DIVA TALK: Chatting with Mary Poppins' Laura Michelle Kelly

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Mary Poppins' Laura Michelle Kelly
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Laura Michelle Kelly
Laura Michelle Kelly

A lovely young woman from a distant land has arrived on these shores, and she is busy spreading good cheer to those who cross her path — no, it's not Mary Poppins but the woman playing her, U.K. native Laura Michelle Kelly, who originated the role in the West End production of Mary Poppins to Olivier Award-winning effect. Kelly, who recently joined the Broadway cast of the Disney hit, is a completely enchanting Mary Poppins, and her performance as the world's most famous nanny allowed this theatregoer the chance to enjoy the production at the New Amsterdam Theatre as never before. The singing actress brings such a palpable sense of joy to the role that it is clearly evident why the Banks children are so smitten with her. Kelly, who made her Broadway debut as Hodel in the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, has also appeared on the London stage in My Fair Lady, Lord of the Rings, Les Miserables, Mamma Mia! and in a particularly starry revival of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow. The artist boasts a voice that is both Julie Andrews-pure at the top and excitingly belty in the middle, and she makes each and every onstage moment count. To borrow a phrase from Mary Poppins, Kelly seems "practically perfect in every way." My recent interview with the actress, who also appeared in Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd," follows:

Question: Where were you born and raised?
Laura Michelle Kelly: Isle of Wight. It's really nice to ask questions about that. Not many people do that anymore. I grew up on a farm surrounded by fields. I fell in love with theatre because, down the road, there was a little acting group. There was nothing for us to do, so we started going to acting classes once a week with a lovely lady called Joan. We'd put on little shows for the older people down the road. It was a very quiet country lane, maybe a mile long, with each house separated by a field. It was that kind of environment. It was just a reason to get the community together and entertain people. So that was the beginning. And then there was open auditions for the local theatre group, and my brother got into A Christmas Carol, playing Tiny Tim… my younger brother Nathaniel. Because I saw him doing it and it looked so fun, I really caught the acting bug. I begged them to [let me] be in the next show they did. Literally every show that was put on every season, I was a part of. We'd travel every day after school to the other side of the Isle of Wight to go to the theatre. In the end we moved to the beach to be near the theatre, so it was just walking distance, because I was there all the time. So that's how I got my training really, through experience.

Question: When do you think you knew it would be your career, where it changed from a hobby?
Kelly: It never changed until I got my very first [audition]. I didn't even think about it! It's funny because you do forget that you never used to get paid for [performing]. You did it for love. I did an audition for a job, Beauty and the Beast, in London. It was an open audition. There were about 2,000 people, my first audition ever… apart from school auditions, school plays, which I never seemed to get. They gave me some bit part at the back. [Laughs.] I auditioned for Beauty and the Beast and I got it. I was the understudy to Belle, which was just mind-blowing, because I'd never had a lead part in my life.

Question: What year was that?
Kelly: When I was 17 in 1998. I got on for two whole weeks, and I suddenly realized you can actually get paid for doing something you love.

Question: Do you remember your first night on the West End stage?
Kelly: I remember my first moment on the stage when I auditioned. I'm surrounded by the whole Disney Beauty and the Beast set. I think they had the village scene up. There were auditions on the stage during the day, and in the evening, they were doing the show. I remember walking on this humungous stage — I had only been on little stages before then — and I just was so lost in it all. I was so happy to be there for that one moment. At every audition I've ever had, I try to experience the moment and enjoy it, and if I get the job, it is a bonus. Question: How did doing Fiddler in New York come about?
Kelly: When I was 17 I did [Beauty and the Beast]. The next job I got was the lead role in something, and then maybe eight years of doing different jobs along the way, being blessed enough to play lead roles in those. I'd worked with a guy called Jonathan Butterell. We did Peter Pan. Funny enough, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who co-wrote some of the songs in Mary Poppins, had written a beautiful version of Peter Pan. They did it at the Royal Festival Hall. I was Wendy, and my brothers played John and Michael.

Question: So your brothers are professional actors as well?
Kelly: They were then. [Laughs.] They played my brothers in it. It was so wonderful. Jonathan Butterell did the choreography for that, and Jonathan was doing the choreography for Fiddler on the Roof. He was doing the additional musical staging with David Leveaux, who was directing. I had gotten really good reviews on My Fair Lady, and so the director had heard of me. Jonathan just threw my name out there as an option. I'm told they had been looking for a long time for a Hodel, someone that would fit in the mix of the people who were already cast. So they flew me over. I had just finished My Fair Lady, playing Eliza. [I didn't know] what I was going to go onto next, but was quite happy about it because I was quite tired. [Laughs.] But they flew me over and within two days they had offered me the job. And then we had to go through the process of hopefully being let over. American Equity were very generous in letting me play it here back then when I wasn't known. It was an incredible experience. I loved doing Fiddler on the Roof. It was just wonderful.


