Hairspray royalty Brenda Edwards brings new energy from behind the scenes

    Brenda Edwards has starred in Hairspray as Motormouth Maybelle three times and makes her directorial debut for the UK tour of the feel-good classic this summer. The Tony award-winning musical opens at the Liverpool Empire Theatre on Monday August 19th.

    About Brenda Edwards
    Brenda’s shot to our screens when she became the last woman standing in the semi-finals of the UK’s X Factor in 2005, leaving the audience and judges spellbound week after week. In 2006, she was presented with the Screen Nation Award for Favourite Reality TV Star. In 2016 Brenda was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. As of 2022, she is 6 years free of cancer and uses every opportunity to raise money and awareness for various cancer charities. Brenda is currently a regular panellist on ITV’s Loose Women and a presenter of BBC’s Songs of Praise. In 2022 she set up The Jamal Edwards Self Belief Trust to offer support to young people suffering from homelessness and mental health issues. Hairspray marks her debut as a theatre director…

    Brenda Edwards Hairspray Q&A by Sara Thornton

    Q: What is Hairspray the Musical about?

    A: Hairspray is about championing the underdog. A young girl, Tracy Turnblad, has big dreams and wants to be famous. She wants to be liked, she wants to be loved, she wants to get the boy! She is judged by some people for how she looks. Unfortunately, it is still very relevant to the world we’re living in today where you’re dealing with racial tension, discrimination and people just not being able to be themselves.  Everybody has a dream, and everybody should be able to pursue that dream.

    Q: Tell us about Tracy Turnblad, the main character.

    A: Tracy is a young girl who is very naive in a lot of ways in that she doesn’t understand why things are segregated. She thinks everybody should be integrated. I think it’s beautiful the way that she ends up pulling two communities in 1962 Baltimore together against all odds. It’s a story that talks about racial discrimination, but it doesn’t shove it down your throat. It’s not a preachy musical. And all of the songs in Hairspray are wonderful, you really do leave joyful. I just want audiences to leave feeling inspired by Tracy. As one tagline says, she is a young girl with a big personality and even bigger hair.  I think a lot of adults could learn a lot from Tracy Turnblad.

    Q: You talk about dreams, and you had a dream to become a performer. We saw you on shows like The X Factor trying to make your way before launching an incredible musical theatre career including multiple stints in Hairspray the Musical as Motormouth Maybelle. But in this show you’re making your debut as a director! What made you want to switch from performing?

    A: The producers approached me, and because I’ve been behind the scenes and on the stage performing in this great musical, I have another way of looking at it. Our producer says it’s like seeing it with a different lens through my eyes. I’m not going to be changing the central story, because it’s fantastic, but I’ll be investigating and developing it a bit more and getting people to think about it maybe in a slightly different way. Every action has a reaction, and: “How would you react to that?” When I came into the show for the first time and they were singing “The Nicest Kids in Town”, one of the lyrics around race was quite eye opening for me. It’s about exploring that and exploring how times were in 1962 Baltimore. I’m working with Paul Kerryson, who directed Hairspray for all the productions that I’ve been in and he’s wonderful. I’m really looking forward to learning from him because this is new to me and I’m here to take advice and learn. I want to bring a fun factor to the show, so that people leave feeling good. Just for those few hours I want to give people some release from whatever they’re going through in their daily lives.

    Q: Does the in-depth knowledge from being an actor in this show help you now as a director with the technical side of things, like where characters can exit and quick changes and who needs to be where?

    A: Yes, being backstage in a show, you get to see the (organised!) mayhem that that goes on. When we come on stage it looks like this finished article. But I can appreciate all the running up and down that goes on behind the scenes and I want to try to find ways of making it easier for all the performers and for wigs, wardrobe and make up. It’s about letting the performers know that we’re all part of a team: the backstage crew and production, we’re all there to work together. We want to keep the lines of communication open so that we have a big, happy touring family, and we’re supporting each other as actors and performers, and working well with the other departments so we’re all in it together putting on this wonderful show.

    Q: Hairspray the Musical was created more than 20 years ago and is set in 1962. How is its examination of racial discrimination in the 1960s relevant in 2024?

    A: One of the things  I want to do is bring somebody in to talk to the cast about what it was like in those times versus now, and to explore what similarities there are still. Hairspray addresses the story of something that really happened in 1962: the TV channel was there but black people were not allowed to be on television. It’s crazy. I think it’s important for people to not feel scared to talk about discrimination, whether that be sexual discrimination or racial discrimination. It’s a topic that I think needs to be spoken about more than it is. But not everybody understands or necessarily knows the right way to say things nowadays. I think there is maybe a nervousness about discussing it as points and opinions can be so instantly judged and that can be frightening. It’s very important to me that the cast are able to do that and have that open forum and an open platform. I was born in 1969 and I saw racial discrimination myself back then, and unfortunately, I still see it today. And it saddens me every time. But the one thing that I that I do is stand up for myself. And that’s again, what this story is about, Tracy standing up for herself and what she believes in. And she’s just trying to get everybody else to believe, just as she does, that everybody can exist together.

