Kerry Ellis Queen of the West End

Kerry Ellis: I’m having the time of my life as West End’s leading lady.

She’s one of Britain’s true greats. Kerry Ellis is one of the finest talents to grace the stage of London’s West End. The star of musical theatre has featured in the most iconic roles of the past 25 years, while also making a name for herself on Broadway. She’s also toured extensively with Queen’s Brian May while dazzling fans around the world with solo tours. It’s been quite a journey for the kid who grew up wanting to be a pop star. And this autumn, she’ll reflect on how far she’s come in her new, solo show: Queen of the West End. Ellis will be touring the UK in October and November. There’s a new book of stories, too, as well as a four-track CD of new songs – while her show will feature some of her greatest showtunes as fans indulge in an evening with a musical theatre great. “It all started for me when I was a young girl. I must’ve been three or four when I went to a local dance centre, called the Judith Thomas Dance School. They’d hold classes in a little church hall, and I’d go there with other children to learn my first steps. “There wasn’t a grand plan back in those days. To be honest, there’s never been a grand plan and there still isn’t now. I was probably sent there because my parents wanted to give me something positive to do. Well, either that or they wanted a bit of childcare and someone else to wear me out. Whatever their motivation, I loved dance from the moment I stepped through the door at Judith Thomas. I just took a shine to it and that passion never left me. I loved it then and I still do now.” Dancing grabbed Ellis and made her feel alive. She wanted to be a pop star, as well as a star of musical theatre, and looked up to Elaine Paige, in whose shoes she has since trod. “I didn’t really have any singing lessons. I guess I had a couple when I was about 12, when my dad took me to a teacher called Olive, but that was all. Olive was actually a choir singer. She kind of tapped into this classical singing thing that I didn’t even know existed. It was completely new for me. I’d always been a big ‘belty’ singer before I went to see her, screaming in my bedroom to Queen, Meatloaf, or Bonnie Tyler. But Olive opened up a whole new soprano thing.” Ellis had a double cassette of Les Miserables, which was hugely influential. She knew that show from start to finish and would sing along with the cassette. It was the same with Miss Saigon and she grew to love the nation’s biggest shows. “My path wasn’t calculated, not in the slightest. I was listening to music, loving it, and rehearsing it. Everything stemmed from there.

