Kerry Ellis has had a whirlwind decade since making her West End debut in My Fair Lady. She’s gone from understudying Martine McCutcheon to being the first British Elphaba (in the West End and on Broadway), via a part in the the original cast of We Will Rock You and the creation of a rock-musical sound with Queen’s Brian May. The press have called her the First Lady of the West End, and her distinctive voice has earned her legions of fans. Lucy Thackray caught up with Ms Ellis to talk about her recently-announced part in the Godspell 40th anniversary concert.
So, you’re doing Godspell in Manchester this October? Tell me a bit about the concert.
It’s early days for us but we’ve just started to talk about the songs and get it together, deciding who’s doing what. I’m really excited about it; I think what’s nice is that it’s a one-off. It’ll be a really exciting evening, because Godspell’s not on anywhere at the moment, so it’ll be nice to do a one off concert of it. I don’t get up to Manchester very often, so it’ll be great to do a concert up there too.
Were you already familiar with the show?
No, I wasn’t actually; it’s quite new to me. I knew of it, but I’d never done it before, so it was nice for me to discover the songs, which I’d heard in bits but didn’t know very well. I’m getting my head around them now, and it’s great. It has kind of an old-school rock, gospel feel to it. Because we’re doing it as a concert as opposed to telling too much of the story, we’re doing more of a celebration of the songs. So it’s got the big female numbers to do [such as Bless the Lord My Soul.] It’s obviously quite boy-heavy and we have got some great boys involved, so I’ll be hitting it up for the girls!
Are you excited to be working with Daniel Boys and Jonathan Williams?
I’ve never worked with either of them, but I do know Daniel a little bit. It’ll be really nice to work with him for the first time. I’ve heard fantastic things about Jonathan. It’s funny how many people sail through Les Mis; so many people get to do it at some point in their career, then work with other people who have done it later – it’ll be lovely.
You’ve just been touring your album Anthems, with Brian May. Is it nice to be able to perform as yourself?
It’s just finished for this year, we finished up in Cranwell about a month ago, but we absolutely loved it, had a great time. It’s nice to perform as myself, although it took me a while – I’m so used to being part of a show and playing a character that having to be myself was really strange to start with. But after a couple of shows I got into it, and I absolutely love touring – I love working with my band, and obviously with Brian.
Why do you think you and Brian work so well together?
We’re both very passionate about what we do and I think that’s the basis of it. It’s the passion of Brian with the guitar and me with singing, and that we just so enjoy performing. We also have great people to work with, which is always a bonus.
You’re one of very few vocalists he has chosen to work with post-Queen, which is a huge compliment.
Yeah, he’s great. He’s been really great to me right from the start really, he’s been a champion of mine. He’s supported everything I’ve done, other shows, and then obviously he supported me working on my first album. I think we share a passion for the music, and Queen were very theatrical in their time, so I think it would have happened for them at some point anyway, if Freddie was still here; I think they would have gone on to celebrate musical theatre as well.
Do you have a favourite Anthems track to perform live?
It really depends; we did the whole album live on tour, which was fantastic, and we obviously added other songs in there too, we did a few Queen tracks. Defying Gravity always went down brilliantly, everybody went nuts for it, but I did love doing The Butterfly. It was just me and Brian, acoustically, and it was kind of the essence of the whole album, so I think that, probably.
You trained at Laine Theatre Arts, and started off as an understudy in shows like My Fair Lady – with the recent wave of ‘find a star’ shows, how important is it to learn your craft before hitting the big time?
I think it is important to be able to do what you do, and do it well. So it is important to have a good training and a good basis. I also think it’s important to go and do some jobs and get some experience before perhaps going into the West End or a big rôle, because it is hard work. People don’t see that side of it, you know? Doing eight shows and keeping it fresh each night, and the commitment to a show. So I think all the experience you can get first hand, the better.
You have this rock star vocal quality, with the acting skills and stamina to be a West End leading lady. Was there a point at which you realised you had something special with your voice?
I still think I’m kind of finding out what it is! I’ve been really lucky to do some diverse shows and characters, from Les Mis, to We Will Rock You, to My Fair Lady – they’re all really different. I just love the challenge, I love doing as many different things as I can. That’s why I went into recording music as well, because I’d done so many shows and I just wanted to broaden my horizons a little bit.
How do you feel about being called the ‘first lady’ of the West End?
It’s very flattering and it’s lovely. I’m honoured because there are so many talented people in the West End; I’m very lucky to work with some amazing peers, so I’m very honoured. I hope it can continue and I can sustain it.
One of the things you’re best known for is Wicked, also by Godspell’s Stephen Schwarz. After creating one of the first and most iconic Elphabas, do you still feel an affinity with the rôle?
Oh, absolutely. Wicked kind of changed my career slightly; obviously I was doing well, I was on a roll, but Wicked stepped it up into a different league. I now have a fanbase that follows me doing everything, mainly because of Wicked. It’s a very special show to me. It was very difficult but really rewarding and I did some incredible things with the show, like going to Broadway – it plays a very big part in my life. I went to see Dianne Pilkington’s last night [as Glinda], because we were very close, and she stayed in it six months or a year after me. I haven’t been since, but I’d like to because [current Glinda] Louise Dearman was in my year at college, so I know her very well.
Are there rôles you’d still absolutely love to play?
I’d really like to do something new, something that would be a new creation for me to get my teeth into. I’ve seen Ghost recently, I’d quite like to do that, I’ve seen Shrek recently and I’d quite like to do that… but I’d like to do stuff that no one’s done before, I like a new challenge.
What’s next for you after Godspell?
I’ve got An Audience With… at the Shaw Theatre, which is actually before Godspell, I think it’s the end of September. It’s two nights at the Shaw, kind of a question and answer with the audience and I’ll do a few songs, but it’ll be quite informal, where the audience can ask me anything. Brian and I are now back in the studio working on a few things and hopefully we might do a European tour next summer, but we’ll see.