Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Big Interview: Emma Hatton, starring as Elphaba in Wicked

Emma Hatton is currently defying gravity eight times a week as Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre.

Emma originally joined the West End production of Wicked in 2013 as the standby for Elphaba before taking over the role full time in February this year. Whilst playing the role she represented Wicked at the 2015 Oliviers, accepting the audience award and performing ‘The Wizard and I’ as part of the ceremony which was broadcast on ITV. 

Outside of Wicked, Emma recently recorded her debut EP and is currently preparing to perform a solo concert, both of which are entitled ‘Merry Christmas, Darling’. The show takes place on Sunday 13th December at Kettner’s Soho on Romilly Street whilst the EP will be available to download soon.

Before joining Wicked, Emma understudied both Scaramouche and Meat in We Will Rock You (Dominion) and created the role of Donna in Dreamboats & Petticoats (Savoy/Playhouse/UK tour). Her extensive theatre credits also include: A Comedy of Eric's (New Vic, Stoke), When Midnight Strikes (Finborough) and Christmas in New York (Apollo Theatre). She has performed regularly at Ronnie Scott’s and the Savoy Hotel. Emma recently recorded a version of 'Mad About the Boy' at Abbey Road which features on the London Gay Big Band’s album ‘Brave’. 

Emma has been nominated for more West End Frame Awards than any other performer. Earlier this year she finished as a runner-up in our Best Performance of a Song Award, having been nominated for Understudy of the Year in 2014 and 2013 for Wicked and We Will Rock You respectively.

I recently spoke to Emma about starting out in music, her passion for Jazz and Blues and what people can expect from Merry Christmas, Darling. We also discussed her whirlwind journey with Wicked, the huge responsibility and physical demands which come with playing a role like Elphaba and what goes through her mind before she defies gravity each night...

Merry Christmas, Darling marks your first solo concert since taking over as Elphaba and your first ever EP! How did the idea for the project come about? 
I’ve always liked the idea of releasing an EP, I think it’s quite a fun project to work on. My background is in Jazz and Blues music – I know that previously a lot of Elphabas have, very wisely, utilised the platform and released EPs as well as albums featuring stuff which is slightly more musical theatre based. I thought Merry Christmas, Darling would be a nice little exercise outside of Wicked to keep me singing the kind of music I’ve always sung to keep my voice in shape in that area. I didn’t want to do a full album or a really expensive project, I just want to introduce people who are fans of me through Wicked to the other side of what I do. I also love Christmas so this is really a project about passion!

And you have Anthony Strong featuring on the EP and appearing as a guest at the concert!
I have admired Anthony Strong hugely for a long time and I now class him as a friend. I’m so lucky that he lent his talents and I’m so thrilled with the result. I’m so excited for everyone to hear it!

Kettner’s looks like such a beautiful venue! What do you think people can expect from the show?
It is! I think it’s going to be a very cosy, intimate and relaxed show. I was speaking to my musical director about the kind of ‘vibe’ we want to create, and we decided that we want it to feel really laid back. I want people to imagine they are sat by the fire and have just put a vinyl on. As much as I love to chat, I’m not going to be giving the whole ‘let’s all join in and sing and make jokes’. I want it to be a very classy and laid back show, almost like a busk… but I promise to learn my songs [laughs]. 

That was how I started out singing – I would get together with people who played piano, bass and drums and it would be a very relaxed affair. I would go to open mic nights, rock up onstage and say, “Do you know this one? Can you play it in the key of G?” and then if I missed a verse or chorus they would just loop round and I’d start again. 

We’ll be halfway through December so people will hopefully be fully in the Christmas spirit! Kettner’s is a beautiful, beautiful venue. It’s in collaboration with Pizza Express Jazz which is obviously a very prestigious Jazz venue in London. It’s lovely to be able to be working with them! I’m hoping to evoke those memories which make Christmas so special for people, and perhaps sing some songs which might remind people of parents, grandparents and cosy Christmas memories. 

You’ve done extensive concert work in the past; how are you feeling about taking to the stage as yourself once again with no green makeup to hide behind? The two worlds couldn’t be more different!
The longer I’m in musical theatre, the more terrifying it is to step out of character and be myself on stage which is ironic because at eighteen years old I used to drag my mum and dad to rugby clubs and working men’s clubs [laughs] with my sound system, which I paid for myself, and just got up and sang as myself. I think at eighteen I was completely fearless and the older I get the more terrifying it is! I absolutely adore musical theatre and am hugely grateful for the opportunities I have been lucky enough to have. I have to remind myself that this is my passion and that I started off wanting to sing for a living. It’s the only thing I really know how to do! Singing is such an expressive thing – when you can find no words to express how you feel, you find it in music. 

Although I work in musical theatre, I pride myself on the fact that I started as a singer. I think that is what makes me unique to the musical theatre world – it’s really important to me to always keep stretching all those muscles in the genres of music I started off performing. It’s so important to always keep holding onto your passion. 

Back in February 2013 we did an interview whilst you were in We Will Rock You and you said, “One day I would like to play Elphaba in Wicked, but I’m not quite ready yet”. Fast forward to today and it’s safe to say a lot has happened since then!
[cackles] I know!

You stood by for three incredible Elphabas, were asked to take over full time and then represented Wicked when they won the Olivier. It’s crazy! Have you been able to take in and process everything that has happened over the past couple of years? 
Do you know what? I remember when I was an understudy in We Will Rock You and watching Sarah French performing as Scaramouche for We Will Rock You’s tenth anniversary and I remember seeing Rachel Wooding and Oliver Tompsett going to sing on Terry Wogan’s Radio 2 show. Then when I came into Wicked as the standby I remember proudly watching Willemijn’s performance at the Oliviers on TV. I remember thinking to myself ‘gosh that must be incredible, I hope one day I’m able to be in that position’.

