InDepth InterView: Kerry Ellis
Supremely gifted. Stupendously stunning. Stupefying in her ability to hold magnetic sway over an audience. Kerry Ellis simply has it all and, now, following the worldwide success of her truly awesome collaboration with Queen's Brian May on their epic rock album ANTHEMS, May and Ellis are hitting the road for a UK tour kicking off at the Royal Albert Hall later this month. Over the weekend Kerry was kind enough to take a look back at her career with me - which includes her earth-shattering turns in WICKED in both the West End and on Broadway, plus her unforgettable turns in CHESS: LIVE IN CONCERT, on CD and DVD, as well as OLIVER and more - plus, we take a look ahead to what she would like to tackle next: a one-woman-musical ala TELL ME ON A SUNDAY, perhaps? Whatever she chooses to do, judging from her track record it is clear she will knock it clear out of the park.
Divas Are Forever
PC: What you and Brian May did with your album ANTHEMS is simply extraordinary. It is one of the most impressive debut albums I've ever heard - Broadway, rock, pop; whatever.
KE: Thank you so much! We were trying to do something a bit new. We wanted people to accept it for just what it was - and I'm really glad it worked!
PC: It definitely did. Tell me about the original songs on the album - were they all written for you?
KE: Yes, they were. Brian actually wrote some of them while we were doing the album in the recording studio.
PC: What about the opener, "Dangerland" - it's as good as anything Queen ever did. It's a real earworm, as well.
KE: (Laughs.) Well, I don't know... I am flattered by that, though! Truly.
PC: It's true!
KE: That song came about quite organically, really. And, it was quite quick. He wrote the very hook - you know, that guitar hook you hear - and it all kind of stems from that, really. Before you knew it, we were away!
PC: The production is so epic.
KE: Yes. It's in the style of Queen, really - it's kind of what they were known for; being theatrical. So, it was really the right way for us to go with it from the start. You know, with me coming from theatre and Brian coming from Queen, being as theatrical as they were - it kind of all just came into place.
PC: A perfect match.
KE: Yeah, really! Before we knew it, we were in Abbey Road recording a huge orchestra and it just came together so quickly. It was so amazing.
PC: It came together quite quickly in the studio? I know you and Brian have worked together for a while.
KE: Yeah, I mean, I've been working with Brian since WE WILL ROCK YOU in 2002 - which seems like forever ago - and we've worked on and off, now and then, on various bits and pieces in the studio. It wasn't until I went into WICKED that we started working together more seriously, actually. I said to Brian, "I'm going to Broadway and I'd really like to take something with me to show what we've been doing." So, we put out a three-track called WICKED IN ROCK, which is kind of the prequel for the album.
PC: The appetizer of sorts.
KE: Yeah! Obviously, it has two WICKED songs on it and "No One But You", which I did in WE WILL ROCK YOU.
PC: Of course! The hits.
KE: Yeah. So, then, when I got back from Broadway and came out of WICKED, I literally had eight months of not doing a show. So, we literally got through that whole album in eight months - recorded it, got it out. And, the rest is history, really! (Laughs.)
PC: Tell me about your debut performances with him on the Royal Variety Show in 2008 - it's a YouTube sensation, and rightfully so! Was that the first time you did the song live together?
KE: Yeah, it was, actually! And, it was really scary, because a lot of people don't perform live at those events.
PC: They lip-sync.
KE: Right. Because of the epic-ness of the backing and the orchestra, it would be understandable - but, doing it live is one of the things Brian pushed for. You know, he likes to play live wherever he goes - which is brilliant! And, for us to play that song with the forty piece orchestra under the stage and the band on top, on the stage - and it was the first time we'd done it together - it was absolutely incredible! It was mind-blowing.
PC: It's unforgettable, even watching it once.
KE: I still remember the feeling! It was crazy.
PC: It's such a big hit online. Have you seen it?
KE: Actually, it's funny - I watch that sometimes! (Laughs.) I think to myself, "Wow, did that really happen? Was that really us?" It's a blessedly fond memory and I'm chuffed!
PC: To do that song live like you do it - it's not easy.
KE: (Laughs.) No comment!
