Kerry Ellis with Anything Goes co-stars
It is daunting enough to walk on stage at the National Theatre for the first time as Eliza Doolittle without hearing audience discontent rumbling away like a dozen Dickensian water closets.
“The announcement that Eliza would be played by Kerry Ellis was met with a collective groan,” the musical theatre star tells me with a grin. “It was a packed house and I heard 1100-plus people go ‘Uurhhhh’…”
She had to play the My Fair Lady lead with no rehearsals after Martine McCutcheon and her regular understudy, Alexandra Jay, were both taken ill.
“I knew the audience were reacting to Martine not being there rather than to me, but it gave me the drive to prove them wrong,” Kerry, 43, says. “My response was ‘I’m going to make you enjoy this show’.”
And she did. That spirit and determination, coupled with a voice of extraordinary range and power, has made Ellis a smash hit on both sides of the pond.
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Kerry with husband James and kids at the seaside
The queen of the West End stage is renowned for her spell-binding performances in Wicked, Les Misérables, and We Will Rock You; not to mention her parallel career in music, backed by Queen star Sir Brian May.
Although there have been hiccups along the way…
Kerry recalls the hair-raising moment in Les Mis when she felt her stage wig leave her head and fly straight towards the Queen’s Theatre audience.
“My character, Fantine, is forced to sell her hair and then her teeth,” Ellis explains. “I go round on a revolve for a quick change at the back of the stage where my long blonde wig is swapped for a short one.
“The change-over is so fast there’s only time to put two hairpins in to secure it. In the next scene, David Thaxton, playing Bamatabois, grabs my hair and throws me down on the stage. As he does, my wig flies off and hits a woman in the front row…
“The girls around me start giggling, the poor woman just picks it up and puts it on the stage. The girls grab it, shove it back on my head and we carry on. It’s funny now, but at the time it was awful.”
That 2006 moment was equalled during We Will Rock You when Kerry’s corset fell off – “thank goodness I was wearing a bra”. And when, as Eliza, she threw her slippers so hard they shattered a crystal whiskey decanter…
“Jonathan Pryce, as Henry Higgins, somehow stopped himself laughing and carried on as if it were meant to happen, pushing the glass out of harm’s way.
“Endless things going wrong of course, but I love how people navigate them.”
Kerry owes a lot to Cameron Mackintosh’s My Fair Lady. The star-studded 2001 production, which transferred to the Theatre Royal, was directed by Trevor Nunn with choreography by Matthew Bourne.
Kerry wasn’t playing Eliza when Brian May and musical director Mike Dixon caught the show, but, says “They spotted something in me, I don’t what.”
She was asked to audition for We Will Rock You – Kerry didn’t know May had singled her out. After seven auditions, she landed the role of Meat for two sold-out years at the Dominion.
“We were a young company, in our 20s, playing to standing ovations. It was amazing.”
It was the start of a productive working relationship with May; they’ve recorded albums, performed and toured together.
Kerry with Brian May
Kerry was with the superstar guitarist when he played on the Buckingham Palace roof, and at the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall. He calls her “Britain’s most beautiful voice”.
“Brian’s a huge inspiration,” she says. “It’s a fairy tale story. My life really did change when I met him, suddenly I had an option for a music career.”
Kerry cites their 2015 Verona Arena show as a career high – “a huge, incredibly imposing venue, broadcast live all over Europe – it was mind-blowing”.
Playing Elphaba in Wicked was another. “I was that green girl,” she laughs, adding that the emerald make-up came off easier than the mud in Les Mis.
Ellis had seven auditions for the London role – one on the same day as a Les Mis matinee. “I went in, sang Defying Gravity three times and went off to do the matinee. Insane!”
She took over from Idina Menzel on Broadway in 2009.
Wicked became the second highest grossing musical of all time. “The story is about about friendship, about people not fitting in and the relationships that get you through, that resonates with everyone,” she says.
“As a little girl I’d dreaming of being in a West End show and on Broadway but you don’t expect it to happen.”
Kerry’s football coach boyfriend James – now her husband and father of her two sons – visited regularly and she struck up a friendship with Scarlett ‘Mary Poppins’ Strallen.
Kerry, right, with Dianne Pilkington in Wicked
Born in Haughley, Suffolk, Ellis’s father was a policeman, her mother worked in social services. Her older brother runs a fishing consultancy.
She grew up adoring Liza Minnelli, Streisand and Celine Dion; and also Meatloaf and Bonnie Tyler – dad’s rock influence.
“I had a great childhood. I was focused considering how young I was. I sacrificed parties and days out. That was always part of my life. My parents drove me here there and everywhere. They were amazing. Now I’m a parent I understand more.”
She trained at Laine Theatre Arts, Epsom, Surrey. Her first pro job, at 19, was in Magic Of The Musicals, a touring production with Dave Willetts and Marti Webb. Next came nine months as a cruise ship entertainer, including a brief fling with Steve-O from TV’s Jackass, before landing her My Fair Lady gig.
Kerry’s West End credits include Ellen in Miss Saigon, Nancy in Oliver! and Grizanella in Cats. She even had a small role in the Les Mis film with Hugh Jackman. “I remember him coming in one Friday and handing out lottery tickets to everyone in the cast and crew.”
Covid put paid to a year of concert bookings and a tour with Queen tribute band, Queen Machine. But ever industrious, Ellis used the time to write her autobiography, from Bumpkin To Broadway, and launch a podcast, Keep Calm and Kerry On.
When normality returned, she starred as Reno Sweeney opposite Denis Lawson’s Moonface Martin in Anything Goes at the Barbican, chuffed that she was still fit enough to do a nine-minute tap dancing number.
“It was created after the Depression to give people escapism – that lightness, that joy. It made audiences feel happy and smile, it still does.”
A positive woman, Kerry admits to some weaknesses. “My time management is not my best skill; juggling family and a career, striking a balance can be difficult.”
But her resilience, work ethic, and sense of fun outweigh all of that. She loves making music.
Kings & Queens, produced by Mike Stevens, is Kerry’s fifth studio album. Her debut album, Anthems, went Top 15 in 2010; others include 2017’s Golden Days, a collaboration with May.
“Kings & Queens is different as most of the songs are original,” says Kerry. “I’m lucky I got sent a lot of good songs to choose from.
“A song has to work for me in the first place. I’m an interpreter and a performer; that’s where my heart lies. For me it’s always about life references, interacting with the audience, it’s what makes me tick.”
The album ranges from rousing rock anthems to heart-rending ballads, via Americana and country. There’s a duet with Newton Faulkner and May guests on Battlefield.
“The older I get the faster-paced life becomes,” says Kerry. “I’m into fitness, I’m going to run the half marathon, I do wild water swimming, wild running…it’s my midlife crisis, I must be mad.
“I try to keep things as light as possible, to live in the moment and enjoy everything.”
Next month, Ellis plays Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “My first Shakespeare! I like the challenge. It’s all about the journey. I tell my kids, try to find something you love doing because it’s going to take up a lot of your time.
“I’m so busy. You’re only on this planet once, you’ve got to live life to the full. Life’s too short to be miserable.”
- Kings & Queens is out now. Kerry will perform at the London Adelphi on 16 May. Tickets from kerryellis.com
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