    Q:  Velma Von Tussle is a very difficult character and embodies the racism that flared up in the USA in the 1960s in response to the Civil Rights Movement. Do you think she ever learns anything or changes her attitudes in this story?
    A: Well, I want to explore that because she is very difficult, and even Amber, her daughter, towards the end, is like: “Mum, just leave it. Why don’t you just go along with it (integration)?” And you’ve also got poor Corney Colins saying: “Come on, Velma, this is the way it’s going, you might as well just be ahead of the trend.” I want to show the two sides of Velma, the bigoted side of her that is just her way or no way, but also her vulnerability. The thing with Velma, she kind of hates everybody. It’s not just a racial thing. I think she’s just had a really bad life which I’d like to explore. There is always one person that is against change and moving for the good and that person is Velma. There’s also the question of nature or nurture, with somebody like her daughter Amber, she’s picked up her mother’s ways. But I’d like to be able to show that even though it’s too late for her mother, maybe, Amber can grow?

    Q: What are you looking forward to working on in rehearsal?

    A: I’m really looking forward to working with Joanne Clifton who’s playing Velma Von Tussle. She’s amazing. She’s got such a fantastic voice and is such a talent. And there’s also Gina Murray, who will be playing Velma in the first part of the tour. I had the pleasure of working with her previously on Hairspray and she is a phenomenal actress. You know, I’m really, really pleased with the cast that we’ve got. It’s going to be spectacular.

    Q: I know you’re very passionate about inclusion and diversity, how much were you able to be part of bringing the team of cast and the creative together for this production?

    A: I’ve always been about inclusion. And, with this show about racial discrimination as well other discrimination, it’s important that backstage as well as front of house as well as on stage, is fully representative. I think we have that down with this cast and the crew.

    Q: As part of that, you held open auditions and that’s how you found your Motormouth Maybelle!

    A: Yes, I was very, very proud of that. Again, it’s about inclusion and just giving an opportunity to somebody who would not necessarily have had it. And we found our Motormouth Maybelle, Michelle Ndegwa, and she’s got a beautiful voice. As soon as she started singing, I got the goosebumps, my arm hairs were sticking up! Motormouth to me is the linchpin of the show with some phenomenal songs like “I Know Where I’ve Been“.  I’m excited just thinking about her voice and getting that chance to work with her and develop the Motormouth Maybelle character, which was the role that I played so many times and for everybody else to hear her beautiful voice that’s got so much soul and gospel heart.

    Q: When you did the open auditions did it make you quite optimistic about the future of musical theatre in this country?

    A: Well one of the reasons why I wanted to do them is because I came from an open audition. That’s how I started my career in musical theatre through the X Factor. I queued up, and I did my best, and I succeeded, and reached the semi-finals. So, it’s nice to give encouragement to others who would not necessarily even know the channels to go through because it’s such a competitive market, finding an agent and getting them to sign you up and believe in you. That’s not easy to do. And yes, there’s some amazing talent out there. We had a couple of thousand people come through and I’m so glad that we managed to get some of that talent on our stage in our show.

    Q: Do you have a favourite song or number in the show?

    A: I love “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” because it’s a fun song and it goes through so many different levels, so many different gears. By the time I used to finish that, I was absolutely knackered! “I Know Where I’ve Been” I think is my favourite song to sing in the show because of the message and what it’s about. And you can’t top “You Can’t Stop the Beat”, it’s a fabulous song. A real feel-good song. Everybody’s up on their feet, dancing, singing, clapping, and it’s just a barrel of joy and excitement and passion and Drew McOnie’s choreography is spectacular.

    Q: What do you want audiences to take away from Hairspray the Musical?

    A: Life is short. So come and spread the joy of bringing everybody together as one happy community. Forget your troubles for one night and come along and have some fun with Hairspray.

    Q: What experience have you had touring in the North of England?

    A: I’m very excited to be doing two weeks at Liverpool, that’s for sure! They’re always up for the craic in Liverpool. They’re the sing-along crew for sure.

    Starring Neil Hurst (The Full Monty, Coronation Street) as Edna Turnblad. Making her directorial debut is Hairspray royalty Brenda Edwards (Hairspray, We Will Rock You) who will bring new energy from behind the scenes.

    Hairspray took Broadway by storm, winning 8 Tony awards. The production went on to win 4 Olivier awards in the West End, and multiple awards worldwide. This feel-good classic is back.

    Featuring some of musical theatre’s biggest hit songs, Welcome to the 60s, You Can’t Stop the Beat, Good Morning Baltimore and many more. Hairspray is the hilarious, joyous, and inspiring musical for all!

    Join big hearted Tracy Turnblad and her new friends the spirited Seaweed and his sister Little Inez, heartthrob Link Larkin and the resolute Motormouth Maybelle as they strive to change the world. Hairspray has wowed audiences in The West End and on Broadway and still packs a punch with its message of tolerance and the fight against racial discrimination.

    This fun-filled show is bursting with show-stopping numbers and dizzying dance routines, come and join the beat because just to sit still would be a crime!

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