Kerry Ellis: No Longer Wicked
Next weekend the Stowmarket-born West End and Broadway star will be returning to her theatrical roots – Potter’s Leisure Park at Hopton outside Lowestoft. Two months later she will be hosting two sell-out concerts at the Royal Albert Hall alongside guitar god Brian May.
This startling contrast illustrates the difference 15 years can make – along with a lot of determination and a dazzling amount of talent.
I caught up with Kerry on the day that she and Queen guitarist Brian May were having a photo-call at the Royal Albert Hall to promote their forthcoming concert. She was quick to apologise for the delay in our scheduled interview.
“I’m so sorry. It’s been crazy today and these things always take longer than you think.”
In addition to the two performances at the Royal Albert Hall, Kerry has just announced a 15 date national tour which Brian will also be performing on.
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It’s clear that Kerry – always a bubbly personality at the best of times – is absolutely thrilled that the rock legend has agreed to go out on tour with her.
“I am really pleased that Brian has wanted to come out on the road with us. I do forget sometimes that he is this massive rock legend. He’s been such an influence on me and I am thrilled he has decided to come out and join us. It’s just brilliant. It’s always a joy to perform with him live and he will just solidify the performance.”
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I am amazed that she can somehow forget that Brian May is a major star. She laughs: “I know! We have worked so closely together, for the past ten years really, that I do overlook the fact he’s this fantastic guitar god.”
Kerry is renowned for the power of her voice and it is this voice that first attracted the attention of the Queen guitarist and it was Brian who encouraged Kerry to audition for the role of Meat in the Queen musical We Will Rock You.
He had spotted her in the cast of My Fair Lady when she was the understudy for the frequently ill Martine McCutcheon. While Martine was under-the-weather Kerry gained vital experience and her first, big name, fan.
With We Will Rock You, Kerry was propelled into the big-time and charged with creating a brand new character in a brand new show – a show written by Ben Elton which celebrated the music of Queen, set in a colourful post-apocalyptic world.
After 18 months in We Will Rock You and a year in Les Miserables, Kerry was then offered the lead in another new musical Wicked – although on this occasion she wouldn’t open the run.
The producers decided to bring Broadway lead Idina Menzel to play the green-skinned witch Elphaba and offered Kerry the position of standby on the understanding that she would take on the lead once Idina’s three month contract ended.
Illness cover allowed her to take to stage nine times before she officially took on the role in January 2007. Kerry quickly made the role of Elphaba, the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West, her own, and struck up a happy partnership with Dianne Pilkington who played Glinda, the Good Witch of the East. The pair remain the show’s longest serving leads.
From June to November 2008 Kerry took her portrayal of Elphaba to Broadway before returning to London where she continued to play the role until May 2009.
An enthusiastic audience provided Kerry with a boisterous send off and she immediately disappeared into Brian May’s recording studios to finish off her debut album Anthems.
While the CD was being prepared for release Kerry joined the cast of Oliver for a year, playing opposite fellow Suffolk thesp Griff Rhys Jones as Fagin. Oliver finished its run in January and Kerry immediately set about creating plans to perform her long awaited album live.
Talking about the forthcoming shows on Sunday May 1 she is almost fizzing with excitement.
She explains that the concert will be centred around the music contained on the album and she and Brian will be supported by the City of London Philharmonic, The West End Chorus, actor/singer Adam Pascal and electronic string quartet Escala.
Although she has the show pretty much mapped out in her head, she’s not going to be tempted into spilling the beans early. “You’re going to have to come and see the show,” she laughs.
I try a different tack, talking about songs she would love to perform or songs she had wanted to include on the album but had to leave off through lack of room but she wouldn’t bite. “That would be telling,” she giggles.
She says that for her the biggest thrill is standing on stage, in her own right, at the Royal Albert Hall, performing her own music to a sell-out crowd.
“To star in a show at the Albert Hall and to have sold it out is just incredible. I am honoured and it’s going to be a really special day.”
However despite the excitement Kerry admits to having some large butterflies doing somersaults in her stomach.
“I’m nervous because you are not shielded by a larger show or a character or the umbrella of a producer. It’s you – you are out there bearing your soul, out in the open – people are coming to see you as opposed to coming to see a show like Oliver or Wicked. There’s a lot more pressure. But on the other hand, it is also more relaxing because I can just be myself.
“But, having said that, a bit of nervousness is good. The day I stop getting nerves is the day I’ll stop doing it.”
To help calm her nerves and to pay tribute to the people who originally set her on her way, next weekend she is playing a small gig at Potter’s Leisure Park at Hopton – family run holiday park outside Lowestoft where Kerry delivered her first performances.
On Sunday February 27, she is headlining a show called A One Night Musicals Spectacular. The idea for the appearance came from Potter’s leisure director Nigel Pattle who was the man who first took a chance on the young blond-haired kid from Stowmarket who was desperate for a career in showbusiness.
