From Beggar to Nanny to Jane Austen: An Interview with Laura Michelle Kelly

Laura Michelle Kelly in Austen's Pride at 5th Avenue TheatreLaura Michelle Kelly has played a long line of strong female roles on stage. She’s been in Mary Poppins (winning the 2005 Olivier Award – equivalent to the Tony Award), she’s played ‘the Beggar Woman’ in the film version of Sweeney Todd, and now she plays Jane Austen in a new musical, produced by the 5th Avenue Theatre, entitled Austen’s Pride which is running October 4 – 27, 2019. Get tickets and more info here.

Eric Andrews-Katz:  Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?
Laura Michelle Kelly: I have to say it was my first singing teacher. She was named Barbara Walters, a Welsh opera singer in her 60’s, and it was she that taught me to sing. I got involved in stage work early, my entire family did, and we found a local theatre group. Ms. Walters and I met then, and she put me under her wing, giving me free singing lessons since we couldn’t afford it at the time. I wanted to be an opera singer at one point, but I turned to musical theatre and am very grateful for it. She introduced me to Maria Callas, and I love the way that singer lets her emotions take the song, sometimes sacrificing the technique to feel the emotion. I grew up in the era of Maria Carey and Whitney Houston, and I loved their music, growing up singing their songs at talent shows. Ms. Walters told me to sing every kind of music, not just opera, and that was great advice. I listened to (and sang the songs of) Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Maria Callas, Maria Carey, Barbra Streisand… especially Streisand since her story is so motivating; Broadway singer turns songwriter turns screenwriter turns producer. I also listened to Julie Andrews every day before I discovered theatre. I watched her in The Sound of Music over and over again.

Andrews-Katz: What was the show that gave you the ‘theatre bug’?
Kelly: The first show I ever did was called Viva. I was eight and a half, and the show was a compilation of different Broadway/West End musicals of the time. I was in the child’s chorus. We got to do all the different types of songs. There were two wonderful people that influenced my education – Tony and David. They wrote these modern pop-musicals, and would write us into their story. At age 17, I got my break from an open call to play the understudy of Belle in Beauty and the Beast. I was number 1600 or something, and had been there since 5 AM. I got to go on stage several times. The next show I did was Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Whistle Down the Wind.

Andrews-Katz: You were in the little-known Lord of the Rings musical, as Galadriel. What was it like to play the character on a stage?
Kelly: It was amazing! The show came into my life when I needed something different. I got to train everyday with 40 men, and I was the only woman training there, for a little while at least. I learned how to use Circus Silks, and I loved expanding my abilities. The costume designer had ideas for me to make an entrance with huge stilts and headdresses. They were going to have me just walk on, but I said, “No. Galadriel needs something more.” I would wait backstage, hanging in these circus silks, to go on stage. That was a special year, and truly a blessing. I love to do obscure and ground breaking musicals.

Andrews-Katz: You created the role of Mary Poppins on the London stage (and won an Oliver Award for it!). How did you make the beloved role your own?
Kelly: I think the team around me was so prepared that they knew what they wanted. They had visions in mind of how to make it work. The producers saw me do “Eliza” in My Fair Lady, and that was how I got the role. I didn’t know that it was going to be my audition. Sir Cameron McIntosh gave me the book Mary Poppins Returns and that was it.

Andrews-Katz: In Mary Poppins, you fly on and off the stage several times. What is it like to fly on stage?
Kelly: You mean me flying off the stage and into the ceiling of the theatre. I had to trust my team. Again, it’s about the team you work with, and trusting that they are all doing their jobs. It’s the thrill of knowing that what we do is dangerous, and to trust the people around you. It’s high stakes, and I think the fun of it is you get to know these people on a daily basis. The rehearsal part is only eight weeks, and that’s a different process from putting on the show. I enjoy the ‘getting-to-know-the-people- part of any show.

Andrews-Katz: You were in the musical Finding Neverland on Broadway. What are the main differences between being on a London stage and a Broadway stage?
Kelly: I would say the audience is such a different demographic. Yes, it’s all tourists, but the in the traditional British sense, it is that the audience sits still, and are very quiet, so you can never rely on a response from the audience. That changed when I got to America. They (American audiences) are very vocal, and you can hear the audience easily from the stage. There is definitely a difference. The Americans want to see you having fun on stage; they don’t want to see you hiding it.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Jane Austen in Austen's Pride at The 5th Avenue Theatre (Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka)

Laura Michelle Kelly as Jane Austen in Austen’s Pride at The 5th Avenue Theatre (Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka)

Andrews-Katz: Currently you are creating the role of Jane Austen in the new musical, Austen’s Pride. What can you tell us about the storyline of this original show?
Kelly: Working with the words and language is something incredible to do. It’s the words we all know from the books, but to use them in a different way like this is fun. I’m grateful for my journey with this show. Going from an obscure place where nothing is impossible, getting involved in whatever part, and realizing that it’s not the size of the role; it’s the involvement. That being said, Jane is on stage most of the time and that can be challenging.

Andrews-Katz: What is it about Jane Austen and her work that makes it timeless?
Kelly: I remember watching the BBC version with my mother. Austen’s writing is amazing. It captures your attention. Here are two couples, neither of them can really get it together to be fully engaging, and it’s the real humor of it to watch these couples struggle and to eventually find love. It’s a comedy of errors. Watching witty woman, Jane Austen, putting pieces together so that the ‘characters’ in her work, can make it. Pride definitely gets in the way, or the way you perceive who someone is. I love that about the show, discovering these instances and moments. It’s an amazing snapshot of what was happening at the time.

Andrews-Katz: Creating a new show can be exciting and intimidating. What are/were the most exciting and intimidating factors of this production for you?
Kelly: I look forward to the developing process. The workshops – getting to develop something and change it as you go along, is such an exciting adventure. I love that they [the developers] care enough about it and that we all aim for something that’s ‘good’ and not just ‘good enough’. Working with this team, and the writers at the 5th Avenue, is a real honor. The show is coming together beautifully, and it’s such a great piece because of the prolific story, and it’s an original conception. They are doing their own thing and not trying to be something else. Seattle should be proud of what the 5th Avenue is doing to change the culture and add to the next generation of theatre.

Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role – regardless of limitations – what would it be and why?
Kelly: That’s a tough question. I kind of envy the role of ‘Bobbie’ in the new version of Company. Although my friend Rosie played it, and I’m so very happy for her, I covet it. In the new version, a woman plays Bobbie. I want to play when it comes to Broadway.

Laura Michelle Kelly has performed on the West End stages of London, the Broadway stages of the United States, and the cinematic screens worldwide. She’s won the Olivier Award for her role in Mary Poppins. She created the role of ‘Sylvia’ in Finding Neverland on Broadway.

 

 

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Eric Andrews-Katz

Eric Andrews-Katz

Eric Andrews-Katz has short stories included in over 10 anthologies. He is the author of the Agent Buck 98 Series (“The Jesus Injection” and “Balls & Chain”), and the author of the Greek myth series beginning with the novel TARTARUS. He has conducted celebrity interviews with some of the biggest and best names on Broadway, Hollywood and in literature. He can be found at: http://www.EricAndrewsKatz.com

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