PC: Idina Menzel told me how much she enjoyed working with you on CHESS. What was it like taking on her most famous role and song in WICKED?
KE: Aww! She's amazing. You know what else is nice about Idina? The nemesis song for us both has been "Defying Gravity". She was so brilliant when she came over here and did WICKED and, obviously, then I took over.
PC: What was your experience like filling her... broom?
KE: (Laughs.) It is a really incredible show, because, you know, although everyone loves it and you love to play that role - it's absolutely amazing - the nemesis is that song. And, every night, you've got to build yourself up to sing that song. She probably enjoys singing it more now than she did in the show - as I do - because, now, you are not doing it eight times a week, so you can just enjoy singing it.
PC: Exactly. Tell me about working with Idina on CHESS.
KE: She's such a joy to work with. She was lovely on CHESS - and, you know, what a voice! What a performer! How nice for us both to be able to come together and sing something like "I Know Him So Well" - being from different countries and coming together in one huge international concert; it's just amazing.
PC: You two should re-team and sing the GLEE version of Gaga's "Poker Face". Did you see her do that with Lea Michele?
KE: Yes! I did! She is doing amazing on GLEE! Incredible. Absolutely. I'd love to do that. You never know - maybe we will! I love GLEE; I really do.
PC: Would you sing any other Gaga songs in concert? You'd kill "Bad Romance".
KE: I love Lady Gaga! I think she's incredible. I think she's so clever - you know, about what she wears and when she does it. Plus, her music is just incredible. You can really compare her to Madonna now - she's really amazing.
PC: Adele has really hit it big in the US this year, too.
KE: Oh, really?! Adele is so great! I love "Someone Like You"! Everyone is just raving about it. What's so nice about it - and a lot of her songs - is it just takes it back to basics. It's just her voice and the piano, you know? It's all about her voice - which, today, a lot of the music isn't about that. So, it's really nice to see that with Adele.
PC: It's so interesting how you have made "Defying Gravity" so epic and how Idina strips it down in concert.
KE: Oh, that's so cool! You know, that's the basis of a good song, isn't it? If it can be turned into so many different ways - that's the essence of a great song. So, clearly, "Defying Gravity" is a winner. It's huge.
PC: What about other Stephen Schwartz shows for you? BAKER'S WIFE? CHILDREN OF EDEN?
KE: Oh, I know! He's amazing! (Sighs.) What wouldn't I like to do by Stephen Schwartz is the question! (Laughs.)
PC: What does his music mean to you?
KE: The thing about Stephen Schwartz is that, while it may be difficult to learn - it's a little bit like Sondheim; Sondheim is quite difficult to learn - but, once you have it in you: it never leaves you. It becomes some of your favorite music; it really does. Brian is actually a really big fan of Stephen Schwartz and he has really got into his kind of music and the kind of songs he wrote for all those musicals. Brian has a huge appreciation for Schwartz and how the music moves in and out of the action and the parts act as underscore and then they come up in songs and switch and change into parts of other songs. Do you know what I mean?
PC: The motifs - of course. Plus, the twist on "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" in the "Unlimited" motif, as well, in WICKED.
KE: Absolutely! It's so clever - and, then, people just remember it instantly.
PC: What do you think of the new WIZARD OF OZ? Do you want to sing the "Red Shoes Blues"?
KE: I haven't actually seen it yet, but I mentored the girls on the reality shows building up to it.
PC: The OZ reality show was so entertaining. Ten times better than this season of AMERICAN IDOL.
KE: It was great. What was nice about it this time was that they actually got performers who are performing at the moment to help - which I thought was really great because then it wasn't just another reality show, it was about finding the right person and having mentors that are speaking from their experience; from the moment. It could be real - it wasn't contrived at all - and it was really honest.
PC: The OZ score is really interesting and fun - especially the Witch's Song.
KE: Oh, I will get to see it, definitely! Hannah Waddingham is playing The Witch, I know!
PC: Would you consider doing an Andrew Lloyd Webber show in the future?
KE: Yeah! I've actually never done an Andrew Lloyd Webber show - I mean, I've done concerts, obviously - but, I've never worked with him directly. I would love to - especially because it would be something new and something different. I'd love to do another reality series with him, too.
