Hayden Thomas meets Kerry Ellis at London Palladium
This week we sent our reporter Hayden Thomas (Twitter: @WestEndReporter) down to the London Palladium to have a natter with CATS' latest leading lady Kerry Ellis. Read on to find out about her early experiences with CATS, as well as singing with Kristin Chenoweth, and 'poshing' it up on Broadway. Will the stars align for The Show Must Go On (a possible We Will Rock You sequel) and will she dish the dirt on the men in her life (well, Brian May and Cameron Mackintosh, at least)?
Hayden Thomas: Kerry, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us. So, you recently took over the role of Grizabella in the current West End revival of CATS from Nicole Scherzinger. How does it feel to play such an iconic role and how did it all come about?
Kerry Ellis: Well, it's an absolute joy! I feel very proud actually. I've done a lot of West End musicals and I've been on Broadway, but this one definitely has something special about it and whether that's because it's been around for thirty-plus years or whether it's just because it's an iconic, nostalgic show, I don't know. But I do have this sense of priviledge and I just feel so proud to be in the show. I knew that the show was coming back and I had heard that Nicole was doing it and thought that was fantastic. It didn't even cross my mind, but then I literally got a phone call saying that they would like me to take over and that was it...
HT: And you said "Yes, please!"
KE: Well, I waited for five minutes and then... No, I didn't. I chomped their arm off because I was thrilled. I thought I would never get to play this role because the show had gone. It was on tour and it was going all around the world, but it was a blessing that it came back to the West End and to be able to do it in the London Palladium is fabulous!
HT: It does make it extra special being here at the Palladium, doesn't it?
KE: Absolutely! I have performed here a few times. I've actually done my own show here - Sunday Night at the Palladium and I've done various concerts, but I had never done a long run. It just feels fantastic.
HT: Were you a fan of CATS beforehand?
KE: Yes! I went to see it with my school. I was maybe in my late teens and then I went back a few times because I went to a dance college. I went to Laine Theatre Arts in Surrey and obviously CATS is such a huge song-and-dance show and so it was one that a lot of people would go and see. You used to be able to get really cheap day seats. You could get £10-£15 tickets, maybe restricted view, but when you're a student, we were happy to sit anywhere. We didn't care. So I had seen it a few times in the past, but I hadn't seen it for twenty odd years probably.
HT: So why do you think it's stood the test of time over all those years? What is the show's secret?
KE: Ooh I don't know. If I did know what made an amazing musical, I'd be a millionaire! But I think with this show, who would have thought all those years ago, having Trevor (Nunn), Gillian (Lynne), Andrew (Lloyd Webber), Chrissie Cartwright - all these people - in one room and they thought: "Oh, I know what we'll do - a musical where human people pretend to be cats for two hours!" I mean, who would think that that would work? But it really does! I remember going to see it at the Opening Night here and thinking how fresh the orchestrations sounded and how interesting it still was because it's still such a mad idea. It still has relevance today. There's nothing out there quite like it. It's still very unique, unusual and very classic and it does give you all those things. When you go and see a musical, you want to hear great music and great singers, see fabulous dancers, great costumes and a great set. It gives you all those things.
HT: The last time I saw you on stage, I was sat innocently at the Royal Albert Hall watching An Evening with Kristin Chenoweth and lo and behold, she brings out a special surprise guest to sing with her and it's you! Needless to say I (and the rest of the Wicked fans in attendance) were 'geek-gasming' left, right and centre. How did that all come about?
KE: Well, again I got a phone call. I do workshops with young students sometimes and I keep saying to people: “Your life can change with a phone call.” And my life seems to change with phone calls all the time. I got this phone call, which said Kristin was coming to town and she would love you to sing. She's been on tour and what she's done is to pick someone out of the audience to sing 'For Good.' But as she was at the Royal Albert Hall and it was something special to her, it would be really great to have me up. We had spoken about it previously. She was meant to come over a couple of years ago and it didn't work out, so I just kinda let it go, and then when I got the call and it was going to be at the Royal Albert Hall, that was fantastic! She was such a joy! She is a wonderful person, really gracious and giving on stage. I felt very priviledged to be there with her. It was a magical moment. And it was the day before they announced I was going to go back into Wicked for three months. So it was like the stars aligning! (Laughs)
HT: So it was a magical couple of days for the UK's Wicked fans! Speaking of which, for them you will always be remembered as the first-ever British Elphaba. What are your memories of going into Wicked in 2007?
KE: I was standby for three months and then I took over the role from Idina Menzel, so I was the original British Elphaba. I went on to do a year in London and then I did six months on Broadway and then I came back and did another six months. It was quite a life-changing role. Not only because it takes everything out of you – physically and emotionally – vocally it's horrendous, but brilliant. It's one of the hardest jobs I've ever done, but also one of the best jobs I've ever done. I learned so much about myself, my talent and my voice – just how to manage it on a day-to-day basis. Doing that show eight times a week is just crazy! (Laughs)
HT: And doing that show eight times a week for so long with all that make-up, does your skin start to turn green?
