Cowell, ITV in 'Grease' search

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Pop impresario Simon Cowell is turning his attention to the West End stage and promising "the biggest casting call the U.K. has ever seen" as part of a new ITV series that will find two unknowns to play Sandy and Danny in a new theater production of "Grease."

Produced by the ITV/Talkback Thames team behind "X Factor," the primetime musical theater extravaganza announced Wednesday will form the backbone of ITV's summer schedule and is part of an emerging British format trend that sees would-be stars audition for major stage roles.

The deal with Cowell's Syco TV production shingle and Talkback Thames was brokered by Ron Taft on behalf of James Jacobs and Warren Casey, who own the rights to the U.S. stage show.

NBC has a similar show, "Grease: You're the One that I Want," featuring casting call auditions for leads in a new Broadway production of the musical, that is set to premiere Jan. 7.

ITV hopes to emulate the success of the surprise BBC hit "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" in which Andrew Lloyd Webber went in search of a star to play the lead in a new version of "The Sound of Music." Connie Fisher was the winner on the show, and she is wowing audiences and critics at London's Palladium.

The commercial broadcaster already has poached Lloyd Webber's "Maria" co-star, theater producer David Ian, to be a judge on the panel as well as the producer of the West End version of "Grease."

The BBC, meanwhile, has said it is following up on the success of "Maria" with a new search format, this time to find cast members for Lloyd Webber's production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

"We've been thinking about making this program for years," said Cowell, adding that he thinks "Grease" was "the best musical of all time."

Duncan Gray, controller of entertainment at ITV, added that "Grease" and ITV are "a perfect fit."

"Grease" will be a co-production between Syco TV and Talkback Thames for ITV, with Cowell, Syco TV's Nigel Hall, Siobhan Greene and Georgie Hurford-Jones and Talkback executives Richard Holloway and Claire Horton serving as executive producers.

The news follows ITV's announcement this week that it has Cowell's exclusive U.K. deal with the star through the end of 2009.
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