Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Big Interview: Brenda Edwards, starring as Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray

Brenda Edwards is currently starring as Motormouth Maybelle in the new UK tour of Hairspray.

Also starring Tony Maudsley, Freya Sutton, Claire Sweeney and Peter Duncan, the show opens at the Leicester Curve tonight (9th September) before visiting 25 venues across the UK including a Christmas residency at the Birmingham Alexandra Theatre.

Brenda famously finished fourth on the second series of The X Factor. She went on to make her West End debut as Mama Morton in Chicago, later reprising her performance for the 10th anniversary gala.

Brenda is well known for playing Killer Queen for five years in Ben Elton and Queen’s musical We Will Rock You. She first played the character in We Will Rock You’s first UK tour in 2009. The following year she transferred to the West End production at the Dominion Theatre where she played Killer Queen until the show closed in 2014.

Her theatre credits also include playing Pearl Pastor in Carmen Jones at the Royal Festival Hall and Diane Steed in The Human Comedy at the Young Vic. Ben Elton also cast Brenda as Mrs Johnson in his BBC1 sitcom The Wright Way, marking her TV acting debut.

I recently spoke to Brenda about why playing Motormouth is a new challenge, how she feels about taking on one of the musical’s biggest songs and whether she would want to step back into Killer Queen’s shoes if We Will Rock You were to return…

Motormouth is such an incredible role! Have you always had your eye on it?
Yes, I actually had my eye on it when it was in the West End. I went to the final audition and was told I was too young! As soon as it first went in to the West End I wanted to play that part. I had my audition with David Grindrod (West End casting director), but I think it was good because it would have been my first role out of Chicago. I was kind of new to the West End scene so there was a lot of learning that I needed to do – but I think I’m ready for it now. Being a mother myself, I can totally relate to the character. I have two very strong minded independent children!

‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ is the emotional peak of the show, it always gives me goosebumps. How do you feel about taking on such an almighty song?
I’m not going to lie, I’m nervous about it… but I think nerves are a good thing. I love singing power ballads and a lot of people know that I have a big voice. When I got the part I just listened and listened to it and tried to make it my own while staying true to the original, there are a lot of people who have played the role before. It’s not a song that you want to mess with too much, it’s more just about getting the story across and delivering the story of the song to the audience. That’s what I’m going to try my best to do. At the same time I can’t wait to do ‘Big, Blonde And Beautiful’, it’s a fun song! 

Brenda as Motormouth
It’s a nice contrast!
Totally, I have a nice contrast of songs so am very excited. Hopefully you’ll get those chills once you see my performance too [laughs]!

What is the secret to Hairspray’s success? At the same time as tackling some serious issues, it’s incredibly uplifting and joyous!
I think it’s an easy story to understand, it’s about something that everybody knows about. It’s a feel good musical! From start to finish you can’t help but smile and laugh, but there is also a message to get across. I think everybody young and old leaves the show understanding what it was about. There are so many wonderful wigs and costumes – even in the jail cell during the prison scene it’s all upbeat, they even have fun when they’re behind bars [laughs]! Everything is so alive and it’s just a brilliant storyline.

And so many people can relate to it on so many different levels, Tracy is such a beautiful character.
Totally, as soon as people watch the show for the first time they will be talking about it forever, singing all the songs and buying the soundtrack! It’s such an infectious musical.

What was it like meeting all the cast for the first time?
Well I met Claire (Sweeney, Velma Von Tussle), Tony (Maudsley, Edna Turnblad) and Freya (Sutton, Tracy Turnblad) when we all did a photoshoot together. I did the tenth anniversary of Chicago with Claire and I’ve known her through other friends. I had never met Tony before but he’s such a wonderful person! He had quite a few jokes for us straight away, and it’s good to have Freya back in the show because she’s done it before and has got an amazing voice. She’s such a lovely, young, bubbly lady. We’ve got an amazing cast and I am so excited to be sharing the stage with all of them! Doing the finale number ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ with everyone is just amazing.

In 2006 you were cast as Mama Morton in Chicago, marking your first major theatre role. After X Factor did you ever think you might end up going down the theatre route?
What a lot of people don’t know is that I was auditioning for a lot of theatre roles already, but I was never getting seen. X Factor really did help to put me out there and to let people know ‘This is my voice, I’m here’. Admittedly, there aren’t that many roles that would suit a voice like mine because it is such a big voice. I think it worked with Mama Morton and when I did Pearl in Carmen Jones at the Royal Festival Hall… then, of course, it worked with Killer Queen. I’ve played some really major characters – big voices and big personalities – so I think that will lend very well to being Motormouth [laughs].

Brenda in We Will Rock You

We Will Rock You was such a massive show for you. What was it like to play the same role for five years? 
It was amazing, every single day was different! No two shows were the same. The audiences for We Will Rock You were amazing, it was just electrifying. I think it’s going to be the same with Hairspray; everybody seems to be really glad Hairspray is coming back and wants it to come back in to the West End. When you’re doing eight shows a week some people can become complacent, but that’s not me. I treat every performance like it’s my first show. It’s a different audience each night so you’ve got to give them exactly what they are paying their money for! I never want to give a second rate performance or to think, ‘Oh it’s the matinee, I’ll give it a bit less’ – that’s not how it works. I’m hoping my voice is going to hold on in there, but Killer Queen has quite a few hard songs to sing and I managed to do that for five years! I’m looking forward to this next challenge.

You were with We Will Rock You right to the end, what was it like to close the show? It must have been incredibly emotional and absolutely crazy?
It was really sad, nobody was prepared for it. I know we had a long notice period, but nothing can ever prepare you for the feeling of ‘not putting that wig on again’ or ‘not putting my beautiful leopard coat on again’. My costumes were out of this world, they were just fantastic! It was really sad, but the show closed on a high and that’s Rock ‘n’ Roll for you. I wouldn’t be surprised if We Will Rock You came back in to the West End. It didn’t close because it wasn’t selling, they just wanted to finish on a high. You can’t fault them for that. If We Will Rock You comes back hopefully I’ll be asked to play Killer Queen again – I would love to put the Killer Queen costume on again and get back on that table and go out over the audience singing my head off [laughs]. It was amazing!

Brenda in Chicago
Whilst starring in We Will Rock You, you made your TV acting debut in Ben Elton’s sitcom The Wright Way. Did you enjoy making the move from stage to screen?
[laughs] I mean… sitcom-land is totally different to West End-land! It was nice because Ben was very hands on with We Will Rock You and knew that I hadn’t had any acting experience on screen before. He worked really closely with me directing and helping me. It was really hard! When I went in to the West End the first thing I was told was that you’ve got to project your voice, project your performance and hit the back seat… but with a sitcom it’s the total opposite! The small faces is what the camera lense catches. It was really enjoyable and I had so much fun. I’m very grateful for the opportunities that Ben gave me both with We Will Rock You and The Wright Way.

Would you be interested in doing more?
Yes, I think the comedy roles suit me better. I’m not a very dramatic or serious person, but if somebody came to me and said they wanted me to play something more serious I would obviously give it a good shot! I would love to do some more acting and some presenting work. My singing is just as important as my acting. I’ve had some really great experiences and had some really great times and am looking forward to more with Hairspray… then we’ll see what happens when the tour finishes in May!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Hairspray runs at the Leicester Curve between 9th and 19th September 2015 and tours the UK until 14th May 2016. Please visit for further information, tour dates and tickets.

Photo Credit 2:  Hugo Glendinning

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