Laura Michelle Kelly and Lea Michele in Fiddler on the Roof
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: It was a beautiful production.
Kelly: It was! They got all the wood shipped from Russia — it was ancient wood. It was very natural… and the real trees they had! And the kind of Chagall-type style to some scenes, with the flying couple, John Cariani and Sally Murphy. It was just so beautifully done. It was lovely to be part of.

Question: Had you been in New York prior to that?
Kelly: Oh yeah, on vacation. After the second I'd been here, it became like a dream. I hadn't really thought about it until I'd visited New York and seen all the shows that were on and that the standard was so high. It inspired me, and then it became a natural hope that one day I might get to play there. So when they offered me Fiddler on the Roof, I didn't even have to think about it. I was like, "Yes, please!" I had been in discussions about Mary Poppins before I left, because I had just done My Fair Lady with Cameron Mackintosh. I wasn't sure whether they were going to offer it to me or not, but I knew it wasn't happening for a while. So while I was here, they offered me Mary Poppins. I remember the day they offered it to me. I was living in a very high apartment overlooking New York. They offered me the role, which meant I had to leave this beautiful place I had fallen in love with, New York, to go back and do this incredible job. I always did hope when I was doing it in London that one day I would do it here. After doing it for two years in London, I just needed a break. I thought I'd missed my chance at doing it here and decided, "Okay, that's never gonna happen." It just wasn't good timing for everybody. And out of the blue I get a phone call saying, "Would you like to do it here?" And I was like, "Yeah! Perfect timing!" [Laughs.]

Question: What went through your mind when they asked you if you wanted to come to New York?
Kelly: Two things, actually. It was a very vivid moment of "I totally want to, but I feel like I should say no," because it's a big, big job and it was exhausting and it was a real challenge. And I thought, "Oh, my gosh, I can't. I'm five years older. My body might not be able to handle it!" [Laughs.] But actually I've really found it easier. I always said, "I'm five years older, maybe my body can't handle it." But I think I'm five years wiser. Because of those two years that I did it, I knew the downfalls and I knew how to prepare for it. I had actually been in training for a whole year to get really fit anyway, because one day I've got a dream to climb Mount Everest. I've still got that dream. I think that maybe this has helped, so I'm on a real health kick. My diet's better, my sleeping pattern is better. I know the sacrifices that I would have to make to survive here doing eight shows a week, and I've generally been a bit more health conscious. It just seems easier, which is strange. [Laughs.]

Question: Is there much difference between the London and New York productions?
Kelly: Yeah, the audience is very different. I think I've been learning a lot from being here, from being surrounded by people that have been in the show a long time. They've been here a long time, they've seen every Mary. Some people have seen every Mary through it. I found that very challenging at first. Obviously, Ashley [Brown] got fantastic reviews and she's a wonderful, wonderful actress and she's the original Broadway Mary.… I was worried that people would compare. And then I realized that we're all in the same family, really. Scarlett [Strallen], who had played it after Ashley, she really helped me make the change. In the end, it's like we're all sharing the same experience, and we're all for each other. That's a really nice way to start your time here. That's how I felt it happen. Like [Disney producer] Tom Schumacher put it, "We're all part of the same family." There's a new girl… Caroline Sheen is going into the U.S. tour. She did it in London. There are very few of us that have played this part, and it's nice to be part of the group of girls that's doing it.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Mary Poppins
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you think your take on the role has changed at all?
Kelly: Totally! [Laughs.]

Question: In what way?
Kelly: I was very serious in London, and rightly so. It's the way we tell the story. I was younger then, and I know a bit more about life now. I think every year, you develop and grow as a person, and I can bring more to it than I did before. Being surrounded by inspiring performances all over Broadway, my experience is constantly growing. I think that being surrounded by excellence has really raised the bar for me, and that's good.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show, something you look forward to?
Kelly: I find this question really good, because it makes me really think about it. [Laughs.] I have to say, I'm having so much fun at the moment. I think I really enjoy "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," because that's when everybody can be silly and fun, and everybody's onstage. I like that. I like sharing the stage with everybody. That's nice. But I just generally look forward to coming to work, which is really nice.

Question: What's it like getting to fly out over the audience?
Kelly: That's just always fun. Just to see the little girls' faces… sometimes I try to see if I can look at as many little girls as possible. Their faces just light up! And then these little boys come and they want to be Bert. They come backstage afterwards, and they're just in awe. Even the ladies… I like to meet the mums. You make their day, because their children are so happy. But a lot of them mention about how they first experienced Mary Poppins in the movie and how they loved it, and that this just relived their childhood for them. A lot of older ladies have said they feel like they're a child after watching it, and I like that. I like giving that joy to people.

