BWW Interview: Kerry Ellis On Starring In New Musical MURDER BALLAD
West End megastar Kerry Ellis got her break understudying Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady, and has since played leading roles in numerous hit shows, including We Will Rock You, Wicked, Les Miserables, Oliver! and Cats. She's also collaborated with Brian May on several albums and tours. Her next big project is the UK premiere of American musical Murder Ballad, alongside Ramin Karimloo, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and Norman Bowman. Ellis plays Sara, torn between her poetry student husband and bad-boy bartender lover.
What sparked your love of musicals?
I went to dance classes when I was younger and massively got into it - I did local pantomimes and shows, performing in The Wizard of Oz when I was 10. So it was a natural progression - I was never going to do anything else, this was just in me to do it. I've been really fortunate, looking back at my career, to think it all worked out and I've done all these amazing things.
How did your family handle it?
We discovered it together, as a family. My parents aren't from the business, but they always gave me their support - they've been brilliant throughout my whole life, supporting me when I wanted to go to drama college, helping me get grants and sponsorship.
How do you choose roles?
When you're younger, you just want to try a bit of everything, so whatever you can be seen for, you go for! It's not until later that you start making more choices. Sometimes that depends on where you are in your life, like I've got a young family now, so I couldn't just go off on tour for a year. It can be as much about circumstances as roles.
I'm still figuring out that juggling, and it changes with every project, but that's the beauty of the industry - it's always something new. One day I'm in the studio, the next I'm being a mum, then I'm rehearsing or going on stage. The variety is fantastic.
What attracted you to Murder Ballad?
I've played some incredible roles, particularly some amazing female iconic characters. You get to a point and think, what's next? How do I top that - opening a West End show, playing to thousands of people? So you search for things you can create yourself.
Murder Ballad just felt perfect. It's a rocky musical, with a smaller band and an intimate venue, which I've never done before, and only four people in the cast, so it's quite exposing and raw and dangerous. That's thrilling, doing something completely new, and hopefully fans will enjoy it too.
The cast is phenomenal, and Ramin [Karimloo] is also used to playing big theatres and extravagant characters, so it'll give us all the chance to show a different side. The nearest thing I've done is concerts at smaller venues, but performing in character when the audience is so close is definitely out of my comfort zone.
Had you seen the Off Broadway production?
I watched a YouTube clip of one number, but I really wanted to go into it fresh and bring my own ideas. Sam Yates, our director, has loads of plans for it, and because it's a new show, there's that freedom to create things as we see fit.
Tell us about your character
Sara goes on quite a ride in just 90 minutes! It's a one-act show, no interval, so it's intense, which is great for the audience - they stay with us the whole time. It's a real roller coaster. Basically it's a love triangle, but it's also a lot about how you see yourself, the choices you make, the kind of life you want to lead. It's quite sexy and has this real dark side.
I've been trying to get my head around it - I can relate to some parts of Sara's life, like she gets married and becomes a parent, but then she has this affair and it all gets very messy. I'm trying to make it truthful and honest, and she's definitely a new challenge for me. I tend to play people who turn out good in the end - I don't know if Sara does!
How would you characterise Juliana Nash's music?
We each have our own style of music in the show, and they intertwine - so you get musical theatre, soul, country, rock. It's quite a whirlwind. It's sung through, so you don't get an 11 o'clock number like in a big show - it smacks you in the face the whole way through. You get this huge emotional journey with lots of key moments - so people will attach themselves to that, rather than one big high note.
Do you enjoy taking on new musicals in particular?
Definitely. I think we've had quite a bit of turnover of new work here recently, and some big producers are starting to support that more. Some of my friends run the Perfect Pitch programme, developing new writing, though I understand it's a big financial risk when it's a writer who hasn't been established - it's tough.
Broadway I think has a bigger turnover, so they can afford to put more on and take risks. London is starting to add more spaces - St James is fabulous, as it's slightly smaller but still in town. Also previewing on tour and then coming into London - that's more of a trend now.
So I like to support new things if I can. I go to concerts showcasing new writing, to see what's around, but it can be chance - what comes your way, what you're right for. I've also been concentrating on albums lately - I'm in the studio with Brian [May] working on a new album, released early next year, and I'm going on tour in December.
Why do you think your partnership has been so successful?
We are so different - we come from completely different worlds - but it seems to work! We've been working together for about 15 years now, doing concerts, albums, tours, a lot of performances in Europe. We do have in common that sense of drama, plus we're both very passionate about that quality of sound - we appreciate just really good vocals and guitar.
Do you feel confident that work will come your way now, or do you still chase projects?
I don't think you've ever completely confident that things will happen, so you have to keep creating opportunities yourself. I'm constantly scouting for new projects - if I'm not attached to anything, I try to be proactive. That's something I've done my whole career. You have to keep working - it's a tough business, and you need to keep yourself motivated, keep your instruments working, make sure you're still on your game.
What was it like returning to Wicked?
That was amazing - I never thought I'd go back. Five years later, I was a completely different person. The experiences I'd gained - I'd got married, had a baby, done other shows, albums, tours, had a whole other life. Coming back, I could bring all of that to the role, so I played Elphaba completely differently.
I also enjoyed it so much more. As you get older, you do appreciate things more. I really embraced going in there for three months, running round that set like a big playground.
What would you like to do in future? Broadway?
I'm always open to anything that comes my way. I can't say I didn't want to go over and do Cats - that would have been fabulous. But who knows what's going to happen. That's the fun bit - seeing what comes along.
Do you have any career role models?
I have a lot of respect for Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige - their longevity, the fact they develop themselves constantly. They've become royalty in theatre, but then they play a total curveball, like Elaine becoming this Radio 2 star, or Patti being fabulous on Penny Dreadful. They constantly reinvent themselves - that's what it's all about.
Finally, any advice for budding performers?
You have to love it to stick with it. Don't be frightened, and do anything - any opportunity, grab it with both hands. It's tough, but it's the best job in the world.
Photo credit: Matt Crocket