PC: Would you consider playing Mary Magdalene in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR?
KE: Yes, of course! What an amazing show! I love the show. I'd love to be a part of the whole thing if he does it again.
PC: What about the new 21st century version of TELL ME ON A SUNDAY he did with Denise Van Outen and, here, Alice Ripley?
KE: You know what? That would actually be my ideal to do next; something like that. I'm going on tour with my album in May. We open at the Albert Hall and then we're doing dates throughout the UK. So, after that - after I've done my album show; which I am really excited about - to do a one woman show that's already out there would actually be my ideal.
PC: What a score: "Unexpected Song", "Nothing Like You've Ever Known"...
KE: Love that! Love that! "Tell Me On A Sunday" was a big hit here, too.
PC: Sarah Brightman did the show on TV in the UK in the 80s, which was also successful.
KE: Yeah! That's right!
PC: What do you think of her career trajectory? Do you look up to her since she's sort of the crossover queen?
KE: What's amazing about Sarah is that she's sustained such a career. She just keeps going - she's like a machine. She tours and records and loves what she does. I think she's a really good example to anybody in the industry that there is life beyond the shows. You can have a long career in musical theatre outside of the shows. I've heard that the concerts she does are absolutely incredible, Cirque du Soleil craziness.
PC: You, Idina, Elaine Paige and Sarah Brightman are the only crossover artists who have been truly successful recently.
KE: You know what, I think the hardest thing is just getting people to accept it. I think with shows like GLEE it really opens people's minds to go, "You know what? I really like that kind of music." So, it kind of allows them to say, "OK. I like that and it's OK to like that." It's tough to make that transition, but I think it's all starting to open up and starting to be more accessible for everybody.
PC: "You Have To Be There" from KRISTINA is one of the best recent musical theatre songs - from the ABBA guys, of course, who also wrote CHESS. Tell me about the song. Didn't you originally premiere it in English?
KE: Aww, I love it! I love it. I was asked to sing it. I did it here a few years ago in Hyde Park - it hadn't been sung in English yet - and they asked me to sing it at their concert, THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC. It was, literally, a huge orchestra - and 70,000 people - and I am debuting the new song from KRISTINA in English for the first time! This was before they did the two concerts at Carnegie Hall, even.
PC: THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC was broadcast on the BBC2, as well.
KE: Oh, my God! That's right! So, it was even before that and I got to sing it and I remember right after the performance I said to Brian, "We've got to put this song on the album because it is so incredible!" We were lucky that Benny and Bjorn gave us their blessing and said, "Absolutely. Yeah, we'd love to support it." So, I love it. It's one of my favorites.
PC: Have you seen the show with Helen Sjoholm in Sweden?
KE: No, I haven't - but, I have heard the recording.
PC: "Gold Turns To Sand"? Some of those songs are stunning.
KE: (Sighs.) It's very deep. It kind of comes over you like a wave - it really hits you. It's very intense, I think. I really like it and I think it could work [in English]. I hope they bring it here at some point.
PC: Perfect wave metaphor you just gave given the song!
KE: (Big Laugh.) Oh, I know! That's so funny!
PC: What about playing Kristina yourself?
KE: Oh, c'mon! Of course I would! Who wouldn't? (Pause.) It's like Elphaba - it's a bit of a dream role, really.
PC: What about Florence in CHESS now that you've essayed Svetlana?
KE: Actually, actually - I would. It's touring again in the UK at the moment and there is talk of it coming back to the West End. I love the score - I just love the score - for CHESS. I'd love to do it again.
PC: Tim Rice just did this column and he said that the Royal Albert Hall concert was a dream come true and said how impressed he was with you and Idina on "I Know Him So Well". Can you tell me about working with him?
KE: Aww, he's lovely; Tim. He's a really, really nice man and he was so supportive of the whole day. It was a real incredible show - to be two nights at the Albert Hall and to work with such incredible people like Clarke Peters and Idina and Josh Groban and Adam Pascal. It was just amazing.
PC: What's it like to know that your performance in the show will live forever on DVD? That's the version people will always know now - it was even on PBS here!
