Matt Henry is currently giving the performance of a lifetime, originating the role of Lola in the West End production of Kinky Boots.
Kinky Boots opened at the Adelphi Theatre in September 2015 to tremendous acclaim. With book by Harvey Fierstein plus music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, the show – which is directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell – was recently nominated for an impressive seven Olivier Awards.
Matt is nominated for Best Actor in a Musical at this year’s Olivier’s, having recently won the same award at the 2016 WhatsOnStage Awards.
Playing Lola marks Matt’s return to theatre. His previous stage credits include: Avenue Q (Noël Coward/UK tour), The Lion King (Lyceum), Miss Saigon (UK tour), Saturday Night Fever (Apollo Victoria), Hair (UK tour), The Rat Pack Live from Vegas (Adelphi/UK tour), The Harder They Come (Stratford East/UK tour), The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (Royal & Derngate) and The Frontline (Globe).
Matt was a finalist on the second series of BBC1's The Voice, where he was mentored by Will.i.am and Jessie J. His first performance, a rendition of Ray La Montagne's 'Trouble', received over six million hits on YouTube whilst the original version re-entered the singles chart.
As a singer-songwriter, Matt has toured the UK and Germany, performed alongside Jessie J at the Cheltenham Music Festival and supported Mr Hudson at London's 100 Club. Last October Matt released his debut album Red Flare. The album features a diverse range of collaborations including Ben Earle (The Shires), Connor Reeves and Drew McConnell (Babyshambles). Red Flare was recorded live at the studio of Dan Gillespie Sells (The Feeling) and produced by Mr Hudson.
Yesterday I sat down with Matt in his beautiful dressing room at the Adelphi Theatre to discuss how he gets through eight performances a week as Lola, his favourite parts of the show and what it has been like to work alongside Jerry Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper. We also spoke about why he decided to take a break from theatre in 2012, Red Flare and exciting plans for his upcoming album launch party + solo tour…
Since it was announced that you would be playing Lola in Kinky Boots everything has been non-stop! The hype for the first preview was immense, your press night was huge and the show is already winning award after award. Have you had a chance to take everything in or are you living in a crazy Kinky Boots world?
I’m in a crazy Kinky Boots world where I can’t let those things have an effect because I’m such a workaholic. All I know is that I’ve got a job to do and I can’t let external things that are happening to me affect that because it’s such a hard role anyway. I’m just so focused on getting out there and doing eight shows a week.
When did you first realise Lola was a role you really wanted to play? When did the show come onto your radar?
For me it’s been a hell of a long process. I really enjoyed musical theatre before but wanted some time out. When I got the call to come and audition for Kinky Boots I was a little bit hesitant.
Matt performing 'The Sex is in The Heel'
Did you know much about it then?
No. I knew about the film but didn’t know about the musical and didn’t know about the music and how fantastic it is because I didn’t want to. I knew that if I started to listen to the songs low and behold I would be auditioning [laughs]. My agent rang me and said, “I know you’re working on your album and you just want to do music, but Jill Green (West End casting director) has called and asked to see you. Do you want to go in?”
I was like, “Ahhh I don’t know… I’m not sure…”
He said, “Matt I think this is a really good part, you should look it up.”
I knew that if I started looking at it then I would want to do it. He told me to listen to the songs, so I went onto YouTube…
|Matt performing 'Land Of Lola'|
Do you remember what you listened to first?
Erm I think it was ‘The Sex is in The Heel’. I guess it’s an earwig song which sticks with you. When you listen to a song like that for the first time, hours later you’re still humming it without even realising. At that point I still didn’t know what the song was about in relation to the show. I rang my agent back and said, “Ok, I’ll go in… but I’m not promising anything. I’ll just see what happens.”
I hadn’t done a show for three years. I finished Avenue Q in 2012 and then did The Voice. After The Voice I decided I wanted to be creative and make music. Going into the audition was strange – when I walked into the room with the panel of people I realised ‘Oh my god, this is what I used to do!’ [laughs] I sang through the material and read some of the script.