Kerry says it will be a wonderful opportunity to not only go back to her roots, go back to the place where her career began, but a terrific opportunity for her Suffolk family and friends to see her perform without having to go charging up to London.
“Nigel phoned me up recently and said: ‘I am doing an evening of West End stars I’d really love you to come down and headline our evening.
“He said: ‘I know you’re really busy..’ and I said: ‘No I’d really love to do it. Going back there is a way for me to say thank you. I’m not in a show at the moment. I do have a bit of time and it’ll be lovely for my family and friends back in Suffolk.’
“It is just like returning home. It’ll be something special because it’s for one night only and it’s a personal pleasure for me.”
She says she is somewhat alarmed to realise that 15 years have passed since she first set foot in the resort’s theatre as a nervous schoolgirl. “Having been born and brought up in Stowmarket, we knew of Potters. We’d been there for weekends with the family and I just wrote to them on a whim when I needed work experience while I was still at school. They accepted and on my first night I was pretty much thrown on stage with a microphone in my hand and told off you go.
“I have a lot to thank Potters for – that encouragement early on, which is what Nigel gave me – that boost and shot of confidence in the beginning. It was a way of saying: ‘You’re all right. You’ve got a chance.’
“I came back and worked there in the summer when I was still at college. I’d go up there for weekends when I was still training. I paid my way through college doing shows there. It was great because I was gaining experience. I was doing it for real.
“It was some of the best training I ever had. I was very young but I was surrounded by professional entertainers and it was great. There’s nothing like being thrown in at the deep end.”
She says that she hopes the homecoming gig will provide inspiration for any other young performers who live outside London to pursue their dream of a life on stage.
“It proves that a girl from the country, who starts off at a Suffolk holiday park can, if she applies herself, can go all the way to the West End, to Broadway and now the Royal Albert Hall.”
The two gigs at the Royal Albert Hall will be very special. They have been designed to replicate that epic feel that the album produces.
“I’ve pretty much got the show mapped out now. It’s the first time that the album has been done live, so the evening is going to be based on the album. It’s very much Anthems at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s going to be a great evening. I’m so excited.”
She said that the album and evening will have an unashamedly autobiographical feel to it because Kerry wanted the music to reflect her interests, her taste in music and her career so far.
“I think one of the reasons it (the album) took so long to record and release was because, as Brian said, that he needed to harness my voice and find the right surroundings for it.
“I wanted a reflection of where I’d come from and what I had been doing. I had had a very successful musical theatre career and it felt wrong to suddenly just stop and write and perform something entirely new. I certainly didn’t want to portray myself as something that I’m not.”
In the end she and Brian chose numbers that had a strong personal significance. “Anthem is from Chess, which was the first time I performed at the Royal Albert Hall. That was very poignant and special for me – as are the two songs from Wicked. They are hugely important because I did the show in the West End for so long and on Broadway. They all have something that connects with my career – which is lovely,” she pauses for as second before adding with an impish laugh: “I’ll have to write a book next.”
So is she surprised with the way that her career has developed? “It always surprises me. Everything is such a bonus. I had dreams from childhood of doing various shows and being on the West End stage and every time I achieve one of my goals I realise that my dreams have to just keep getting bigger.
“I wanted to be the lead in a West End musical. I did that. Then I wanted to be on Broadway and now I have achieved that. Every now and then I have to pinch myself and ask ‘Is it me actually doing this?’
She says that she loves the idea of having two careers running in tandem – performing in concert as herself and then going back into the West End to do a show and then returning to the concert circuit.
“Music is my passion. Singing is my passion. I have had a brilliant career in musicals. I have been lucky to do so much and now to branch out and be able to do my own show and sing what I want to sing is just so liberating.”
Although she is charged up for the RAH gigs and the following 15 date tour, she says she has an eye out for her next West End project.
“I’ll be looking to do something new now. I’d really love to do a new show where I could create a character from scratch.”
And what of the long rumoured British cast album for Wicked? Was it ever recorded, will it ever see the light of day?
“I think we all wanted to do it initially, when it was first brought over but in the end they decided there was no need to record a new version because the American soundtrack had sold so well. It was a shame because I would have loved to have been part of that. Also that was one of the reasons I put two tracks from the show on my album, so I got a chance to put my stamp on it.”
Kerry Ellis and Brian May’s Anthems the Concert is at the Royal Albert Hall on May 1. The evening show is sold out but tickets are still available for the matinee.
Anthems the Tour is coming to Milton Keynes Theatre on May 18 (0844 871 7652) and Southend Cliffs Pavilion on May 19 (01702 351 135). Details of Kerry’s performance at Potters Leisure Park can be found at www.pottersholidays.com