HARRY KIT LEE is an actor and singer who has created So This Is Who I Am, an autobiographical show based on aspects of his life and the songs he has chosen to illustrate it.
Michael Darvell wonders if this is a true picture of the performer…
Did you start singing from an early age, and when did you realise you had a talent for performance?
I never really knew that I had a talent for performance because it was just a part of who I am. I wasn’t a stage school child because we didn’t have the money for extra lessons, but one thing that I did have was a huge amount of support from my family. They would get me to sing at family parties and at Christmas etc.
But funnily enough, I wasn’t very comfortable on stage back then, so when it came to singing in front of a wider audience it was a very closed, introverted experience. I spent most of the song cradelling the microphone with my eyes shut because I couldn’t get my head around the fact that people wanted to listen to me.
After my parents separated, I would see my dad at weekends and he would get me to sing at the local social club. I would literally stand there like a statue, not making eye contact with anyone.
Then one night, when I was around 12, I stood on a grotty old stage in this club with everybody drinking and smoking. I sang ‘Yesterday Once More’ by The Carpenters and the oddest thing happened.
The whole place fell deadly silent and the bar staff stopped serving and came out from behind the bar.
It was only when I opened my eyes at the end of the song that I realised that they had all stopped to listen to me.
You were encouraged by a high school teacher to continue with your singing. Did you at any point then think you might become a professional performer?
Singing, acting and writing have always been a form of escapism for me and a way of expressing my feelings. When I was at high school I had a bit of a tough time, so singing helped me through that.
Elizabeth Collins, my music teacher, wasn’t aware that I could sing because I was never very focused in her lessons to begin with. Then, one parents’ evening, I was helping out and I asked her if I could sing. It was about 9pm and almost the end of the night so she said no!
I had a friend who played the piano so she volunteered to play for me. I started singing and Elizabeth saw something in me that made her take me under her wing and nurture my talent. She was a massive inspiration and remains one of my dearest friends until this day. I owe her an awful lot.
What kind of songs did you initially sing in those early days? Were you drawn to the pop songs of the day or musical comedy material?
In the early days I didn’t listen to what everyone else my age was listening to. I had grown up in a household that mainly played Diana Ross and a lot of Motown.
My favourite music back then was by The Carpenters. There was something about Richard and Karen Carpenter’s music that I related to. People would laugh at me because I spent so much time listening to their music and singing their songs, but I just found them beautiful.
It never really struck me back then to consider singing anything theatre-related, although I did begin to sing some more operatic material such as Bach’s ‘Ave Maria’ and Adolphe Adam’s ‘O Holy Night’.
When I listen to the recordings from back then, it’s like I’m listening to a different person. My voice has changed so much.
When you sent demo discs to record companies, were you surprised they were interested in furthering your career?
I was surprised because the music I was performing at that time wasn’t the type of material that was appearing in the charts. We had the Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears – nobody was singing stuff by a 1970s brother and sister duo!
I remember the cover for my demo album so clearly.
My hair has always been a nightmare to tame as it’s naturally curly, and I was perched on some giant pot plant in my mum and stepdad’s back garden, gazing into the sky. Horrendous.
Having gained interest from Sony and Arista, why did you then decide that the pop world was not for you?
Two reasons really: I don’t think at that time in my life I was emotionally prepared for the cut-throat world of the pop industry. I was far too naive and not as streetwise as I am now.
Also, like I mentioned before, the scene at that time was beautiful-looking people singing great pop music. I was a bit too individual with my wiry hair, big teeth and slim build. If it were now – when you have the likes of Lady Gaga, Sia etc – then it might be a different story.
Back then I think they had hopes of putting me in a boy band or something along those lines and I would have stuck out like a sore thumb.
If you did not personally like the material that record companies offered to you, had you considered writing your own songs?
I did actually write my own music – four of my songs were on my demo album. Everything was all a bit tragic sounding back then though, I just kept writing massive power ballads!
I still write now, as I find it extremely rewarding on a personal level. Maybe I’ll add one to my show.
Anyway, along came drama school, so you then trained as an actor at Guildford which has a good reputation for musical students. Is this what you had in mind all along?