KE: Well, exactly. It's the newest version, as well. I think, now, people do think of that performance when they think of the show, at least here - and it's so, so great. I still can't believe it was played on TV in the US!
PC: It was! I can attest!
KE: (Laughs.) That's so amazing.
PC: Tell me the best backstage story from the night.
KE: Well, I know that Marti Pellow had a few treacherous changes where he had to run the length of the stage - backstage - to make entrances. The Albert Hall is like a rabbit maze underneath. If you get lost - you're screwed! (Laughs.)
PC: You better watch out on your opening night!
KE: (Laughs.) Oh, I will! I will.
PC: What was the night like backstage?
KE: Everyone was kind of standing there waiting to go and so completely involved with what was going on. (Pause.) What an incredible evening! I watched most of it from the monitors, in the wings, and it was beyond words. It really hasn't sunk in yet.
PC: Would you like to do another big concert event like that?
KE: Oh, I would love to. It's so exciting. You more or less start and finish at the same time and only do it two nights. It's fulfilling in its own way, though. I'd love to do AIDA, I think.
PC: As Amneris?
PC: "I Know The Truth"?
KE: Oh, my God! Yes!
PC: "My Strongest Suit"?
KE: Yes! Yes! Love it so much.
PC: Are you a really big fan of the show?
KE: I love that score. Elton John and Tim Rice - so good. I love it so very much.
PC: What do you think of the cinema broadcasts of the big concert events like they just did with LES MISERABLES and, in June, they will be doing with the NY Philharmonic COMPANY?
KE: I think that's the way it's going to go - and why not? Why not make it bigger and better? I think that's the best way to celebrate musicals and just make them huge! Everyone with the new generation is about the social network and YouTube, so if you put a proper version of what it should ideally be, I think it's great. All the stuff on YouTube is there as a back-up! I think that's the way it should be.
PC: What are your plans for the next few weeks, pre-tour, then, post-tour?
KE: It's taking my whole head-space right now, but I do have to say I'd love to do something - something like TELL ME ON A SUNDAY - to really cap off the year!
PC: There is an amazing musical theatre writing scene over there - Stuart Matthew Price and all the SimG albums showcase so many astonishing new talents.
KE: Oh, the grass is always greener! We're envious of your whole scene on Broadway!
PC: What do you think of LOVE NEVER DIES?
KE: Which version?
PC: Any of them! There are some amazing songs.
KE: There are. I saw it right when it opened, but I think they have changed it a lot and I've heard it's in great shape.
PC: What about taking on EVITA in the revival?
KE: I'd love to do that. I did in college, actually. It was a big, huge responsibility then - but, I think I could handle it now.
PC: With Ricky Martin as Che? On Broadway?
KE: I'd love to! I saw Elena Roger do it and she was incredible. I'd love to come and play it, too, though!
PC: What was your Broadway experience like?
KE: I had such a fantastic time! Everybody was so lovely and the show was amazing - I just had a dream time. I'd love to come back.
PC: Can you compare the two theaters? The Apollo Victoria versus that ugly barn WICKED is in on Broadway?
KE: (Laughs.) Oh, no! It has so much charm and it is very intimate. It just looks like WICKED has always been in that theater - it just seems to home WICKED very well in a way. Over here, the Apollo is more sparse and spread out, you know? Both of them have those tricky runs you have to come up for for "No Good Deed"! Whether you have to turn right or left, that's how I'd know what theatre I was in!
PC: That's so funny.
KE: When I was on Broadway, my dresser, Cathy, was always literally dragging me around from place to place in such a rush. It was so funny. (Laughs.)
PC: What about taking on a straight play in the future?
KE: A play would be amazing. I'd love to sink my teeth into one.
PC: I'd love to see you in SPEED-THE-PLOW by David Mamet.
KE: Oh, that would be smashing! You know, I love to work and I really love to do what I do, so the more I can do, the better!
PC: Film? You are so photogenic.
KE: You are too, too kind! (Laughs.) Anything, I'm open to.
PC: What can we expect on the ANTHEMS tour?