“I loved singing, I loved dancing, and I loved the world of entertainment. I’d do anything I could. I was rehearsing myself without realising it. I was stretching my voice and seeing what I was capable of, without knowing. I think dance gave me discipline and being part of that dance school, when I was younger, was really important. I’d have to turn up three or four days a week, I’d have to be physical, I’d have to be on that ballet bar at quarter past three. There was a discipline with dance that stood me in brilliant stead later in my career.” She was a dreamer as a kid and her parents were incredibly supportive. They brought into her goal of performing in Broadway and on the West End. At 19, she got a job singing on a nine month cruise around the Caribbean and she never looked back. When she came back, she did a quick tour of Magic of the Musicals, with Marti Webb and Dave Willetts, and then went into My Fair Lady. She was the understudy for Eliza Doolittle, which was played by Martine McCutcheon. When Martine became unwell, Ellis stepped up. “Because Martine was such a big superstar, there was loads of media interest. When she was off, it was a big story, big news. We didn’t have social media then, but it was all in the newspapers. “I found myself in the papers for the first time, too, because I was the person taking on that role while Martine was off. It was quite an awakening to the West End. It really was a big deal. I was still young enough not to be phased by it and in a sense, there was no pressure on me because nobody knew who I was. I just needed to do the job, I just needed to deliver. “I had no dress run, no costume run; nothing. It was in at the deep end. I didn’t have time to think and even though it’s a long time ago, I don’t think I can remember doing it. It was just such an adrenaline rush. Afterwards, I got to go on quite a few times because Martine became unwell again and eventually had to leave the show. Alex Jay and I split the role and for a little while we got to be Eliza over a period of time.” Her life changed forever and the offers flooded in. “A lot happened in My Fair Lady. There was another show when I went on for one of the ensemble dance tracks and sang a few lines. What I didn’t know was that Mr May – Brian May – was in the audience with the casting director for We Will Rock You. I literally had no idea. Brian saw something in me, I don’t know what, and I don’t know how or why he picked me out. “They found out I was the understudy for the lead, so they came back when I was playing Eliza. Again, that was all totally unbeknownst to me. They enjoyed my performance and asked me to audition for We Will Rock You, as Meat. “I didn’t find out about any of that until after I’d got the job – all I knew was that I’d got an audition for We Will Rock You. So I went in for the audition and there were a lot of auditions, I think I had seven in all. Brian and I even joke about that, even to this day. He always says he knew I was going to be in the show, he knew I was the one, so I ask him why he made me go through seven auditions if he was so sure about me.” We Will Rock You was a whirlwind of madness and craziness because it was new for Brian and Roger Taylor. There was a frenzy of huge celebrities and big, iconic people surrounding the show. The whole thing was a one off. Nothing like that had really happened before. “During rehearsals, Brian and Roger would be around a lot. They’d be in the rehearsal room and would watch everything, so we got to know them very well. Robert De Niro had some money in the show, so he came over to watch one of the run-throughs too. Then a stream of celebrities came to watch the show as soon as it opened. We met so many people, from Emma Thompson to Beyonce, from Britney Spears to P!nk. My hero, Liza Minelli, came along too. It was endless. The Royals came, we met lots of members of the Royal Family, and we also did lots of extra performances on Parkinson, the Royal Variety, Party In The Park, everywhere. We did an advert around it too; it was crazy, it really was.” Ellis moved into Miss Saigon. “Miss Saigon was another of those iconic roles. It was a show that I loved, growing up. The role of Ellen wasn’t massive, but it was a well-respected, leading, female role. It was a big tick off the list. You want to be part of these big, iconic shows. That’s what drove me early on and Miss Saigon was another bucket list production. I’d listened to it on a double cassette as a teenager and seen it at Drury Lane before my career began. So when it went full circle and I got to start in a show that I’d seen as a youngster, the whole experience was pretty magical.” She starred in Les Misérables – the show she’d gone to see as an impressionable 13-year-old. “Fast forward to 2005 and I was in that show, on that stage. I’d come full circle. I was doing all of those iconic songs that I’d always wanted to sing. “There’s something special about the big hits, like Memory, in Cats, or I Dreamed A Dream, in Les Mis. People are waiting for you to sing them. They literally buy their ticket just for that. So to have that moment with those iconic songs is magical. I do look back very fondly and gratefully for that. I have great pride. I got to be part of those musicals and sing those great songs.” Wicked was a game changer. It took Ellis to Broadway and helped her to fulfil another big ambition in my life. “Broadway was everything I thought it would be – good and bad. When I went there, I’d been doing the show in London for nine years and it was a really tough show. Anyone who’s been in Wicked will tell you how difficult it is. Vocally-speaking, it’s unlike anything I’d ever sung before. It’s so much more difficult. I’d never been challenged by anything as much as I was by Wicked and I went through good moments, tough moments where I blew my voice out, and moments where I had to retrain myself to sing the show because it was so difficult. “The Broadway gig came up and I literally finished the show in London on the Saturday, flew on the Sunday, then was in rehearsals on the Monday. Two days later, I was opening the show on Broadway and I was absolutely knackered. I was there for six months, and it was wonderful, it was absolutely a dream come true.” There’s been a lot, lot more, of course, and Ellis will unpack the highlights of her career in a magical Autumn show. “There’s a lot more to come. I can’t wait for my own solo tour, this Autumn, when I’ll be reflecting on my career, as I have in this book. And there’s another new record just around the corner, as well as lots more concerts on the horizon.
“So what’s coming in the future? I don’t know. The future is not yet written, is it. But I know one thing, I’m having the time of my life and I can’t wait for whatever comes my way.”