When I learned the material for the audition I started to realise ‘Oh… I can do this... can I do it? I really like this character’. So I went back and watched the film, and that was the moment when I decided ‘right – let’s do this. I’m focussed and committed to this’. With me, the more auditions I do and the more times I get called back then all of a sudden I want it and [jokingly] nobody else is allowed to have it [laughs]. ‘It’s mine!’ I took on board all the notes Jerry and his team were giving me in my auditions…
And then you finally got that phone call offering you the role! What happened?
My agent called me and said, “That was a good last recall, they’ve called to say that there will be an offer.”
I was like, “That’s not an offer?! [mimics] There will be an offer??” [laughs]
But then the offer came through and since then it has just been a rollercoaster. It has been amazing because it’s such an amazing show. It opened in the States first, but now it’s here in the UK – it’s a British show and it has come home. The accents are what they are here and it works – not that it doesn’t work in the States – but for some reason people really connect with it over here.
Why do you think that is? Why do these characters really reach out to people?
I just think it’s because the show has a heart! We all come to the theatre to enjoy ourselves and sometimes we get moved by it as well. I think that’s why people keep coming back, people are like ‘Oh my god I really have a level of affiliation with this’. I also think it’s about community, and the British working class community. I’m from Birmingham, and loads of people come and see this and realise it has the same relationships that you see in Billy Elliot where you have the expectations between the father and the son, or The Full Monty which is also about the community. We have these amazing British films which have been made into amazing musicals, and I think Kinky Boots is one of them.
Matt & the company performing the finale
I’ve seen the show a couple of times and the audiences have been completely different. Do you enjoy gauging the different audiences each night?
Yes! With me every audience is different. I feel it – the second I turn around I can feel people gasping and thinking ‘oh my gosh’ or hear them whooping and then I know they’re with me. I think that’s the magic of Lola, some people will be a bit unsure at first but by the end she wins them over. Other people are completely on her side from the beginning. Every audience is different, but what’s amazing is that I can guarantee that at the end of the show everybody is up on their feet! Everybody has championed Don because he has overcome his prejudices, championed Charlie because he’s achieved this amazing goal of saving the factory, and championed Lola because of her friendship with Charlie and what she has brought to the table. Everybody is always so excited, [beams] I love the finale because I look around and everyone is so happy! I’m like ‘Oh my god we’re all dancing!’ [laughs].
You must come offstage buzzing – is it hard to unwind afterwards?
Oh my god – it is so hard to come down after the show. I get home and try to chill out, drinking my easy sleep teas [laughs] to help me unwind. As soon as I hit the ground running it’s all go, my show doesn’t stop – even in the interval! If you were to follow me backstage you would see me come off after ‘Everybody Say Yeah’, which is a high intensity number, then I run up the stairs, take my clothes off, get into the chair and back into makeup. I’m sweating… and they’re trying to put more makeup on me [laughs]. So I don’t really have an interval! Normally for actors in the interval you can make a cup of tea and chill out, watch the news and read your book. I’m very lucky because my dresser makes me a cup of tea. It just doesn’t stop until the end of the show! It goes really quickly. That’s what is so fantastic about it – it’s hard work, but it’s relentless and once you finish it you can’t believe it’s over because it goes so quickly.
|Matt & The Angels|
What would your advice be to someone about to play Lola? What will get them through an eight show week?
Pace and stamina. You have to trust yourself. I have to train; I go to pilates every Monday morning, I do weights and train on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s all about taking care of you because guys weren’t born and brought up to wear heels. Our whole muscle structure is very different in the way we hold ourselves. I would say to anybody who was going to take over from me to make sure you’re physically looking after yourself and your voice… and drink lots of water! I’m all about drinking water.
What has it been like to work with the always inspiring Jerry Mitchell?