KE: Well, it is the album. It's very exciting for us because it's completely live - we're going to do the whole album, absolutely live from beginning to end. I am absolutely just beside myself with excitement! But, it's quite a different show at the Royal Albert Hall because we have a huge orchestra and a massive choir and a band and dancers. Adam Pascal is supporting us with a string quartet. It's going to be an extravaganza, really. There will be a few Queen tracks thrown in for good measure, too!
PC: Thank goodness! What about the rest of the tour?
KE: The tour is slightly more raw and edgy. It is more intimate because there is no orchestra. The drummer is so incredible - Roger Taylor's son - he is absolutely incredible.
PC: Is he over the Keith Moon?
KE: (Laughs.) Yes! Yes. Exactly. He's amazing.
PC: Will you be promoting it on TV?
KE: Yes, I have been doing a few things myself. When the album first came out, Brian and I did all the chat shows. It's so amazing that people are embracing it this way. The Albert Hall show is already pretty much sold out and the tour is doing really well. We are just beside ourselves, really. I just can't wait to get onstage and start rocking!
PC: Starting the tour at the Royal Albert Hall is really being shot out of a canon!
KE: I know! I know. People say to me, "You start at the Royal Albert Hall? That's amazing!" I actually don't think I'll believe it myself until it's over, really.
PC: Did you get to play your version of "Diamonds Are Forever" for John Barry before he passed?
KE: Well, Don Black was involved with the album and he sent it to John Barry before he passed and he gave us his blessing. He loved what we did. Don Black is putting together a tribute for him at the Royal Albert Hall and I think Brian and I are going to do that song there. It really has been a collaboration of masters on this album, though - John Barry included!
PC: The production on that track is so sumptuous - and that last twist at the end with the "zwing" is just spot-on.
KE: (Big Laugh.) A bit of humor! A bit of humor never hurts!
PC: I have to ask because of your awesome voice: are you a Jim Steinman fan?
KE: Yes! Oh, my God, I can't believe you asked! You know, I sang "Total Eclipse of the Heart" for WE WILL ROCK YOU when I auditioned for Brian originally!
PC: That's such a great story! Have you ever sung Steinman's other material?
KE: Oh, yeah! "It's All Coming Back To Me Now"! I wish he would write me song! I'd love it so much!
PC: You should do the West End DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES.
KE: It'd be like a dream - to sing "Total Eclipse" in a show! Oh, my!
PC: You have the voice to really pull off his material.
KE: I would do anything he likes! Anyone who wrote that song is a god - truly - to me.
PC: On that topic: what do you think of Sondheim?
KE: I love Sondheim. I was actually part of the audition process for SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM when it was supposed to come over here, but it sort of fell apart or something. He was actually just here and he presented an award to Angela Lansbury.
PC: Were you at the event?
KE: I was actually doing a concert with Barry Manilow, but I saw it on TV and I loved watching all the clips they had his collaborators do talking about him and reminiscing.
PC: OK. Last question: Define collaboration - especially in terms of working with Brian.
KE: Brian is so incredible to me. Not only has he been a great friend, but he has been a mentor to me. What I will take away from this album is that I have learned so much. He allows me to be a part of the process - I was in the studio mixing the orchestras and the guitars and the drums. I feel like I have taken a master class on how to make an album over the last year. It's just been absolutely incredible. And, to play with him live? It leaves me speechless. He's such a presence. It's almost like an incredible safety blanket of support to be with him. His presence is just mind-blowing and I can't wait to get going and share the stage with him.
PC: Keep up the amazing work! Any plans for ANTHEMS 2?
KE: I'd love to! I think we're gonna see what happens with the tour and maybe by the end of the year or next year we'll get cracking on something else. I'm very up for doing another one.
PC: Thank you so much, Kerry. You are so much fun and so talented. It's been a real privilege.
KE: It's an honor, Pat. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much! It was so great to speak with you. Bye!
Further information about the ANTHEMS tour follows, kicking off at the Royal Albert Hall on May 1.
Sunday May 1, 2011
ROYAL ALBERT HALL, LONDON
Performance times: 4.00pm & 8.00pm
Tickets available from £17.50 - £72.50
Royal Albert Hall Box Office - 020 7589 8212
Gala Tickets available - 0207 269 9003
Book online at www.royalalberthall.com