Kerry Ellis originated the role of Meat in Queen’s We Will Rock You and was the first British Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked (which she followed by playing the role on Broadway for six months). Her other credits include Nancy in Oliver! at the London Palladium, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (her West End debut), Ellen in Miss Saigon and Fantine in Les Miserables.
Ellis’ first major CD release was Wicked in Rock which was a collaboration with her long-time friend, Queen guitarist Brian May. This led to her being signed to Universal as a solo recording artist and her debut album Anthems was released in 2010 on Decca Records. The success of the album led to a major tour of Anthems: The Concert throughout 2011. In June this year she joins May again for a second Born Free Tour, a series of acoustic, candlelight concerts.
The actress and singer has recently been seen in both tours of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and the Rent 20th Anniversary Concert. For her show at the London Palladium on Sunday, May 12, she will be accompanied by a band of 12, a choir of 60 and special guests including Brian May, “the Wicked girls” and actors Rory Taylor (ITV’s Superstar) and Alex Gaumond (We Will Rock You, Legally Blonde).
Q: Alongside your musical theatre roles, you have been performing more as a solo artist during the last few years (including of course the London Palladium concert on May 12). Was that hard to adjust to at first?
A: I had played characters for so long, there were always set lines to say. It took a little while to feel okay being myself onstage, speaking as myself and having my own opinions, it was strange at first. I really enjoy this new lease of life now and even embrace the spontaneity and danger of it all.
“I have been very fortunate to enjoy both sides of the business, performing my own shows and recording on top of the musical theatre roles. I like to be doing much as I can, it makes me better as a performer, exploring new opportunities and challenging myself. I have been both nervous and very excited about the Palladium concert.”
Q: The second Born Free Tour begins in June, and I believe there is a live album on the cards?
A: “Yes, it’s coming out in June. When Brian [May] and I went on tour at the end of last year – playing acoustic, stripped-down versions of Queen songs plus some of our personal favourites – we recorded the whole tour through the mixing desk. We realised the results were really good and perfect for a live album.”
Q: You also seem to find time for supporting young talent in the industry. Is that something that is important to you?
A: “I think it is important for young people to get involved in theatre in general, it is so beneficial in all aspects of life, not just if they’re going on to pursue it as a profession. It can be a boost to their social skills, their ability to retain information and it’s a good thing for self-confidence because they are encouraged to try something out of their normal comfort zone.
“I feel like I have something to say now, before I didn’t feel I had the experience. I remember when I was at college and figures like Ruthie Henshall and Elaine Paige were so inspirational. Now I have a big opportunity to help others. It’s also really educational for me when I do a workshop or teach young performers. The way they develop, and their comments on how they feel about the industry, can influence me when I am making decisions about a performance.”
Q: You sometimes sit on panels judging new talent, what are you looking for?
A: “I like to come in with a fresh view, without any preconception of how they will be, to see them like an audience member. I am looking for someone who doesn’t just have the best voice and vocal acrobatics, but have the ability to tell a story, to move an audience.”
Q: And what tips or guidance do you offer?
A: “I emphasise what a competitive industry they are going into and how they have to be really committed, that they need to have faith and confidence in their own talents without being arrogant. That it’s all about sustaining a long career, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Q: You have also supported new musical theatre writers in shows like Kerry Ellis Sings the Great British Songbook and in the recording of tracks written by up and coming songwriters like Craig Adams.
A: I have seen how difficult it is for new writers to put on shows. I appreciate to invest in something new is a risk for a producer, but the composers of the future have to come from somewhere. Craig is very talented and has actually been writing the arrangements for my Palladium show.
Q: What is next for you?
A: “I am appearing with Glenn Carter, Stephen Rahman-Hughes, David Thaxton, Matt Willis and Lee Mead in The West End Men in Concert at the Vaudeville (it’s great because I know them all and I normally have just one leading man!). And then I begin the second Born Free Tour (June 18-30) which covers the UK and Europe.”