Question: When the little kids see you after the show, what are their reactions?
Kelly: Some of them aren't sure because I'm not in the costume anymore. [Laughs.] They're like, "Um, you don't look the same!" But a lot of them are just in awe. And you just know they're gonna go home talking about it the whole way. But at the time they're just stunned. They don't know what to say. There are some little girls that just scream about it. You know how they do, with the giggles. That's so fun. Even during the show, you hear people's reactions to some moments, and it just makes your heart full. I love it. That's the reason why I like to do it. I like to make people happy. Question: You were recently on the London stage in a very different production, Speed-the-Plow. What was that experience like?
Kelly: It was quite difficult and challenging to be in a play. I'm used to breaking into song. But in the same way it was challenging, which makes it rewarding and really enjoyable. Being with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum was slightly intimidating, but they're so easy to work with. They were very generous onstage, and I just felt really honored about being able to work next to these two incredible actors. You can't help but learn when you're around them. Kevin's just a one-man champion for the youth theatre culture. He's raising so much money for the Old Vic; he's doing an incredible job for the renovation and the projects that they have on. He really does have a say in what our theatre culture is being formed into in London. He's extremely passionate about theatre, and I was really blown away by seeing that in his life. It's every part of his life.

Question: Would you like to do more non-musicals?
Kelly: Yeah. I want to be a better actress in general, so I tend to want to do things I've never done before. I know that I can explore more in the play arena. I'd really like to do film. I'm really excited about this new generation of musical movies. I'm so excited about that, because it'll bring more people into the theatre and into Broadway and into the West End. It'll bring people more passion, and it will also make the theatre grow. You always want it to be evolving. There's been a whole spectacle-type inspiration to the musical — the bigger the spectacle, the more exciting it is — but now I think they're also developing new technologies and new ways of bringing something new to an audience. With Lord of the Rings we explored having three-dimensional theatre, where people would go into the audience and scare them… and having circus-type skills onstage, which was really exciting for me to be part of. And then you've got all the different automation you can do. Any kind of thing that helps an audience suspend disbelief is exciting. I know that that's what musical movies are going to bring to the stage. The standard's going to be raised. People are going to have to find new ways to excite the audience, and I like that.

Question: Are you working on any other projects while you're here?
Kelly: I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say. [Laughs.] But I've done a workshop or two, but I have also had so much fun being involved with the show. For me, it's been so rewarding. Really, I love New York. I love the park. I love the blue skies. I love the river, and I love my apartment, and I love the people that I work with. It's a really wonderful chapter in my life. I'm really happy here.

Question: How long do you think you'll stay with the show?
Kelly: At the moment I'm contracted until October, but we'll see. I'm having so much fun, I don't even want to think about it. I've already been here five months, I can't believe it. Time really does fly when you're having fun.

Question: Was "Mary Poppins" a book or a film that you knew as a child? I think here every kid sees it, but I don't know if it's the same in the U.K.
Kelly: I think it is the same, although I was a late starter. We always watched movies really behind the times. We could only watch movies that came on the TV. There were only four channels, and all the good movies would be on at Christmas. But I do remember "Mary Poppins," and I remember certain scenes where she's flying. I always watched any musical movie, and I video-ed it every time they were on. "Sound of Music" was my favorite. I watched that movie all the time. I drove my brothers crazy. It was one of the videos we owned. "Mary Poppins" came on a few times, and I just was enthralled. But really when I was offered the show, I saw it as a sign not to watch it. I know I would completely want to emulate Julie Andrews and be like her. [Laughs.] So I tried not to watch it. My take was from the book. In the book she was very stern, very proud of herself. Outward appearance would be really important, but she really genuinely cared for the kids. She didn't like to show it. She was very English in her manner that she didn't like to be too obvious. The kids had to guess all the time whether she was really for them or not. I liked that. It was ambiguous. But here, it's just a laugh a minute. I've really grown in the way I have more fun. Mary Poppins lets her emotions show a bit more in America. Let's just put it that way. It's more obvious that I let my joy show. [Laughs.]

Question: You mentioned that you love Sound of Music. Have you ever gotten to do that show?
Kelly: I did. I played all the kids in it. I'd really love to play Maria. One of my best friends is playing it at the moment in London. I'm so jealous! [Laughs.] No, I'm really happy for her. I'm living vicariously through her. But that is something I'd really like to do one day, but we'll see. I'm not too old yet! I'm only 28.

[Mary Poppins plays the New Amsterdam Theatre, Broadway and 42nd Street. For tickets visit www.DisneyOnBroadway.com, the New Amsterdam Theatre Box Office (214 West 42nd Street) or call (866) 870-2717.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Laura Michelle Kelly (center) in "Sweeney Todd"
Laura Michelle Kelly (center) in "Sweeney Todd"
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