BWW Interview: Kerry Ellis Chats QUEEN MACHINE SYMPHONIC UK Tour
Kerry Ellis is known as the first lady of the West End, thanks to her leading roles in shows like Wicked, My Fair Lady and We Will Rock You, plus a busy concert schedule.
She spoke to BroadwayWorld about her career and one of her latest projects, the Queen Machine Symphonic UK tour - a tribute to the music of Queen with a bumper-sized orchestra and band in tow.
How does a musical theatre leading lady end up linked to one of the greatest rock bands of all time?
I met Brian May a long time ago. Before I auditioned for We Will Rock You, I was in My Fair Lady and he asked me to audition for the show. I met him and Roger Taylor and worked with them closely, developing the musical. I've gone on to work with Brian for almost 15 years now, touring the UK and Europe, writing songs, putting albums together. I feel comfortable, grateful and special to be singing those songs in that environment, and that I have Brian's blessing to do it.
What can we expect at the Queen Machine Symphonic shows?
There are orchestral versions of Queen's music out there - heir music has been translated for an orchestra, and people do concerts celebrating Queen - but this set-up hasn't been done before: an orchestra, the rock band and then me singing. I'm so excited about it.
It's going to be really unusual. It's going to be something quite special, and I can't wait to get started. When the offer came along, it sounded interesting and like a unique experience, and I love singing these songs and in different environments, and with passionate groups of people - which I know the band and orchestra are.
How are preparations going for the show?
It's not easy to put all that together - a band and orchestra will naturally pull in different ways - so it's challenging but really interesting as we get into rehearsals. And then there's putting a rehearsal schedule together for everyone to come together... It's a logistical nightmare, but there's already a huge amount of work going into everyone's preparations and pre-production, and I can't wait for it to come together.
Having that many people on stage is always exciting. Everyone is watching and playing together. There are a lot of leaders on the stage, which is an interesting dynamic. Usually, with an orchestra, the conductor is in charge. With a band, it might be the singer or the drummer or the guitar. There are a lot of elements to bring together.
People forget how difficult that is to listen and play together with so many on stage. As a singer, it can be easy to get used to following somebody else and sitting back, but in this, we have to be really on our guard and it's wonderful. It really is.
What excites you most about this show and its epic proportions?
The unique thing about this show is that it brings a lot of Queen elements together. We have the orchestra, plus a band - plus myself - and I think that's quite unique because normally at these sorts of shows you have one or the other.
Being able to play things like "Who Wants To Live Forever?" with an orchestra while also being about to do "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" with the power of the band with everyone on their feet is quite something. It's not a musical, but it almost has a show element to it. I can't wait to go out on tour with it.
You played a premiere performance of the Queen Machine Symphonic show at Scarborough open-air theatre in the summer. How was that?
Open-air shows are such a British thing; we like braving the elements and hoping for the best, and this was no different.
Scarborough was a brilliant night - the fans loved it and we all had so much fun on stage. It was electric. I'd been to Denmark for rehearsals with Queen Machine and had the chance to watch them perform there. To then join them and have the wonderful musicians from the London Symphonic Rock Orchestra with us, and Matthew Freeman bringing it all together, made for a very special night.
We were excited about the tour before doing the Scarborough show, and now we can't wait to get into a full rehearsal programme ready to travel the UK with the show. If you're a fan of Queen's music, it's going to be a real "must-see".
How do you find performing with these large-scale productions compares to your solo tours?
Oh yes, playing an intimate show at Zedel is very different from this tour, but I like that. Alongside the Queen Machine Symphonic tour, I'm doing a very small "Celtic tour" of sorts, which is just a piano, a choir and me. I might do a show in London later, but at the moment I'm heading to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
I love the variety of my career. It's so diverse and so varied. I can be playing with an orchestra or a band in an arena one day and the next day I could be in a 200-seater venue. I love that. It keeps it very real for me and I really enjoy that.
Good songs work in all different scenarios. I should be able to perform a song with just my pianist, Craig, but at the same time be able to perform it with a band or orchestra and both be just as powerful. I love working with just a guitar and I like working with a small band.
I think when you're a musician, you just enjoy the music and enjoy the challenge of how whatever you have around you and how to make that work and how to make it special.
You've been recruiting local choirs for this tour. How have you found that process?
It's been great! In Belfast, I think something went out in the papers because I was inundated with choirs and I suddenly had 10 choirs from nowhere wanting to sing in my concert. It's going to be very difficult to choose. They're all really great. It's nice to have that local spirit because then people feel like they're more involved in what we're doing. Plus, I always enjoy working with new people.
You've done a lot of work with Brian May - how does he feel about bands paying tribute to Queen's music? Have you spoken to him about this show, and will he be coming along to the tour?
When the Queen Machine Symphonic opportunity came up, I let Brian know about it and asked what he thought. The Queen Machine guys have played for one of the Freddie celebrations and are very much welcomed in the Queen family. They're very well established, and they are huge in Europe.
Brian enjoys that people play their music still today and embraces that tribute bands are able to take it out there around the world. And that's another reason why the music is so timeless - that so many people are still performing it and honouring Queen.
