Thursday, 5 February 2015

Big Interview: Kerry Ellis, starring as Grizabella in Cats at the London Palladium

Kerry Ellis stars as Grizabella in Cats at the London Palladium from next Monday (9th February), taking over from Nicole Scherzinger.

Based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical returned to the West End last year for a limited run. Due to an overwhelming response, the show recently extended to 25th April 2015.

Following the success of her solo show at the London Palladium in May 2013, last year Kerry released her self-titled studio album which was followed by a concert tour of the UK. She also returned to the West End production of Wicked to reprise her acclaimed portrayal of Elphaba.

As well as being the first British actress to play Elphaba in the West End and Broadway productions of Wicked, Kerry’s theatre credits include: creating the role of Meat in We Will Rock You (Dominion) and playing 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) and Mimi in RENT (Concert Tour), as well as West End Men (Vaudeville) and Tell Me on a Sunday (RCCL). She also famously understudied Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (National/Drury Lane). 

Kerry, who is known as the first lady of the West End, also works extensively with Queen’s Brian May. They have recorded albums together and toured internationally. Kerry makes regular concert appearances around the UK, recently receiving a London Cabaret Award nomination for her live solo show at the Pheasantry. 

Yesterday I caught up with Kerry to discuss rehearsals for Cats, being reunited with Trevor Nunn and the expectation surrounding her rendition of ‘Memory’. We also discussed why she’s excited about painting her face a colour other than green, the role composer Craig Adams is writing for her and how it felt to leave Wicked a second time last year…

Had you seen Cats many times before you attended the show’s press night at the Palladum?
I remember seeing it a few times actually, I remember going with my school just before I left and then I remember going up to see it while I was at college – it was the show at theatre college that everyone wanted to do. I had perhaps seen it three times before going to press night at the Palladium, I think that’s the most I’ve ever seen a show!

So had it ever crossed your mind that Grizabella might be a role you were suited to?
Yes, I mean it’s obviously a role I would have loved to play; it’s definitely up there because she’s one of those iconic characters and to get to sing that song is fantastic. Back then I didn’t think I would get to do it because at the time it was around in London I obviously wasn’t old enough, right enough or experienced enough to do it. So for the show to now come back and for it to actually be the right time in my career to play a role like this is very exciting!

You’re currently in your final week of rehearsals, how is it going? Has it been nice to meet the cast and start working on the Palladium stage?
Oh it has been brilliant! The set is fantastic and fun because there are lots of giant tyres and cars and rubbish – so that’s fun to play on. The company are wonderful! Some of them have been doing it for a little while now because they were in the UK Tour and then they brought it into London. They’ve been so warm to me, welcoming me into the company. It has been lovely! I’m so excited to start on Monday!

Kerry Ellis as Grizabella in Cats / Photo Credit: Alessandro Pinna

You worked with Trevor Nunn several years ago on a workshop, has he popped into rehearsals yet to see you?
Yes, he actually popped in on Tuesday for the first time which was lovely. I have been really fortunate to work with Trevor a few times over the years. He has always been a really great supporter, especially with my concert work and things like that – he comes along and supports. He has always been wonderful! So to have the chance to actually work with him on something that is so close to him is great; I got to hear all the original direction from him, I felt really honoured. 

It has been almost two years since you performed your solo show at the Palladium; how does it feel to be back? People often say working at the Palladium is the pinnacle of a career!
Absolutely! That night was really special for me, to do a solo show at the Palladium was just incredible and something I never thought I would do so early on in my career. I have also done a few other concerts and shows at the Palladium – I did the Royal Variety – but I’ve never had a residency here. This feels really nice and quite special. Like you say, it is one of those special buildings, there is something magical about it.

Cats is such a unique show – it is utterly bonkers and completely different to anything else, but people absolutely love it! Can you put your finger on its success?
I mean I think the success of it this time coming back has surprised everybody. I don’t think the producers were expecting the response that they have had. It has been incredible; it is pretty much completely sold out! The excitement from audiences has been fantastic. Cats is nearly thirty years old and has its own style, so for it to still be relevant and exciting is amazing. The music is beautiful! It has everything; fantastic costumes and characters. The orchestrations are beautiful, in fact they sound very current and new and fresh – I certainly don’t remember them being like that. Hearing them again this time is so inspiring. I think if we all knew what made a good musical we would all be millionaires [laughs]. I think Cats is fun but it also has dramatic moments as well and it takes you on a journey. It is something different! You don’t go and see people pretending to be cats and singing and dancing around a stage every day [laughs]. It was very different and it still is very different today. 

Photo Credit: Alessandro Pinna
I think it’s universal – there is something for everyone!
Definitely, people can relate to it and they know what they’re going to get. Also they are aware of the music – obviously ‘Memory’ is a worldwide song…

…and how does it feel to be taking on such a massive worldwide song? Are you feeling the pressure?
[laughs] Obviously there is great pressure because of the expectation and people know the song very well. They know how they like to hear it sung. I’ve sung it in concerts over the years but I’ve never had the information that I’ve been given now from Trevor, the team and company. I didn’t know the story behind it; in the past I sang it as a standard song whereas this time I’m coming from a different angle because I’m playing a character and it has a story. It will be really different for me which I’m so excited about. It will be great to get into it. We’ve been in rehearsals and I have been doing it and I’m sure I will be a bit nervous to sing it on Monday, and every night because it comes at the very end of the show. I have to wait a long time and people are waiting for that number. There is a lot of pressure, but I think that’s part of what we do. We’re used to being put under pressure! Wicked was a similar kind of pressure, so I’m looking forward to it! I’m more excited than scared.

