Mazz Murray: ‘I’ve never done a job I didn’t want to do’
Some people want to be stars – others just like to work. Mazz Murray has carved out a distinctive West End niche for herself by being a solid worker, yet she’s also gained a devoted following out of it. She was in the original West End company of We Will Rock You for nine years, seven of them in the lead role of the Killer Queen. She joined the cast very late, just days before the show’s first preview, in an ensemble and understudy role – and only left, of necessity, when she was seven months pregnant with her first son.
Meeting her at the stage door of the Novello Theatre, where she has just taken over the role of Tanya in Mamma Mia!, it turns out this is also a familiar place for her. Murray’s actress mother Grazina Frame once appeared here in the mid-1980s in a revival of Cabaret that starred Wayne Sleep, and before that she had been in the original West End cast of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.
It was there that the nine-year-old Murray found her calling: “I saw Margaret Courtenay in 42nd Street and I saw my future. She was an absolute idol of mine. My mother understudied her, as well as Georgia Brown, and I would sit in a box in the theatre watching the show with full make-up on and say to myself: “I want this – this is heaven.” That was my introduction to showbusiness. And it remains my love today; not Sondheim but old-school Busby Berkeley-type shows have always been my passion.”
Actually, the London-born, but much travelled, Murray was born to the business in every way – her father is the famous 1960s songwriter Mitch Murray, whose number one chart hits included How Do You Do It? (Gerry and the Pacemakers, though the earlier Beatles version was released on 1995’s Anthology series), I’m Telling You Now (Freddie and the Dreamers) and The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde (Georgie Fame). Thanks to her father’s work, “my sister and I lived everywhere – we went to 11 schools in all, including ones in Amsterdam and America.”
Her sister is fellow West End performer Gina Murray, who is a year older. They settled on a path towards joining the business by going to stage schools: first Redroofs Theatre School in Maidenhead (from nine to 12), then Sylvia Young in London (from 12 to 16) after her mother joined the cast of 42nd Street. But she wasn’t let off the hook of a conventional life altogether.
“My mother made me go to business college, where I learned shorthand and typing and studied business communications.” Those skills have stood her in good stead. Her chef husband (who she married in 2009) runs a chain of three restaurants in Brent Cross, Bushey and Edgware. “We worked out that we wanted a swimming pool, and I knew that being in a show we weren’t going to get it.” So she helps with the running of the business, as well as running a family (their two sons are aged four and one). “This way you’ve always got a job – and you’re always full, so I’m happy.” Her husband was one of the motivations for doing Mamma Mia!: “He is totally uninterested in my career and what I do, and there are very few shows he will see – but he loves Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia! and, for all the wrong reasons, Chicago. So I thought if I do Mamma Mia! he’d actually come and see me in it.”
She recalls that when they first met, he was running a coffee shop below the flat in Finchley where she lived, and she’d go in after the show to get a tuna sandwich. “I told him I was in a show and he told me he didn’t really like them. I was trying to chat him up, and so I said I’d give him my number in case he changed his mind.”
Today she stresses the importance of putting love and family ahead of a career. Asked for her top tips for an aspiring performer (see box), she volunteers: “Don’t forget to fall in love and have a family. What are you waiting for? The dream is to love someone and to be loved.”
Not that she’s afraid of hard work – far from it, as her nine-year stint in We Will Rock You proves. Why did she stay so long? “I ran out of reasons to leave. I’m not massively into change as a person. I like continuity, and you become very institutionalised in a show – the majority of your life and enjoyment is backstage. Although you get used to the onstage fun very quickly, the backstage fun never wears thin. They become your family and you become extremely close. I had a terrific role, a terrific dressing room, terrific bosses, terrific breaks and phenomenal songs. I thought, what else am I going to do really that’s better? I don’t think I can do better than this practically or financially.”
Only her pregnancy intervened to bring her run in the show to an end. “That happens when you’re married. But if I hadn’t got pregnant, I would have continued. I did the show until I was seven months in, and they told me, ‘you look a fright, get off’.”
Motherhood changed her perspective and priorities: “I had the baby with the intention of coming back, but it was difficult to readjust. I had not had a break for so long, and after being thrown into motherhood, I just loved it – it’s as manic and mad as being in a show but in a completely different way, and I enjoyed it not being about me. Suddenly the focus is shifted away from yourself, and I loved it.”
She returned to the show for two weeks when her son was about six months old (“only to say goodbye to it”) but then created a girl group called Woman to satisfy her creative impulses. “My sister Gina, Emma Kershaw and myself wanted something to do as three singers and mums that was to our own timetable. I felt there was a gap in the market for a girl band who were grown-ups. I didn’t for a second think it would be difficult to make it happen – for me, difficult is getting into a show. But we had terrific luck and were signed to Sony, and we supported Earth, Wind and Fire and Billy Ocean on tour. We did it on our own terms and it was a fantastic filler.”
As a solo performer, Murray also joined Il Divo on their tour of Russia and Scandinavia, replacing Lea Salonga. “For a rock singer, it was quite a tall order for me to replace her – but they let me do Another One Bites the Dust and things I was comfortable with.”
She’s not, she admits, naturally drawn to conventional musical theatre stuff: “I’m not a musical theatre singer – I can do impressions of them, but it’s not where I naturally fit.” So rock-based shows have always been her metier – her first job was in a tour of Only the Lonely (in which she sang Dusty Springfield and Patsy Cline songs), and other shows have included tours of Boogie Nights, Fame and Smokey Joe’s Cafe. “But then I was in We Will Rock You for so long that 33 musicals came and went,” she quips.
Now she’s back with another pop musical: “I’ve always wanted to do Mamma Mia! And I was having lunch with Kim Ismay a few months ago, and she said she was thinking of leaving after playing Tanya for five years, and thought I should take over. I went in and had meetings and auditioned, and here I am.”
It’s the latest chapter in a fulfilling career: “I’ve never done a job I didn’t want to do because people said it would be good for me to do. I’m not built that way.”