Jerry is amazing. At the start he said to me, “I want you to understand that what you’re about to take on is a huge responsibility, but I chose you because I know that you can do this.”
I was like, ‘Woah! Ok… how big is this?’ It’s only when you start rehearsing and your feet are hurting but you’ve got to stay in the scene that I realised how hard it was. There were so many times where I was stood in my heels doing a scene with Killian and had to keep bending down and carrying on because my legs were killing me. Jerry would say “C’mon, get up!” He had to! He wasn’t a drill sergeant, but he was very supportive and knew what it would take to get me where I am today.
Tell me about Cyndi Lauper…
Cyndi… she is amazing. She’s a legend, but came in and it wasn’t about her music it was about you, and how you presented her music. She was never like, “These are my songs and I want them sung like this.” Instead she said “These are my songs and I want to help you find what works for you.” I have had so many moments with Cyndi where I’ve thought, ‘Oh my gosh if there was a fly on the wall that could see what was happening now…’
Killian & Matt performing 'Everybody Say Yeah'
She would come back here after the show. It would be just me and her and we would be talking, one night she asked if I had done my warm down, which I hadn’t, so she said “Ok let’s do it together!” It was forty minutes of just me and her humming. She showed me all these vocal techniques and what she does. I’ve learnt so much from her – she’s amazing. We’re still in contact and write emails to each other. She introduced me and Killian (Donnelly, who plays Charlie) to her vocal coach who I see every Tuesday. She’s all about you as an artist finding your voice within her songs and telling the story. That is all she wants. I’m different from Billy (Porter, original Lola) and Killian is different to Stark (Sands, original Charlie). We’re totally different people.
It’s so nice to have that freedom!
I think the reason she’s like that is because she’s a musical artist and believes in being creative.
What are your favourite scenes and moments to perform each night?
My favourite moment in the show has to be the scene before ‘Not My Father's Son’. For me, as an actor, it’s the first time I feel there is a shift – an upwards shift. Just because it gets serious we don’t go down, we’re kind of growing. You’ve seen the high energy Lola where she says things like [jokingly in character] “Have a gander at me Charlie, I wouldn’t trust me to babysit a cactus” [laughs]. She’s so witty, one minute she’s making a joke and then it’s serious and there are tears. That scene is a beautiful moment in the show because it’s just two guys in a bathroom talking. It’s the first time there’s no glitz and glamour. It’s so real. For me that’s one of the best scenes in the show. Then the song helps encapsulate that whole moment.
"This role is so special... I’m so grateful and honoured to be playing Lola and to have been given the responsibility."
My favourite song is ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’ – you have your Whitney moment!
[laughs] ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’ is definitely a homage to Whitney. When I was speaking to Gregg Barnes (costume designer) about the costume, he showed me a picture of Whitney actually with ‘the’ sleeve doing the same motion that Lola does in the show. He said that each costume is supposed to be a different diva – the blue is like paying homage to Mary J Blige, the last costume is probably Beyoncé with the red and the hair. I guess ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’ is Whitney.
When I heard ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’ for the first time, the song made me want to do the show. I thought it was just stunning. The more I sing it, the more I start to find even more than I found the day before. It’s such a powerful song. It reminds me of Jennifer Hudson or Holliday singing ‘And I Am Telling You’. It’s that gut-wrenching moment when your heart is just on your sleeve and all you want to do is be loved by your father. I’ve never seen it, and I’m gutted because I would like to sit in the audience and watch myself… which will never happen, of course [laughs]. Everyone who comes to see the show says “Oh my god and the lights sweep up and there’s smoke and this happens and then the lights come through and your dress illuminates… and you’re just living!” I’m like, “Really?!” I don’t get to see any of that!
Matt & Amy Lennox at the WhatsOnStage Awards / Photo Credit: Dan Wooler
Even out of context at the WhatsOnStage Awards your performance of that song literally stopped the show!
[laughs] Do you know what? At the WhatsOnStage Awards I think I was even more emotional. Amy Lennox said to me, “Did you hear the applause?” and I said “no”, I heard nothing!
