Laura Michelle Kelly: ‘I had to learn how to be myself in front of an audience’
Laura Michelle Kelly went to the US after securing leading Broadway roles. Now she’s back in the UK for one night at London’s Cadogan Hall. She tells Mark Shenton about crossing the Atlantic, getting her big break in Whistle Down the Wind and learning on the job
The transatlantic traffic of performers crossing between the West End and Broadway is busier than ever. From the US, talent in London this year includes banner names such as Katharine McPhee and John Malkovich, as well as acclaimed character actors including Martha Plimpton and Denis O’Hare.
Going the other way, most of the London cast of The Ferryman reprised their roles on Broadway, and when Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened on Broadway, the seven lead actors from the UK show all went with it.
But there’s a special breed of West End regulars who go for one job in the US, and end up liking it so much over there they make it their home. These include Laura Michelle Kelly.
Kelly played the title role of Mary Poppins on both sides of the Atlantic. She actually created the role in its original London production at the Prince Edward Theatre in 2004, before subsequently reprising it in New York a few years later and staying on in the US, moving to New Orleans.
This weekend she returns to London for a one-night homecoming concert at Cadogan Hall on February 24. “I’m super, super nervous about coming back to England,” she says. “I haven’t worked here in more than six years.”
Q&A: Laura Michelle Kelly
What was your first job?
Beauty and the Beast when I was 16.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
If someone is jealous and doesn’t like you, be nice to them back.
Who/what is your biggest influence?
My singing teacher the late Barbara Walters, and I’ve had some incredible coaches.
Best piece of advice for auditions?
Try to have fun.
If you hadn’t been an actor what would you have done?
There are moments in life when I wish I had done something else. There are many times when I’ve not got the job – once I had two years of waiting. But there’s nothing else I can do.
Do you have and theatrical superstitions of rituals?
I stretch and I hug everyone I can on the way to the stage.
Her last London theatre appearance was in a play, not a musical: The Second Mrs Tanqueray at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, in 2012. “I took it on because it had some really hard scenes. It was a real challenge playing a woman who committed suicide at the end.”
If such work enabled her to explore life’s darker side, she more usually radiates positivity, and hopes to bring that out during the concert: “I want to bring light and joy and fun to Cadogan Hall. I will share parts of my journey, revising memories and personal stories. I want people to leave different to how they came in.” She adds: “I’ll also be newly married, so I will be all loved up. It’s the only thing on my mind right now.”
The concert will also be an opportunity “to bring everything I’ve learned, mostly being in America for the last 10 years,” she says. “I’ve been performing solo concerts there for a while, but I’ve never done one in London. Being myself in front of an audience, instead of playing a character, was something I had to learn. I think I am there now – it’s still kind of new to me, I’m not [US performer] Barbara Cook – but I’m excited to be coming home and singing to people I’ve not seen in a long time.”
Born in Hampshire and raised on the Isle of Wight, she had no formal drama school training, instead learning on the job. She worked steadily from her first professional job in the West End, which was in Beauty and the Beast at the age of 16.
“I got my big break with Whistle Down the Wind with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Cameron Mackintosh let me be Éponine in Les Miserables for six months,” she says. In other words, Kelly served the regular musical theatre apprenticeship before graduating to leading lady as Eliza Doolittle, opposite Anthony Andrews as Higgins, in a take-over cast in the National’s My Fair Lady at Drury Lane.
Top tips for an aspiring performer
1. Be the best you can be and don’t try to be anyone else – don’t mimic or copy anyone else and you’ll reach your destiny.
2. Be kind to people who aren’t kind to you.
Just before she won the role of Mary Poppins, she paid her first visit to Broadway – where she was cast as Hodel, one of Tevye’s daughters, in a 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof. “I didn’t want to come back, I was loving the hype of the city, but I was offered Mary Poppins and it was life-changing.” Her star was properly in the ascendancy. In 2006, a leading role in the stage musical version of Lord of the Rings followed, first in Toronto, then at Drury Lane. “It was groundbreaking. The show included bungee jumping and characters walking on 12-foot stilts. I thought it would run forever.”
But it didn’t – and when she was offered the chance to reprise Mary Poppins on Broadway, she seized it, not least because her father and brothers had settled there by then. “I was happy to be nearer my family and doors kept opening. I’ve been having the time of my life.”
In 2015, she won the lead role of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in Finding Neverland, an entirely reworked version of a show that had premiered at Curve in Leicester.
“We did a whole different production there and it was a massive lesson for me that you can start all over again on a show that tells the same story, but with a totally different perspective. We did three different workshops and each was different: songs were cut and added, and scenes were changed. It was the most incredible learning experience.”
Since then, she has also toured in the US in a production of The King and I. “It was had graft, wearing a 45-pound dress, but I got to see America,” she says. Kelly turns 38 next month and she sounds content. It will be great to see her back in London, if only for one night.
CV: Laura Michelle Kelly
Born: Totton, Hampshire (1981)
• Whistle Down the Wind, Aldwych Theatre (2000)
• Mary Poppins, Prince Edward Theatre (2004); Broadway (2009)
• Lord of the Rings, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (2007)
• Speed-the-Plow, Old Vic (2008)
• Finding Neverland, Broadway (2015)
Awards: Olivier Award for best actress in a musical for Mary Poppins (2005)
Agent: Simon Beresford in UK, Paradigm Talent Agency in US
Laura Michelle Kelly is at Cadogan Hall London on February 24
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