Theatre Interview: Brenda Edwards, Hairspray, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

                 Image Source: Chronicle Live

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Hairspray is heading back to Liverpool Empire Theatre, following a very successful run back in 2015. Top of the cast is Brenda Edwards, reprising her role as Motormouth Maybelle. We spoke to Brenda to find out a bit more about the show and about Brenda’s background (including her breakout appearance as a contestant on The X Factor in 2005), and why Hairspray is a perfect show for people of all ages to come along and see.

First of all, tell us about your Motormouth Maybelle character in Hairspray.

Motormouth Maybelle is a very strong character in the show. I really enjoy playing her because she is the central hub of a place where everybody can come and chill out, listen to music and get advice. As I say, she’s a strong character, she’s a mother of two (Seaweed and Little Inez). Seaweed attends the same school as Tracy Turnblad, and he ends up bringing Tracy to Motormouth record store to meet her. It’s about how they all get together, and she decides that she wants to make a difference in the world. She wants to be famous, but she wants to make a difference in the world and have everybody as equals. So, she enlists the help of Motormouth Maybelle to help her to stop the segregation and move to the integration of all colours and races and sizes and people. Tracy doesn’t understand why people can’t just
get on together and why everybody are not treated the same.

So, the Motormouth character is a very strong lady, and they put on a demonstration and a march, and Motormouth Maybelle and Tracy Turnblad are at the forefront of that to make changes happen. She’s a fun character as well. It really keeps me on my toes to play that character. I can’t really say the wrong things because I have to rhyme everything! If I’m making a statement, I’ll have to figure out how to end it with a rhyme! It’s an exciting character, and I can relate to her strength. She’s independent, she knows her own mind, so I can relate to that in a lot of ways myself.

This is the second time that you have played this role. Are you looking forward to working with the current cast, and what do you think will be different about the production on this occasion?

The first time that I played Motormouth, it was a different cast obviously, so I think that naturally means that I will play the character in different ways this time. But I feel that I’ve grown a lot as a character, and the two songs that I have to perform – Big, Blonde and Beautiful and I Know Where I’ve Been – are amazing songs. With Big, Blonde and Beautiful, I get to show my personality and really have fun with it, and it’s a big number which all of the band are in where everybody are singing; it’s such a huge number to end Act I with. I Know Where I’ve Been is a total contrast, as it goes to the gospel side of my character. I think the words are so poignant and very moving. I think people can get a bit of everything out of that song to empower somebody and give them strength.

It helped me when I was going through all of my chemotherapy treatment. The last time round when I was performing that song, it was very special to me. The words of I Know Where I’ve Been, and knowing how it was last time when going through all of the cancer treatment and coming out the other side. Now, I’m singing it from a
different place. A lot of people say that I’m singing it from a different place. As much as it had a lot of meaning to me the first time round, it has even more meaning to me the second time round. I’m very honoured to be playing this role, and I’m very grateful. It’s a pleasure to play the role; it’s just fantastic. I think it is different in that way for me, but every time I perform, it’s a different audience, so I always try to give my best and perform like it’s the first time that I’m performing the show, because it’s a new audience, so you’ll always look to give the best performance every night.

Of course, it was The X Factor that led people to first learn about Brenda Edwards. How did this experience change your life, and what did you make of the other contestants from that year?

Oh, I loved it! It was scary doing X Factor. It was a daunting challenge, because I didn’t know anything about it. It was the second year when I did it, so I never really watched it the first time around, and so I didn’t know what to expect. But I always say that my year was the best year (laughs), because we had some characters in our year, and the series was just finding its feet; it was more focused on the acts. We had Chico, who is an amazing person inside and out; he’s just a beautiful spirit person. There was Shayne Ward, who has gone on to have success with albums, and he’s doing Coronation Street at the moment. The Conway Sisters were lovely. Maria Lawson is now in America having a recording career over there. There was Andy Abraham, Journey South – we had some really good people. Fleur East was in my year as well. We had some really good acts, and we all got on so well. It was hard to look at it as a competition sometimes, because we were all going through this new experience, and none of us knew what would happen and what would come out of it. So, we were all really supportive of each other.

It was a lovely experience, and it definitely helped me to be where I am now. As corny and cheesy as that sounds, if I didn’t do X Factor, then I wouldn’t be doing what I am today. I used to audition years and years ago; I’d do auditions and I’d get turned down for one reason or another. So, I do believe that X Factor was the platform for me and for my career in terms of where it is now. I’ll always be very grateful to The X Factor and how it has helped me to do what I ultimately love doing, which is singing. Doing the acting on top of it is a bonus. But I love singing, and to be able to sing every day for your main job, and to get paid for it, is a total winner, an absolute winner! I’m ecstatic, I’m over the moon! (Laughs) Plus, I get to see so many different cities; that’s the beautiful thing about doing a tour. I’m looking forward to coming to Liverpool, I’ve been to Liverpool twice before: once with We Will Rock You, and once with The X Factor tour. It’s a musical city, so I’m looking forward to coming and seeing some sights. I know the crowds are gonna be wild in Liverpool, so I’m very, very excited.

This is something I’ve always wondered: what is the camaraderie like in the house where all of the X Factor contestants are based during the live shows?

It was nervous as we were on tenterhooks at times. We’d all be in the house together, and there was 22 or 24 of us in this massive house. You had to pull together, because you don’t get to see your family. A lot of people have come from Ireland where they were a long way away from home. You’re kind of in a bubble in that house; you don’t realise what’s going on, because we were transported from place to place, going from rehearsals to costume fittings. If we had to do anything, we would get picked up in the car and be taken to the next place to get our hair done or our nails done or whatever it was, and then we’d get taken back to the house. We were like a touring family, similar to the touring Hairspray show. So, you all kind of pull together, and I like taking on a mother role, so I’d cook food for everybody and stuff. If anybody got upset, you would get to find out those sorts of things in the house because it’s such a close unit.