It was the loudest applause of the night!
I was so lost in that moment. It felt out of context because I’m used to doing it on the same stage. The audience were so much closer at the Prince Of Wales Theatre, it felt so different. Afterwards I said to my dresser, “Did that just happen?” I didn’t hear anything!
Let’s go back to your costumes, they are insane! What was it like putting them on for the first time?
I was hoping that I wasn’t going to look like my mum [laughs]. They did my makeup – I had loads of tutorials…
|Matt performing 'Hold Me In Your Heart'|
Is it all done for you, or do you do it yourself?
It’s done for me. I could do it now after all these months of watching what they do… but I don’t think I want that stress [laughs]. I couldn’t deal with it! I remember putting on the ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’ dress. The dress is amazing, but it’s about ‘the’ sleeve which makes the whole number what it is. I guess putting on my ‘Land Of Lola’ costume made everything seem real. The finale costume is incredible – I would love to see that sparkle from the audience when the lights come on and she’s standing there. I love my ‘The Sex is in the Heel’ costume too, but they’re the highest shoes I wear in the show. Even now I’m nervous. Every time I go out there to do ‘The Sex is in the Heel’ I’m nervous. I think I have confidence, but all of a sudden one day I’ll just feel my knee going.
Has anything actually happened? Have there been any accidents?
No – touch wood! There was a time in previews where I fell down the stairs. The audience didn’t know – they just thought it was part of the joke. It was when I was shouting “Reeeeeed” but I started to fall and grabbed onto the stairs. Killian glared at me and I could hear the cast all gasp. I kicked my feet forward and carried onto the stage. The adrenaline was pumping! There are moments when I have to be very aware of safety, then I can play.
What’s life like backstage for you here at the Adelphi Theatre?
You would probably think it’s very energised, but I don’t see anyone! I come in at 5.30, I’m in the chair at 5.45 getting my makeup done. I do my own vocal and physical warm up. If I finish in time then I get to go downstairs and see the company, but if I don’t sometimes I miss them and don’t see anyone until I get onstage! It’s weird, but it kind of keeps it fresh for me. Unless he comes down to my room to say hello before the show, the first time I see Killian is when I knock him out with the boot [laughs].
The track of Lola is very isolated. There are moments when I can integrate with the cast backstage, but rarely do we get to chat properely. People will pop into the dressing room but I’m usually halfway through a quick costume change, getting a different wig on or having more makeup done. There is no time to chill!
Matt & Killian performing ‘Not My Father's Son’
How are you feeling about the Olivier Awards? Kinky Boots has an incredible seven nominations!
[pauses, then laughs] I’m scared! Do you know what? I never really took that much interest in the Olivier Awards before. I don’t know why. Then all of a sudden I’ve been nominated for an Olivier! It’s amazing – it’s something every actor kind of wants to happen to them. Regardless of if I win or don’t win, you can’t take this nomination away from me now. I’m just so excited that myself and Killian have been recognised. If we weren’t both nominated it would have been horrible because we both work really hard and both push each other to be better and strive for greatness. For us to be hand in hand, walking down the red carpet [laughs] will be amazing. Fingers crossed – I just hope we win something!
We need to discuss your album! How does it feel now that it’s done and it’s out there and people are loving it?
It was a huge process! It took two years for me to decide what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, I just knew I wanted to make an album. It was so wonderful to meet people – like my manager. We then ended up working with writers who I wrote with, like the guys from Babyshambles. It was just kind of like ‘You guys should probably work together and see what you feel’. At that time I hadn’t decided that I wanted to do an album, I just wanted to write a body of work first. I started writing with lots of people, and the ones I liked working with kept coming back and we would write more. In the space of two years I probably wrote about sixty songs. When I say that, some of them were just choruses or verses or little melodies which we never finished.
