Friday, 5 September 2014

Big Interview: Kerry Ellis

Kerry Ellis is currently starring as Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. 

A member of the original London company, Kerry became the first British actress to play Elphaba when she took over from Idina Menzel. 

The show later took her to Broadway, making her the first and only British actress to have played Elphaba on Broadway and in the West End. Kerry originally left Wicked in May 2009 but, five years later, has returned as Elphaba for a limited run until Saturday 25th October 2014.

Known for her ridiculously busy schedule, Kerry recently recorded her third album. The self-titled album was inspired by the success of her one-woman solo concert which was staged at the London Palladium last year. 

It features new arrangements of songs Kerry has sung throughout her career as well as personal numbers and a few surprises. The performer – who gave birth to her first child, Alfie, ten months ago – is also currently preparing to tour the UK with a new, slightly scaled down version of her one-woman concert show.

Kerry famously understudied Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (National/Drury Lane) which was when she was spotted by Queen’s Brian May who invited her to audition for We Will Rock You. After creating the role of Meat in the show at the Dominion Theatre, Kerry and Brian have gone on to record albums and tour the world together. 

Kerry’s many theatre credits also include: Nancy in Oliver (Drury Lane), Fantine in Les Miserables (Queen’s), Ellen in Miss Saigon (UK Tour), Beth in War of the Worlds (World Arena Tour), Svetlana Sergievsky in Chess opposite Idina Menzel (Royal Albert Hall), West End Men (Vaudeville), Tell Me on a Sunday (RCCL) and Mimi in RENT (Concert Tour).

I recently caught up with Kerry to discuss her crazy life, funding her new album with fans through PledgeMusic, what people can expect from her tour and why she is loving every moment of being back in Wicked…

At the moment you are playing the biggest female role in musical theatre whilst preparing for your solo tour and the release of your next album. Plus – on top of all that – you’re also busy being a mum! Do you ever have a chance to breathe?
No I don’t! I really don’t [laughs], but it’s great. It really has all come at once and I’m very fortunate. It’s great that everything is doing so well and that lots of people want me to do things at the moment!

Over the years have you kept memorabilia or any cool bits and pieces from the shows you’ve been in?
Yes I’ve got tons. I can’t even remember what I have now, it’s been so long! I have two massive boxes under the stairs and they are full of memorabilia and stuff from shows. One day I’m going to go through it all and I’m sure I’ll be very surprised! 

Kerry Ellis and Brian May at the London Palladium

Your new album and tour have all come as a result of your huge show at the Palladium last year. What are your memories of that evening? You had so many people coming together – it was a huge event!
It was a little bit crazy – it was exactly what you just said, it really felt like everybody came together. I knew the musicians because they were all my friends and I had other friends coming to guest for me. I obviously put the four original British Elphabas together – and they’re all my friends too. It felt great and I think that really came across. I think the audience were aware that it felt like a family event.

You raised money for your new album via a PledgeMusic campaign, allowing fans to pledge money in return for various rewards. You absolutely smashed your target! What attracted you to the whole idea in the first place?
To be honest I think it’s a great idea! I’ve obviously done a few albums before and have sung on other people’s albums which have all been through record producers. This seemed like a really nice way to be in control and to give something to the fans that they want and can be involved in. It almost feels like I’ve got a couple of hundred record producers [laughs]! It feels really nice and it definitely felt like the right thing to do because the album was inspired by the fans who were asking me, “Did you record the concert at the Palladium?” I didn’t because I was pregnant at the time and it was all a bit mad for me. I’m really happy with how it has come together!

Kerry in Wicked
You never do predictable covers; instead you perform completely different arrangements and make everything your own. Do you enjoy working with Craig Adams and Brian May and putting your own spin on these songs?
Craig is wonderful; the arrangements on this album are predominantly done by Craig. He’s a phenomenal writer and we work very well together. I think if you’re going to cover a song, you need a reason to do it. There’s no point in just doing something exactly the same as it’s written, you need to change it up a little bit and create your own version to make it interesting. 

As if you haven’t already got enough huge, iconic songs on your album, you’ve also recorded your own version of Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’!
[laughs] Ahh I know! It was actually because that is what people were asking for. Because this album is very much ‘the people’s’ album I asked everybody on Twitter ‘What do you want to hear on the album?’ and the response was mad! I knew people would mainly ask for songs from the Palladium, but lots of people were asking for ‘Let It Go’! I know it’s been a huge success and I didn’t want to do a straightforward cover of it – I wanted to put my own spin on it… and that’s what we did! 