It was fun; it wasn’t like there was a lot of arguing. You didn’t really have time for anything, because you’d finish the show on Saturday, then on Sunday we’d go to find out what our song would be for the following week and learn the song, and then put it down into whatever key it needed to be put down into. Then on Monday it would be more rehearsals, on Tuesday – well, we never had vocal lessons, but we had a mentor that we’d go and see, so in my case I’d go and see Sharon (Osbourne), or Mark, who was our vocal mentor. He’d speak to us about the song and where we wanted to take the song. On Wednesday, we’d go to see the stylist to work out what we were going to wear. Thursday was more rehearsals and choreography, directions, movements etc. Friday was the dress run, and then Saturday was the show, and then on Sunday, it all starts back up again. So, that was quite full-on, and in between that, there would be interviews, press stuff – it was nonstop. I was quite fortunate that I was a semi-finalist; I got through to that stage, so there was 10-11 weeks of doing that. Once you do it one week, you realise that this was how it was going to be. It was quite a strict timetable that you had to follow, and if you think about it, there would be 12 acts, and that’s a lot of people that you’ve got to get through doing the same thing, and everybody has got to do their bit.

So, we all had to pull together, and I think we all got on really well. There would be the odd one or two little disagreements, but 95%-98% of the time, everybody just got on well and had a good time. It was a competition at the end of the day, so as much as we made friends, you had to remember that you were in a competition with these people, so you couldn’t get too attached. It was sad seeing people leaving. It was quite sad for me seeing people leaving who you had struck up friendships with. That was hard as well, but you had to just try your best and remain focused. I loved it; it was exciting. I didn’t realise how far-fetched it was until the week that I left, and then you think “Oh, what am I going to do now? What am I going to do on Sunday? What am I going to do on Monday?” I would feel sorry for myself, because I didn’t know what to do! (Laughs) I’d had 11 weeks of doing this, this, this, this and this, to thinking “Okay, what do I do now?” You really have to decide to just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward, and try your best to make something out of what you’ve done. Of course, Facebook and Twitter weren’t around in those days when I did it. It’s funny now that social media plays such a big role with voting, but when I was doing the show, it just wasn’t there; it was only MySpace (laughs), so it’s changed a lot. Times have changed, and if you don’t move with the times, you get left behind.

From there, you entered the world of theatre, starring in several major productions. What would you consider to be the highlights of your theatre career?

Oh, my gosh. Well, I have loved every single show; I don’t just audition for a show if I don’t want to do it. I’ve had an amazing time. Straight after X Factor, I was in Chicago, which was phenomenal, playing the role of Mama Morton in such an amazing show, and that show now coming back is fantastic. Playing the Killer Queen in We Will Rock You; there were so many highlights doing that show, from working so closely with Brian May, Roger Taylor and Ben Elton – I was speechless, it was amazing. I got to drive a Cadillac on stage when I did Carmen Jones at the Royal Festival Ball. That was brilliant. Doing Carousel at the English National Opera House just recently with Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe. I’ve had so many highlights in my career, and I actually got to meet Marc Shaiman, who wrote the music for Hairspray and the lyrics for the songs that I’m singing. So, I’ve had some major highlights throughout my whole live career, of course starting with having Sharon Osbourne as my mentor; that was phenomenal! There’s been so many, and it’s nice to know that I’m going to have so many more in the future; every day is a highlight for me. I live each day like it’s my last, so I just embrace whatever is coming and have fun with it. I’ve been very fortunate and very lucky. I’ve met some amazing people, and I’ve made some fantastic friends. That’s the good thing about this industry, that it’s a massive networking industry. When you make friends, you make them for life, which is good; I’m happy about that.

Finally, what can the Liverpool audience expect from Hairspray?

Hairspray is for all ages. It doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you’re 6 years old or 86 years old, Hairspray has something for everybody in there. You can come and forget yourself for a couple of hours, and there’s a message within the show that is basically: “Anybody can be anything that they want to be as long as you put your mind to it”. It also delivers a message of just coming together as a nation and being one. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, what colour you are, what race you are, what your religious beliefs are, whether you’re big or small or tall or short. It’s just about everybody coming together as one, and I think that Liverpool as a city has proved over the years that it does that. It’s a united city, and I think that everybody who comes to see the show are going to have such a good time. They’re going to leave laughing with tears of joy. It’s going to be uplifting for everybody that comes and watches it. It’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s non-stop, and you just can’t stop the beat going. It’s nice when you come out of the stage door and you hear people singing where you can’t stop the beat at the end; they’re all just singing and happy. It’s hopefully going to make everybody feel so uplifted, with a little side-message of “Let’s just be nice and calm and kind to each other”, and to do what we can to help the future grow strong. There are enough arguments and enough fighting and enough horrible stuff going on in the world; it’s nice to be able to just close the door to all of that for a couple of hours, to forget all that and to be taken away on a bright and beautiful journey full of wonderful, happy
things. I think that is what’s needed. Drew McOnie has taken the choreography even further this time around, so it’s just amazing from start to finish; it is fantastic. The collage and the bands; it is just all phenomenal. I love being a part of this show, it is just fabulous.

Hairspray runs at the Empire Theatre from Monday April 16 to Saturday April 21. To book your tickets, click here.