If I’m perfectly honest with you this job is such a whirlwind and is so consuming – wonderfully so. It’s a life changing experience! I hit the ground running; I joined as standby and was very fortunate to be on a lot. I was covering some wonderful women who I’ve learnt a lot from and, to answer your question, now that I’ve taken over I haven’t had a chance to process it [laughs]. Playing Elphaba demands so much from you, both physically and mentally.

I have been so, so fortunate to have experienced so much whilst playing Elphaba. I came into the role at such an incredible time – it was just leading up to the Oliviers so we were doing a lot of press and a lot of publicity and appearances. 

"As I move forward and rise in 'Defying Gravity', I can literally feel the electricity in the auditorium."

What was it like to accept the Olivier?
Everyone asked me, “How did you stay so calm?!” I think I was just in a bit of a daze, I wasn’t able to fully process that I was now experiencing those things I had watched Sarah and Rachel and Willemijn experience for so long. If I overthought it I probably would have freaked myself out [laughs]! I just had to get up there and accept that award… like I just had to get up on that roof and sing that song when I did This Morning. I’m very determined and very driven and, when I need to be, I am incredibly focused. At the Oliviers I knew my career depended on hitting those notes and nailing that performance. I was performing to people like Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton and Lenny Henry and was being screened on TV… so if I cracked and was awful I would have struggled to let that one down! 

It’s a big responsibility and the role is so huge, people put it on a pedestal and rightly so. I think that kind of responsibility can either break you or make you… and I hope it is making me – I really do! I’m learning so much.

As we all know act one ends with a hugely iconic moment. What goes through your mind during those ten seconds just before you defy gravity?
It really varies. It depends on vocally how I feel, physically how I feel, how tired I am – all those things. During my time as standby it only happened once when I went on during act one, but I really noticed a difference in terms of adrenaline. To go into that so quickly was so much harder than having all the build up from all of the story. I know I’ve spoken a lot about being a singer, but I am an actress as well. You go through this incredible journey as Elphaba and when you reach that point in ‘Defying Gravity’ you are genuinely angry! You’re angry at The Wizard and Morrible and angry about the entire situation.

There are always those nights when I’m utterly petrified. I can guarantee that every single person who has played this role – whether it be in this country, in Mexico, in Japan or anywhere as the lead, standby or understudy – will tell you that sometimes you think ‘I don’t know what’s going to come out… I hope I’ve got this tonight!’ I always give the best I can do, but you’ve got to have different shows you can deliver. Sometimes you have to go to a Plan B because you’ve got to think about your stamina – it’s an eight show week which is tough so you have to think about your vocal safety. 

There are nights when I get up in the air and feel like an utter rock star – I feel like I’m in a good place vocally and think ‘I’m going to go for it tonight! I’m going to try *this* or let rip on *that* note’. Then there are nights when you think, ‘I’ve going to act *that* bit because vocally I know I’m not on my A game so have to think really technically about what I’m going to do’. 

In answer to your question, you feel the adrenaline of the moment – you feel that rush and that thrill. It’s such a privilege to sing that song! It’s so iconic! As I move forward and rise in 'Defying Gravity', I can literally feel the electricity in the auditorium. I can feel the hairs on the back of people’s necks going up. That’s not about me, it’s the whole spectacle – the rousing music, the lighting, the story, the makeup and the fact that there’s a green person flying [laughs]. Some people come and see the show and have no idea what to expect – they don’t know Elphaba is going to fly! It’s incredible! 

Every single time I sat in that auditorium to watch the show when I was the standby, I would be on the edge of my seat. I hope that answers your question [laughs]!

[laughs] I think that’s the best answer to any question I’ve ever asked anyone! That’s a lot to think about in ten seconds!
I know [laughs]! 

Wicked really moves audiences and speaks to certain people so deeply. What has it been like to have so much support from fans of the show? I’m sure they’ll all support Merry Christmas, Darling and everything else you do outside the show too.
Ahhh I hope so! The support I have had whilst playing this role is overwhelming. The loyalty is incredible! It takes some getting used to. You have to find the balance between appreciating the support whilst maintaining an element of privacy. It’s tough, particularly with social media. It’s amazing being able to drum up support and being able to give people an insight into who you are. People are so dedicated and have been following my other projects which I will never take for granted. 

I’m working so hard behind the scenes at the moment because I know at some point my time with Wicked will come to an end and it’s so easy to fall off the radar. I don’t want to waste this incredible platform I’ve been so lucky to have. I want to work hard and make sure the people who have supported me know they are my priority.

I also feel very proud that I’ve had a lot of people tell me they’ve started listening to music that they never would have listened to before – Jazz and Blues! They’ve been asking for recommendations which is a big thing for me – I’ve been able to introduce people to the music that I love and shown where my influences have come from. It’s so lovely that people are willing to support me in something which is so different to what I do in Wicked. I don’t take it for granted and want to work so hard to make sure the quality of what I do outside the show warrants that support. I’m incredibly grateful! 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Merry Christmas, Darling takes place on Sunday 13th December at 7.30pm at Kettner’s Soho on Romilly Street. Click here to book tickets (seated tickets cost £25 and must be booked alongside a minimum two course meal from the A La Carte menu of Kettner’s for £25. Standing tickets without a meal are also available for £17.50).

Wicked is currently booking at the Apollo Victoria Theatre until Saturday 5th November 2016.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Check out our interviews with other Elphabas including Jennifer DiNoiaWillemijn Verkaik, Kerry Ellis, Rachel TuckerLouise DearmanJulia MurneyEden Espinosa, Shoshana Bean and Ashleigh Gray

Photo Credit 2-3: Darren Bell
Photo Credit: 4-7: Matt Crockett

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