You’ve taken over quite a few of these iconic roles in the past – Nancy, Ellen, Fantine etc. Taking over a role is a really hard thing to do because there are expectations and creative teams might have specific ideas for the character and so on. How do you approach a role when you take it over from somebody else?
I think with any show you always treat it like it is a new role; you’re doing it for the first time and you have to discover it for yourself so it can be truthful, honest and believable. I always go in from that angle. I mean… sometimes people have seen the show before, but generally for most people in the audience they are seeing the show for the first time so hopefully you can bring something new and you will be the person they remember. 

What was it like to watch Cats on press night?
It was brilliant! I just felt really honoured to be there and be a part of the whole evening. Nicole (Scherzinger) was wonderful; she is magical and has such presence. I think it was a great idea to get her to open the show! She’s fabulous; I haven’t actually met her yet! I’ve been in rehearsals so I’m sure I’ll stick my head in and say “hello” later this week. Everybody loves her and really enjoys her in the company. The opening night was so much fun, there were lots of people who had been in the show over the years – Bonnie Langford and a lot of the Strallen sisters. It’s nice to feel part of something that feels quite nostalgic. 

Quite a few of your friends have played the role – both your fellow West End Women, Ria Jones and Joanna Ampil, are former Grizabellas as well as your Wicked co-star, Dianne Pilkington! Have they given you any advice?
[laughs] They all have! They actually all called me straight away and said “you’re going to love it, its’ a great show to be part of and a great experience!” 

And you get to go through another epic character transformation! I love the new Grizabella look…
I like to say that Grizabella is sassy now [laughs]! I’ve just had my make-up day which was very exciting because I’m not just painting my face green, I get to paint it a different colour [laughs]! I love it when you go into a show and you get a great transformation, it’s really fun and it becomes part of the process of getting into character. 

Kerry as Elphaba in Wicked / Photo Credit: Matt Crockett

Do you get to do your own make-up?
Erm, there are designers working on the show so I think initially they come in and help you and make you up so you know how to do it. Then depending on how confident you feel… [laughs] I’ve been in musicals for years and I quite enjoy that process. It’s a good time to prepare yourself mentally for the show.

Before going into rehearsals for Cats you completed a three night, sold out residency at the Pheasantry. What was it like to return to that intimate space after doing so many big concerts over the past year?
I loved it! I have been back to the Pheasantry a few times, the reason being because I love it. I always get a great response there. It is unusual because it is so intimate, I think it makes you grow and you learn things as an artist in a small space like that which you don’t learn from being in a big production. I really enjoy the informality, getting to speak to the crowd and being able to hear them respond! I’ve learned so much from doing those gigs and it gives you an opportunity to try things, be brave and talk to the audience. Especially over the last four years I’ve learned a lot about that side of performance.

You work extensively with composer Craig Adams who does all your arrangements and accompanies you. The pair of you have such strong chemistry, how did the partnership come about?
We’ve known each other a long, long time – going back to when I was in Les Mis. We’ve just got lots of mutual friends, mostly from my college days. I can’t even remember what the first thing we did together was – I think it was the Shaw. We had the same circle of friends, we met and I said something about having a gig and he said he does arrangements and plays piano and that was it! We got together and it is a partnership that has really developed over the years, as has our style and way of working. It’s so enjoyable, easy and relaxed now. We have a lot of fun working together. 

And you’ve been hinting that he might be writing a role for you in a new show…
Yes! It was workshopped last year and he is going to workshop it again in the summer at one of the colleges I think. Hopefully it will work out – I know these things take a lot of time and energy, but hopefully when it actually does get put on I will still be right for it [laughs].

Looking ahead, you always seem to have plenty of projects up your sleeve. Have you got things bubbling away for later in the year?
Yes absolutely, I think Brian (May) and I are going to go back in the studio in the summer which is really exciting. We’ve both been off doing our own thing so I think we’ll have lots of experiences to bring back into the studio which will be fun! I’m doing a couple of concerts up in Scotland with Mr Adam Garcia which will be lovely. Then there will be a couple of new projects towards the end of the year that we will be workshopping throughout the year and then… who knows? My life can always change in a phone call; I never really know what is going to happen.

Finally, you’ve said many times that leaving Wicked in 2009 was a very special experience; so how did it feel to leave a second time last October?
My last night the first time was amazing, and it was also part of the reason I almost didn’t want to go back to the show because I had such a special memory. The show took me to Broadway and then my final night was magical – it was like being in a rock concert at the O2! It was bonkers! So I was a bit apprehensive about returning because I didn’t want to tarnish that memory. However, going back was just fantastic – I really enjoyed doing the show. I loved that I could rediscover it, still do it and find new things in the role… and then to have a response like I did on my final night was just…. overwhelming really. It’s almost like it’s another world. I was very grateful! It’s bonkers – obviously it was such an amazing night. I’ve got some amazing supporters who come with me to whatever I do and I feel very fortunate and so grateful that they keep supporting me! That’s also why it’s nice to do things like the Pheasantry because you can give back a bit to all of those people!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Kerry Ellis stars as Grizabella in Cats at the London Palladium from Monday 9th February 2015. The production is booking until 25th April 2015. Please visit for info and tickets.

Read our previews interviews with Kerry from May 2013 and September 2014

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