Yes, I always knew that I wanted to do so much more than just sing. Acting is in my blood and being at Guildford was great for me because it gave me the discipline I needed. It also made me unlock certain things that I never knew I could do.
I absolutely adore script work and developing a character and improvisation has always been something that I was good at. It also gave me a chance to explore the classics and develop my stagecraft, plus build up my repertoire for musical theatre.
My singing tutor from GSA, Peter Roberts, made a huge impact in the way I sing and perform. He has also become a life-long friend.
Since finishing your training, you have appeared in both straight plays and musicals. With your talent for singing, do you prefer to be in a musical show?
Although I love musicals, I never want to limit myself in regard to the roles that I play. Some of my favourite projects that I’ve worked on have not been musicals.
Playing David Gallichan in the TV drama about serial killer Dennis Nielsen was a rewarding experience. We filmed on location in East London and the whole top floor of a pub was made into Dennis Nielsen’s flat. The show has been repeated numerous times, even as far afield as Australia.
Every year I tell myself that I’m going to return to doing some straight acting and then I always get pulled backed to musical theatre. I think musical theatre is like second nature, even if I’m not a very fluid dancer!
You have productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Hair and Fame on your CV. Do you like these more contemporary shows rather than, say, the classic Broadway musicals such as those by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern or Irving Berlin?
My nan was a huge fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals so I grew up watching them with her. But apart from when I was training, I’ve never had the opportunity as of yet to take a role in one of the classics. There is something very special about the older musicals that is hard to capture today and I would love to be a part of one of them in the future.
Having said that, as my musical taste is so eclectic, I’m able to appreciate the modern stuff too. I adored being in Little Shop of Horrors as I felt a kind of affinity with the character of Seymour. The music of Menken and Ashman is also quite beautiful.
Nick in Fame was also a character I could relate to because of going through the whole auditioning/rejection process in this industry.
As for Hair, I had seen a production of it a few years ago and already knew the music really well. The pure freedom of it just engaged me. I remember saying to my mum when the casting call came up: “I don’t care if they give me a role pulling the curtains. I’m doing this show.”
It’s just a beautiful, poignant and effective piece of theatre and I loved every minute of it.
When did you start writing So This Is Who I Am and what was your motivation ?
I never did officially start writing So This Is Who I Am, it was totally organic in the way it began. Peter Roberts and myself had spoken about a solo project for me to work on and I took him the song ‘Take That Look Off Your Face’ from the musical Tell Me on a Sunday.
A few years before the words had been rewritten for the revival starring Denise Van Outen and I thought they could work really well for a male.
We both felt it could be perfect for my first solo venture so I contacted the Really Useful Company. Although they liked the idea and thought that it would work with a male, they were unable to grant us performance rights until it had been rewritten to reflect the change of gender.
With that idea out the window, it was then suggested by a friend of mine to do a musical show based around the narrative of my own life. At the time, I was dead against it as I had been critical about other people doing the same. I just didn’t feel that anybody would be interested in somebody who wasn’t Hollywood famous.
I also wasn’t entirely sure that I was comfortable putting my whole life on display for a theatre full of mostly strangers. However, we began work on song choices for the solo show and I soon established that every song choice I had made reflected a point in my life. So it then made perfect sense to go along with the autobiography idea.
In preparing the show, did you map out a plan of your life, fill in the blanks, and then choose the appropriate songs?
I have never mapped out a plan of my life. It was very important to me that when I was performing something this personal, it be truthful and completely unstaged.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t have an order for the musical numbers to go in of course. It just means that I don’t have a full on script of paragraphs to read from during the performance. I want the show to remain natural. It’s almost like I’m inviting the audience into my living room and saying: “Right, we’re friends now. Here’s my story.”
What kind of songs are you including in the show? Are they mostly from shows you have appeared in or those you would like to do some day? Or music and lyrics that provide a mood for the various stages of your life?
There really is something that will appeal to everyone in this show and I’m extremely proud of it. I’ve been very careful with the material that I’ve picked and asked for advice along the way.
Therefore, I have numbers like ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ from the musical Oliver!, but also things like ‘Bang Bang’ by Jessie J and Ariana Grande.