It was a fantastic experience to be that creative and that fluid. I can say that now after working with Cyndi I realise how amazing that experience was. I worked with Dan Gillespie Sells from The Feeling and Mr Hudson who ended up producing my album. After I had done the writing, I was asked whether I was going to try and get a record deal. I was like, “No, I’m going to get it crowdfunded” [laughs]. I went to meet with the guys from PledgeMusic and ended up doing everything through them. All my fans, followers, friends and family pre-ordered the album. In the space of about four months I got 100%, I think in the end I got 112% of the target. All that money went into making the album, getting the studio and getting my band who I still work with.
Are you working towards something?
I’m doing an album launch on 25th April at the Century Club on Shaftesbury Avenue. Because of Kinky Boots I couldn’t really have an album launch before – I was busy with rehearsals and everything. It was all go go go! After I made the album I did a soft release to everyone who pledged and then with the rest I had leftover I just sold them here front of house. Crazily I’ve sold so many CDs here – it’s unbelievable! My company manager came to me yesterday and said “They’ve sold out again, you need to get more!” I’m in the process of getting some more CDs made. It’s fantastic, and hopefully fingers crossed after the album launch I’m going to go on tour… but that’s all in the mix at the moment. The tour is definitely going to happen – it has definitely been agreed. I’ll be taking a few pre-contracted days out from the show to go on tour.
I’ve heard so many people speak to you like Kinky Boots is your first musical, but you were in lots of shows before taking a break! Has it been strange coming back?
Yes! I’m enjoying it more this time though.
Does it feel different?
Yes, it feels very different. Before I took a break from theatre I was at a point where I just wanted to come back into London. At the time I was taking lots of roles on the road which meant I was away from London. I got into a cycle of auditioning for a show… being offered a role… but it was on the road… and then deciding whether to take it or turn it down. I wanted to be back here and challenging myself.
At the time there weren’t these kinds of roles for me. I speak to Killian about this all the time, he has been so lucky to go from show to show to show, but there have been those shows available for him. At the time back in 2012 when I finished Avenue Q there was nothing here in town that I could come back for. That’s when I realised that I needed to step away from musical theatre for a bit. I’m glad I did because now coming back I’m having so much fun. I have come back to musical theatre to do something I wanted to do which is this incredible role. This is one of the best roles I’ve ever played. It’s amazing!
Matt on BBC1's The Voice
So going forward would you like to do some more theatre? Balance it alongside music?
I think so, yes. It just has to be the right show. This has taught me about making the right choices – I don’t think I was making the right choices all the time when I was going out on the road. I think I was doing it because I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t necessarily the right thing to be doing. I’m praying that there’s another role like this! I can’t be a drag queen for the rest of my life [laughs], but if there are shows coming over that are right and that I want to do and feel passionate about then I hope I can do them.
You have so much support behind you and your music, plus now you also have a whole army of Kinky Boots fans! What is it like to know you have that incredibly dedicated support behind you?
When I was up for the WhatsOnStage Award, I looked at who I was up against – Michael Ball, Ben Forster, Sam Mackay and then Killian. They’re all amazing! When I won, it was the first time I realised it was the audience voting. Kinky Boots had previously won an audience award at the Evening Standard Awards, but this time it was for me personally which was a big pat on the back. I realised, ‘Matt you’re doing something good that people like and are supportive of you’. I love the support – I’m so happy that people are enjoying what I’m doing because I’m enjoying doing it! I’m loving it and I can see it having an effect on people; when people come to stage door they say “Oh my god you look like you’re having the time of your life – I loved it! I’m coming again and bringing my mum”. That for me is just gold. That’s why I think this role is so special – I’m so grateful and honoured to be playing Lola and to have been given the responsibility.
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
Kinky Boots is currently booking at the Adelphi Theatre to 24th September 2016.
Please visit www.kinkybootsthemusical.co.uk for further information and tickets.
Matt's debut album Red Flare can be purchased via his website, www.mrmatthenry.co.uk.
All Kinky Boots production photos by Matt Crockett