KE: (Laughs) I did have a bit of a halo! I think I was the first blonde to play Elphaba. Previously they'd all been brunettes and the make-up goes right into your hair. It all sapped into my blonde hair and it looked like I had a green halo. It really wasn't very attractive, so I'm glad I don't have that now.
HT: What was it like flying the British flag and representing over on Broadway?
KE: Broadway was a dream come true. It was obviously something I had always wanted to do, but never thought it might happen. It all happened quite quickly, as I was doing the role in London and finished on the Saturday night and then flying on the Sunday. I had a couple of days rehearsal on Broadway and then I was on. That was crazy! But it was amazing – a real highlight. I felt really honoured to be there. Broadway is interesting because everybody knows what's going on and everybody knows who everyone is. I found that strange because I thought I'm just a girl from London and nobody knows who I am. I'm here and I'm playing the green girl, but that's it. But everybody knew who I was and why I was there. That was incredible. It was a really different experience and I loved it.
HT: Did you feel like you were in a HBO TV series, surrounded by American accents all the time?
KE: (Laughs) Yes! And I became more and more English because they love the British accent, so I became terribly RP!
HT: Did you sound like Lady Kerry of Downton Abbey?
KE: I did a little bit! (Laughs)
HT: Leaving the States behind now and moving onto a role you originated in the West End - in We Will Rock You, you played the character Meat – that lovely, fleshy name...
KE: I know! My parents were so proud! (Laughs)
HT: Is it true that Brian May from Queen actively encouraged you to audition for the role?
KE: He came to see My Fair Lady and I was understudying Martine McCutcheon. I was on the evening he came to see it. I didn't know he was in. We hadn't met. I didn't even meet him that night. But he then sent a message to my agent saying he would love to see me come in and read for Meatloaf, so that's how that happened. I didn't meet him until the audition.
HT: There have been rumours about a sequel under the title 'The Show Must Go On.' Would that be something you would like to re-visit?
KE: Yeah possibly. It's always like dangling the carrot to create and play a new role, so if the opportunity came up, yes, possibly... if I wasn't too old! (Laughs) I don't know what they're going to do with it. I don't think We Will Rock You has had its day either though. There's more to come from that. I think they will bring it back in some way.
HT: But there hasn't been a life-changing phone call for the sequel yet?
KE: (Laughs) Not just yet. No.
HT: Just checking... Another guy I wanted to ask you about is Cameron Mackintosh. You've done a few of his shows now, like the UK tour of Miss Saigon and the West End production of Les Misérables. What is it like being in his shows. Is he quite hands-on as a producer or do you never see him?
KE: Cameron's played a big part in my career actually. He was the producer of my very first West End show My Fair Lady and I also did Oliver! for him. He is very hands-on. He really cares and I think because Cameron came through the business – he was stage management for a number of years – he knows what it's like to be the workers. He does really get involved and he's very much in the building. He makes sure he speaks to everybody and he knows what's going on. He's very passionte about the shows he puts on. In Miss Saigon especially, we saw him a lot when I was doing that, which I think is nice. I have huge respect for him. He's been fantastic to me over the years and I hope I work for him lots more.
HT: You mentionned Oliver! there. You actually mentored on the television show 'I'd Do Anything' and then went on to take over the role of Nancy from the show's winner Jodie Prenger. It was like the teacher taking over from the student.
KE: I was kind of involved in all of those programmes at some point – apart from Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar – but for the girls. I was involved in all of them for an episode, or as a mentor or just a small part, which was lovely and great fun. I was in Wicked at the time they were doing 'I'd Do Anything' and Jodie was a great candidate. Our business is all about timing – when you're available and if you're right for the part. It doesn't really matter to me when I play it. I just feel fortnate enough to play it, if that makes sense.
HT: I guess you have to juggle with timing quite a bit, as you have two careers really. You've released your self-entitled second studio album last year. How would you compare your career as a recording artist with your career as a musical theatre actress and if you could only do one of those careers, which would it be?
KE: Oh that's so difficult! I think I've been really fortunate to have these two interests and they run alongside each other. I've been working with Brian (May) now for 13 years. We've kind of been working alongside my musicals career and they both inspire each other. I feel I gain experience for my concert work from the musicals and vice versa. I got more into my own solo work and touring with Brian the last four or five years and I learned so much about myself and how I am on stage. I used to find that side of things terrifying. I couldn't speak as myself on stage – only if I was in a musical, in character with lyrics and lines to say. But now I love that side of it. And whether that's come with age and experience, I don't know. I enjoy them both equally and they are very different. They have different strengths. I really couldn't choose. It's a bit like Jekyll & Hyde. They're two sides of me, but they do feed each other.
HT: The best of both worlds...
KE: Absolutely! And long may it continue! (Laughs)
HT: My final question – we are coming up to the Olivier Awards and CATS has been nominated for Best Musical Revival, but so too has Miss Saigon – another show which is close to your heart. So I just wanted a Kerry Ellis prediction on which show is going to win the coveted award?
KE: Oooooh that's really tough! I think it'll be a joint decision and they'll give it to both of them. That would be nice wouldn't it.
HT: A very diplomatic answer. Kerry, thanks for your time.
CATS continues at the London Palladium through to 25 April 2015.