I hope Brian will be coming. He does come and support a lot of what I do, whatever he can get to, so I'm sure if the schedule permits, he'll be there, but it's often a nightmare - with touring the world.
You've been singing Queen's songs for many years now. Do you have a favourite?
The song that is very close to my heart is "No One But You". I sang that in We Will Rock You way back when and have recorded it and performed it with Brian around the world.
We did it on our tour, and at one point he said to me, "It's your song now - love it and enjoy it". I've just got so many connections with it - and it works brilliantly with an orchestra, so I'm sure we'll be creating new memories with it in this show and tour.
Were you a fan of Queen's music before We Will Rock You came along?
I grew up with it; my dad was a fan and played a lot of rock music, and I listened to bands and acts like Meat Loaf, Status Quo, Bon Jovi, but also artists like Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion. I was brought up with it, but it became such a part of my life.
But really, everybody knows Queen's music. The interesting thing today is that there's a new generation of people interested in the music, because of the Bohemian Rhapsody film, and Queen touring with Adam Lambert, plus the music is always used in films and adverts - you're always hearing it.
I'm very proud that I have a very deep connection with the music and the band and I'm very grateful for that. I always feel honoured and privileged to be doing their music with their blessing.
It's been a big thing for me too; I always had a music career alongside musical theatre, but it probably wouldn't have happened in the same way without that connection with Brian. He has influenced me in so many ways.
Performing together on tour, and in the studio, he has educated me on putting an album together, something I had never done before. He's been a kind of mentor to me and has helped me use the tools to make my own music.
And now we have the Bohemian Rhapsody film in the canon as well. What did you make of it?
I loved Bohemian Rhapsody. It's given the band a whole new generation of fans. I was just speaking to Brian recently. They're out in Japan at the moment and he was saying he can't believe how young the people in the audiences are singing the songs back to him. It's given them a new lease of life and has taken the band back out on tour.
Even I've noticed that when I sing Queen songs at various gigs, young people are singing them back to me, and it's definitely the film that's had a hand it that. It's struck a chord with everybody and that's brilliant.
The film covers such an amazing story. For those who knew Freddie and got to see him live, it's one thing, but the film itself has captured an essence of him and given people a little insight into who he was and how magical he was and I think that's just brilliant.
Besides preparing for Queen Machine Symphonic, what else are you working on?
I'm working on some new music. I've not done an album of all originals before, so I'm working with writers again now. I'm so proud of this little album.
At the moment, I don't plan to put it out. I wanted to make something that I could have that was special and share with people in my live performances at smaller venues. It's a bit like a programme I can give away for people to have as a memory of the evening, not just something they can stream online.
It's been great working with a new team at Auburn Jam. I just think they're magical and I'm super proud of what we've created. I think it's one of my best. It may go online at some point, but I have no plans to at the moment.
I'm also in talks with Brian again about touring or new music. A lot of concerts are in the diary throughout the summer, and I'm off to Japan again next year - I went earlier this year and it was magical, as well as the Queen Machine Symphonic tour.
It would be a crime not to chat about Wicked with you. How are you feeling about the long-promised film adaption?
Wicked was a huge show for my career. It took me to Broadway - that was on my bucket list, but I never thought I would actually get to do it. And to be the first British girl to play Elphaba: amazing.
It has been a big part of my life, and it's a show and a role which resonates with fans all over the world, who go on supporting you for years after too; it's a worldwide phenomenon. I'll always be grateful to Stephen Schwartz and to director Joe Mantello for that opportunity. People still want me to sing "Defying Gravity" even though I left the show years ago.
I would love to get involved with the film! I'm sure it will be cast in America, and of course they are young girls at school - and I've just had a big birthday, so maybe it's not going to happen. But maybe a little cameo would be wonderful.
Of the characters you've played, who would you go on a road trip with and where would you go?
I'd probably take a combination of people. I'd have to take Elphaba because of her powers. We could fly with her and that would be super cool. I also think I'd have to take Meat because she'd be a laugh - we'd have a lot of fun and giggles.
The most fun trip I ever did was driving down the west coast of the US from San Francisco to San Diego in a campervan. It was the best trip ever, so I'd love to do that again and end up in Vegas!
Why should people come to Queen Machine Symphonic?
I think it's the music, ultimately. We all love their music. It's timeless. Queen are good at, not necessarily reinventing themselves, per se, but keeping their work out there. I think the film is a part of that. They keep bringing things out and they're still touring.
Their songs are the ones that will be with people until they're old. Even my boys, they're four and they like to sing "We Are The Champions" all the time and I don't really know why! It's that kind of music people will continue to have in their lives.
Queen Machine Symphonic will be a great night out. You'll hear all the classics, but there will also be some really magical moments. Things like "No One But You", "Who Wants To Live Forever" and "Love Of My Life" with an orchestra AND a band on top sounds amazing. Add in the incredible lighting and all the elements, it's going to be really special. We're only planning a few shows, so I wouldn't miss it!
Photo credit: Geoff Ford