Who says you can’t go home again? Kerry Ellis has returned to her defining role as Elphaba in Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre for a limited run through October, barring certain performances away from the hit musical in order to pursue her thriving concert career. A veteran of the global smash on both sides of the Atlantic, the Broadway.com Audience Choice Award winner took time to discuss reapplying the green makeup, being a musical theater “rock chick” and the most important addition to her life—her young son, Alfie.
You’ve come home, so to speak! How did that happen?
A friend of mine [the West End’s previous Elphaba, Willemijn Verkaik] had to go have back surgery because [the pain] had got too severe for her to continue, so [producer] Michael McCabe gave me a call and was like, “We’d like you to come back to the show for a couple of months if you’re free.” In fact, I wasn’t really free because I have my own solo tour around the beginning of October, but they’ve been so wonderful and worked around everything, so here we are!
Was the part of Elphaba still there in your muscle memory?
That’s a good way to put it because it was as if the body went to all the right places and did all the right things! I have to say that at first it was really scary because they sent me the script so I could have a little refresher and it was as if I’d never done the show before; I couldn’t remember it at all. But once I got back into the rehearsal room and on to the stage, something clicked; it was as if I’d never left.
Had you been looking to return to Wicked?
Not at all and the fact is I have never returned to a show in my career; this is the first time it has happened. But this is such a sought-after role and the musical itself such a huge entity that I thought if there was any role I was going to return to, this would be it. It’s been lovely to come back to.
You’re older now, of course, than when you first replaced Idina Menzel in the part in London and then did the part on Broadway. Has your Elphaba changed as a result?
It’s interesting: a lot of people that have seen me do it say how much I have changed in the role—that my humor this time is a little bit different, stuff like that. I actually feel more knowledgeable coming into the role this time and feel as if I understand it better—as if I understand her better.
Was it hard getting used to the green makeup all over again?
I’d done that for two and a half years without a break, so coming back to it felt a bit of a novelty. I quite enjoy the transformation; that’s all part of getting ready for the role so you can’t really be moaning about it.
What does your son think about seeing his mum looking all green?
Alfie’s not quite 10 months old and hasn’t been to the show yet but I hope to bring him along at some point. I’m sure he won’t be that bothered! I was touring with Brian May when I was pregnant and he got through that so he probably won’t be too fazed by this.
Your solo career has really progressed since you last played Elphaba to the extent that I wonder whether you’re not tempted to focus on that at the expense of musical theater?
That’s a difficult one, really. I have to say that over the past four years it’s been nice to be out there on my own and with Brian [May, from Queen] and it’s certainly very liberating performing as yourself because you do learn different talents—even tricks.
You learn how to engage with an audience, which you kind of don’t do when you’re in a musical where you are doing your show and playing your role as true to the character as possible. On the other hand, when you’re playing yourself, you have to engage with an audience and you have to expose yourself in order to be real; it took me a while to be comfortable with that.
As a result, do you see yourself having two strands to your career?
To be honest, I think I’ve always fought the separation, which may be why I’ve been successful in what I do. I want to do everything and don’t see why that shouldn’t be possible. It’s easy in this business to get thought of as an actor or a singer when you’re just trying to do your own thing and not to be a stereotype.
You’ve cultivated quite a distinct “rock chick” persona, which must seem leagues away from your early days opposite Jonathan Pryce in My Fair Lady.
[Laughs] It does, but I really loved doing My Fair Lady. I have such amazing memories of that show surrounded by amazing people. I’d love to do something like that again where there’s a real sense almost of grandeur.
Tell us about your new album.
This came about following a one-woman show I did in May 2013 at the Palladium that was a fantastic night. I got a lot of my friends together and some musicians and singers, and it was incredible. After the event, some of the band said, “you’re going to get an album from this,” so I went on to record the album basically for all the fans so as to combine stuff from the Palladium show along with musical stuff I hadn’t recorded before: “On the Street Where You Live” and “Take That Look off Your Face,” for instance. There are a couple of surprises in there as well.
And what about your future with Wicked: do you see yourself coming back to the show repeatedly, along the lines of Yul Brynner in The King and I or Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly?
I don’t think so—well, not unless I play Madame Morrible.