Musical theatre has delighted audiences worldwide for decades, but some fresh new faces are currently bringing that extra sparkle to the stage. Sharon Richardson catches up with Broadway and West End star Kerry Ellis to talk about her modest beginnings singing cabaret in Norfolk to her meteoric rise to fame and her close musical friendship with Queen’s Brian May.
When I caught up with Kerry she was fresh from singing at The Night Of 1000 Voices charity concert and was still enthusing about it: “It was an absolutely amazing evening. We sold out two shows, had a great time and raised loads of money for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. We had the original Calendar Girls there and it was fantastic singing alongside Adam Pascal once again. (They’d previously worked together in Tim Rice’s Chess). Playing at the Royal Albert Hall is like dream come true to me.”
Kerry grew up in Haughley, a small village near Stowmarket and found herself singing cabaret and performing in shows with the Starmakers team at Potters Leisure in Hopton during the summer seasons: “I did some work experience when I was 15 and from that they offered me a summer season and then I just kept going back.”
She remembers the people fondly: “They were great people who guided me in the right direction. They really encouraged me to be confident, perform and carry on with what I wanted to do. I stay in touch with lots of them and they are great friends coming up to support me with any show that I do.”
Kerry went onto train at Laine Theatre Arts before she moved into West End theatre. After joining Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of My Fair Lady at the National she got her real break. “I was working as understudy for Martine McCutcheon when Ben Elton and Brian May, who had come along to see Martine, asked me to audition for We Will Rock You. Literally the next day I was singing for them and they gave me the role of Meat.”
After touring with Cameron Macintosh’s Miss Saigon and joining the West End cast of cast of Les Miserable as Fantine it was the lead in Wicked that gave Kerry another first.
“Playing Elphaba was a crazy two and a half years and it gave me my Broadway debut. It literally launched my career into a slightly more commercial area. I have a huge fan base now and I think a lot of that was generated through Wicked. I did have followers beforehand, but now I have people who will support me in anything else I do – they all came to Oliver and they all come to the concerts.
“Musical theatre is massive over there and it’s a very respected industry. It is here too but over there you are treated like a movie star if you are in a show.”
Kerry has recently taken over from I’d Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger to take the lead role as Nancy in the West End production of Oliver! She said: “I love the show, the kids are great to work with, Gryff Rhys-Jones is lovely and it’s just a real fun show to do. I’m having an absolute ball.”
She’s caught up with Jodie before: “Ironically I mentored for the I’d Do Anything programme, so I was mentoring Jodie among others and then found myself playing the role a little while later.”
She also recently mentored on current show Over The Rainbow and speaks favourably of reality shows: “These shows open up musical theatre to the masses; to people who might not always go to theatre. It brings it into their living rooms so they might actually take a trip to London and go and see a show. So it can only be a good thing.”
Not satisfied with Broadway and West End theatre Kerry is now branching into the world of music with the release of her album Anthems which will be released later in the year and is produced by none other than Brian May.
Kerry said: “I started working with Brian about eight years ago and it really took time to find out what my sound was and what kind of music I wanted to do. I think had I done it about eight years ago I would have probably have gone in a different direction whereas now I really tried to combine everything and keep my theatrical background and roll it into work with my music. The album that comes out will be very dramatic. It’s a big sound. We’ve got a big orchestra and a rock band over the top of it. It’s almost filmic. It’s been nice to have the grace of time and be able to discover what the album will be.”
"Brian and I chose the songs together.
It’s basically my journey. We tried to incorporate songs that have been poignant to my career so it tells the story of how it all evolved.”
Kerry is a bit of a rock chick at heart so expect some edge to the album. “Rock music has always been in me. When I was younger I always wanted to sing, perform and be in shows but I think the rocky side of me has always been there, it’s just my route to it took the long way round. My way into the singing was through theatre and finally I have been able to mould that into an album.
“I have such a wide scope of taste. My dad used to listen to Queen when I was younger so it fed through to me by default really. Now I like bands like Coldplay, The Feeling and Keane, but I also enjoy people like Barbra Streisand, Elaine Paige and Liza Minnelli.”
When asked what it’s like working with the talent of Brian May she speaks only with respect: “It’s pure joy! He’s a dear friend now because we’ve been working together for so many years. He’s taught me so much along the way and I’ve been a part of the entire process. A lot of performers now go in and do their vocals and leave it to the team to put it together, whereas I’ve been part of the whole creation and the production side of it; I’ve had a say in everything so I really feel that it is my album. He’s let me do that, I’ve had the freedom to do that because of Brian.”
Musical theatre fans need not worry, as don’t think for a minute that Kerry is going to let her acting slip: “I’ve done theatre for 10 years and had a very successful career so far. I’ve been so lucky with it and loved every minute. This is not at all the end of that side, I’m just branching out and trying my music for a little while.
“It is a different element. At the end of the day what I love to do is perform and sing and whether that is in a show, a concert or in the studio, I love it all. I’m happy doing any of it.”