are among the most talented in the business.’