Of course the shows that I have appeared in are represented, but it’s so much more than that, as each song tells just a little bit more of the story. Although some aspects are a bit dark, it’s not all miserable. There’s plenty of funny, upbeat moments too.
The show is divided into different chapters, but always left with an open ending, because who knows where the story will lead to next.
In the show you haven’t shied away from some of the more downbeat aspects of your life, such as family troubles and mental problems, so you are really owning up and saying ‘This is me’ in a sort of ‘I Am What Am’ mode?
As I previously mentioned, it was very important to me that this show remains truthful to who I am as a person and that includes the darker side of things too.
When the show first started its life around three years ago, I omitted a few things. Not on purpose, but subconsciously because they were too painful to mention. Now, I’m far more at ease with my life and able to include the things that were overlooked the first time round.
Mental illness is something I am very open about as I think it’s so important that the stigma surrounding it be wiped out.
There are still some things in the show that are difficult for me to talk about, but I feel like I would be shortchanging my audience if I was saying ‘So This Is Who I Am’ and then only giving them half of the story.
Does the list of songs or indeed the script, grow organically depending on the venue or your mood at the time, or is it all set in stone?
Nothing with me is ever set in stone! I must drive Adam and Peter (the two musical directors) absolutely insane because I’m forever adding a song or taking one out. For me, it’s a learning experience, and as I grow the show grows with me. I like to give the audience an idea of what to expect but keep some of it a surprise.
When you have performed the show in the past, has the audience reaction altered from place to place? If so, are you surprised by their different responses?
I’m actually overwhelmed by the reaction to the show and the fact that it has gained such wonderful reviews.
On each occasion it has been given five stars and I’m very proud of that because the show is so personal. I’ve been told that it’s a very brave thing to do by putting myself out there so openly.
Do you think that So This Is Who I Am has been a cathartic experience for you and laid to rest any demons you might have had in the past?
This show has definitely been a cathartic experience for me, although at times it can be a little draining for me with so many ups and downs.
Regarding laying to rest demons from the past – the answer to that would probably be not quite. There’s certain things that I’’m not sure I will ever get my head around or deal with, but at least now I can talk about them.
Will you be touring So This Is Who I Am around the country or is it now just for London?
I’d love to tour with it. I feel that it definitely has potential to travel elsewhere, maybe even to the States and beyond.
I think it is a show that audiences can relate to. We all have a story to tell. It’s just that I choose to tell mine on stage.
Will you carry on performing the show for the foreseeable future or are you looking to be in other shows, other plays and maybe other cabarets?
It’s tricky because although I love this show, but I don’’t want people to become sick of it and think: “We’ve heard this before.” Having said that, I do try and change it up with a few different songs each time it plays somewhere.
A year or so ago I joined up with my friend, American actress Pippa Winslow, to do a divas show, and that was great fun. So, I’d love to do some more with her.
I also guested in a show back in November of last year that was produced by Michael Auger who is a member of Britain’s Got Talent winners Collabro. I’d love to collaborate with him again.
I’m really lucky to have gained a following collectively known as ‘Kit Kats’ who support everything I do and run a fan page etc. I adore them, so maybe a few more solo shows will be happening.
Are there any shows or any parts that you are really dying to play?
I would absolutely love to play Bobby in Company.
It’s one of my dream roles in a musical and I think the score is magnificent.
Emcee in Cabaret is another role I’d like to take on. I’d also like to revisit the role of Seymour and see how I would play him a few years on.
Other than than, a good hard-hitting television drama is on my ‘things to do list’. Something along the lines of Broadchurch would be right up my street. I just want to carry on growing as an actor and constantly stretching myself.
What is next on the calendar for Harry Kit Lee?
I’m very lucky to have fantastic agents and personal management in Linda French and Emma Goodliffe at APM Associates. Not only are they extremely supportive, they are also constantly coming up with various projects.
I recently joined composers Daniel and Laura Curtis and other performers from the West End and Broadway at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff for a Night of Musicals – Past, Present and Future.
Now it’s straight back to work on So This Is Who I Am. I want to make sure that I give the best show possible to everyone coming to see me.
* So This Is Who I Am plays London’s Leicester Square Theatre on Saturday 23 September