Interview With Laura Michelle Kelly
This week our reporter Hayden Thomas (Twitter: @WestEndReporter) caught up with one of his favourite fellow Brits - Olivier Award winner Laura Michelle Kelly, who is currently starring as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in box office smash Finding Neverland at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Read on to find out about Laura's thoughts about the secret to Neverland's commercial success and her feelings about the show being excluded from the Tony nominations. Find out about her favourite West End memories of Mary Poppins, The Lord of the Rings and working with Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic, and where exactly does this transatlantic musical marvel call home nowadays?
Hayden Thomas: Finding Neverland is doing so well at the Box Office. What do you think is the secret to its commercial success?
Laura Michelle Kelly: I think the fact that Gary and Eliot are involved – they are incredible pop songwriters and lyricists. I've always said about Gary that he's the songwriter of our generation in England. His writing is beautiful and inspirational. Its due to having an English creative team and Diane Paulus' ability to create something completely out of the ordinary. They're looking for a different way to tell a story. It's her enthusiasm for the project, which started out in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in her theatre there. She involved young minds as well as the people that she trusted around her. She's always allowing it to be a conversation and is very collaborative. I think it's because of a lot of things. Whatever it takes to make a hit, she can just see what the audience wants or offer them something new and people eat it up. Plus, we've got the big, amazing Harvey Weinstein behind what we're doing. It's such a good combination and we love what we do. We love our story. It's about hope and finding a way through life in a positive way despite certain circumstances. It's an unusual musical in that it allows the audience to laugh and then cry and then laugh and then cry and certainly leave different from the way they came in.
HT: I'm not ashamed to say I shed a tear or two at certain moments of the show, Laura. Now, you mentioned Gary Barlow. Were you a fan of Take That growing up at all?
LMK: Actually, I wasn't into the boyband thing at all when I was growing up, but I was really into his music as an artist. He did a solo thing for a little while. I love every song he's ever written. I love his lyrics. They're so memorable. I think for this show, it keeps growing and being re-defined and refined. I have a feeling that before it goes out on the North American tour and before it goes to London, they're gonna keep re-writing it and I think that's great. They never just sit back on their laurels.
HT: Would you be interested in transferring with the show to London, Laura? Or are you quite settled here in New York now?
LMK: (Laughs) Oh, you can't ask me that!
HT: (Laughs) Choose now!
LMK: That's a hypothetical question that I can't answer yet. But of course to go to London would be incredible. But I'm also so happy with the Broadway cast. I'm quite happy just living in the moment. I'm always wishing and hoping to do good work, wherever that may be.
HT: And you've had tremendous success on both sides of the Atlantic. Where do you call home now?
LMK: Well, my Dad actually married an amazing woman and they live in Louisiana, in New Orleans, and so my life took a huge turn and change of direction. I would say my home and family is wherever my Dad is and he and my Stepmom are in Louisiana, so I go there quite a lot. They have a house in New Orleans. My family and my brothers are living there. My oldest brother lives in London. So I do have places close to my heart, but sadly in this industry, you've got to go where the work is. I've been working in America the last few years. But home is where your friends and your family are and I think that's what I love about the theatre. It becomes your family, wherever you are in the country or in the world. They become your family. So, it's a tough question to answer.
HT: “Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home,” as the song says. Well, if we go back to 2004 now as you made your Broadway debut in a revival of 'Fiddler on the Roof,' was it different at all to working in the West End?
LMK: Yeah! The audience is so different from a British audience. I'm making very general, swooping statements but it feels like the American audiences want to see you happy, so that they can be happy for you or see you cry, so that they can cry for you. Whereas in Britain, I would say people don't want to be told what to think. They want to figure it out on their own. That's a very general feeling, but I'm leaning towards thinking that's how it is. The art form is the same though. You're creating something authentic and it's a live performance, wherever it is. They always say you never see the same performance twice and that's what I love about it.
HT: I'm interested to hear about your favourite memories of a handful of past shows, if you don't mind, Laura. I have to start off with your Olivier Award-winning performance as Mary Poppins, as you originated the role on stage. Some may argue, that was a career-defining time in your life. What is your best memory from Poppins?
LMK: It really was a career-defining moment. People keep going back to it because she was such a loved character. I think I really underestimated the power and the effect that it would have on me. I underestimated the effect that it would have on my life, probably to cope with the pressure. I didn't realise until now really – a decade later – how impactful that role would be. But a memory? I remember having to go on with no set whatsoever during one of the first performances, during the pre-West End run in Bristol. The house kept breaking down. I think it's quite usual to have technical difficulties during the preview period. I remember having to go on with nothing around me but a blank space and I had to try and make people believe in a bird in an empty cage, as I was singing to it. It was really quite traumatic! (laughs) I pulled the cloak off the bird cage and this empty bird cage went tumbling down the stage towards the pit and I had to think on my feet. I had to pull it out of the bag that night... literally! (laughs)
HT: (Laughs) As it were, Mary! Well, that's the beauty of live theatre. What about playing Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane?
LMK: Ooh I always remember coming down, descending from the trees and how they decided that should happen. There were all these incredible circus feats and amazing movement on stage – bungee-jumping and stilt-walkers – and I was asking how am I gonna make my entrance? How about on stilts? I spent weeks working on stilts and showing off what I could do, but then they decided that it was just too dangerous. They did however want me to descend from the Gold Tree, but that meant I had to be pre-set at the beginning of Act 3 and stay up there until they were ready for me. I would be hanging there in the ceiling for about twenty minutes!
HT: Just chilling?
LMK: (Laughs) Yes! I used to love those moments. I used to dream up there. I didn't have a harness. I would just hang and they would be whispering: “Are you alright?” But I'd just be loving it and feeling totally enchanted. That whole show was so groundbreaking and so brilliant. I just loved being a part of it. I really would love to do The Lord of the Rings in concert in New York. People here need to hear the beautiful, stunning music by A.R. Rahman. We should get a symphony orchestra together and do it.
HT: You may be onto something there! And what about a final memory, perhaps, of performing at the Old Vic in Speed-The-Plow with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum?
LMK: Ah I couldn't believe I was in a play with them. I tried my best to do it justice and one thing Kevin never did – he never gave me any notes on how to be a better actor. He could've totally given me so many notes, but he never did. He completely respects the actor on stage. He was very supportive and respectful and I really valued my time there. I learned a lot as an actor by watching him and Jeff.
HT: Back to the current day then, Laura, and Finding Neverland. I was surprised that there was no Tony recognition for the production, seeing as though it is such a crowd favourite. How was that whole Tonys experience for you personally?
LMK: Well, firstly, I had an amazing time. I wore an amazing dress. I walked the red carpet. I celebrated all my friends who are in other shows, that were nominated. But I'm also aware that we are a show that can survive without a Tony and that there were many that may not. They perhaps needed the recognition. In the bigger picture, it was a good idea that other shows were celebrated and that we were taken out of the race. I'm not exacty sure what my final thought is about it. We all had fun and my cast-mates did a great job performing on the Tonys. I feel that we'll be fine. I don't feel like we've lost anything.
HT: I really believe too that this will buck the trend of the Tonys dictating which shows should stay open and which should close and I wish you all the luck with it, Laura.
LMK: Ah it's been so nice to talk to you today, and thank you for making me think of all my favourite shows of years gone by! I'm going to go away now and have a good long reminisce. God bless you.
HT: Thank you, Laura. God bless you too.
Finding Neverland is currently booking at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre through to 20 December 2015.