Have you got any surprises up your sleeve for the tour? What can people expect?
It’s going to be very relaxed and interactive; I’m going to be telling stories and singing songs. There will also be a few duets along the way and a few local choirs. I think it will be a good fun night out! There will be something for everyone because I’m doing all different styles of music, mainly from shows I’ve been in or songs which have been synonymous with my career. There will be a few surprises in there and stuff I haven’t done before!

Ok… so we obviously have to discuss Wicked! After five years away what was it like to run out on stage for the first time on your first night?
[laughs] I was just thinking ‘Don’t mess up, don’t fall over’! There was a lot to think about really but the response about coming back into the show was lovely. It was kind of like coming home and I felt very welcomed. It wasn’t the best circumstances to come into because of Willemijn (Verkaik). It was a shame that she had gone out through injury because I think she’s brilliant! I don’t think it will be the last that she does of the show, I think she will return at some point. But it was wonderful! I never thought I would go back to a show, but if I was going to go back to a show it probably would have been Wicked, so it’s nice to just be here for a little fleeting moment.

Savannah Stevenson and Kerry as Glinda and Elphaba

At what point during the day do you start preparing?
Well… my day used to be all about preparing for the show… but now I have a ten month old son it tends to be all about Alfie during the day [laughs]. I get into the theatre at about 6 o’clock and then I start my warm up, getting green and seeing the company and all that kind of stuff! I just feel very fortunate to be doing it! To have a young son and to be able to do what I love as well is great. I haven’t had to make that decision of whether to be a stay-at-home mum or going back to work because I get to do a bit of both.

You’re living a double life!
[laughs] It is a bit like that!

I saw the show recently and you really seemed to relish every moment! Are you taking it all in?
Yes, I absolutely love it! It is a fantastic show! The stage time for Elphaba is phenomenal, probably one of the most out of all the female roles out there. I know I keep saying that I’m very fortunate, but I really am! I do enjoy it – it’s as straightforward as that. It’s an easy show to enjoy because you have some great songs, great scenes and some brilliant co-stars! Who doesn’t like being clapped at the end of their day?! 

Kerry in Wicked
What goes through your mind before you defy gravity?
I’m thinking about the song and about the character, I know it’s quite a pinnacle moment but for me you’ve just been through such a big journey and at that point she goes through a huge transformation. I try not to engage too much in the expectation of the moment because otherwise you freak yourself out and I would probably fall over or do something silly. There is also loads to think about – where to put the bag, where you put the cape and where you put the broom as well as getting into the levitator the right way! A lot of things could go wrong so you have to be on your guard! 

When Wicked first began people really embraced it because there was nothing else like it. What was it like discovering the material and singing the songs for the first time?
The first time I sang the songs was in my audition! It came here quite soon after Broadway so the first time I got the CD and started learning the songs was when I was called for the audition – it was quite a quick process. At the time I didn’t really have time to consider whether I was right for the part or not [laughs]! It just happened!

Imagine you had to go to a desert island and could only take three musical theatre songs with you. Which three would you take and why?
Oh god! Musical theatre songs… ok. I would probably take ‘No One But You’ (from We Will Rock You) because I love it and it’s very linked to me, it’ a personal song. I would then take… ummm… I don’t know! This is hard! I need to take something fun and upbeat! Maybe ‘Greased Lightning’ (from Grease) – something camp and funny! Finally I would take ‘Hushabye Mountain’ from Chitty for when I wanted to relax and be emotional.

Is it true that you’ve re-caught the bug and are looking to do some more theatre?
Absolutely, I would love to do some more theatre. It’s been a while but coming back into Wicked has made me realise how much I miss it. I’ve really enjoyed being back in a company and just being in a show. Hopefully another role will come up and will be right and available!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

You can pre-order Kerry Ellis' new album now. It is released on Sunday 14th September 2014. The star tours the UK between Saturday 27th September and Sunday 26th October 2014. Please visit for further information.

Kerry Ellis stars in Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre until Saturday 25th October 2014. Please visit for further information.

Photo Credit 2: Francyne Carr
Photo Credit 3-5: Matt Crockett

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