Singing The Part - An Interview with HeatherLeoni Bell of the We Will Rock You Cast
Originally Written for Live2Play Magazine
Ever wondered what it’s like to take the stage for one of the world’s most successful theater shows? What if it happened to be a show co-written by Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor featuring 25 of Queen’s most amazing hits entitled, “We Will Rock You” that has played to sold-out audiences in London’s West End since it opened in 2002? Yeah. Me too.
As luck with have it, a friend of a friend hooked me up with HeatherLeoni Bell - a badass British rock singer cast in the Las Vegas production of We Will Rock You. Heatherleoni sings the role of “Meat” not your average girl pansy theater role. Here’s what she had to say about making singing your career, dealing with life onstage, and performing the music of the rock legends every day.
So, how did you end up cast in the part for We Will Rock You in Vegas?
I auditioned three years ago in London for the show - originally for the Broadway production, and then two years ago I was offered a place in the Vegas show. I had spent a year not singing...and I kind of had to find my passion, and then I started singing again and really wanted to go for it, so I auditioned.
So you had other jobs before becoming a professional singer?
I worked in bars and some offices I was trying to be a “normal person” but the work was just not who I was - not for me.
Let’s backtrack - when did you start singing - at what age?
I started piano at 8, and singing at 13. And then I accidentally went to music college at the Academy of Contemporary Music - which is run by Pete Friesen, who played guitar with Alice Cooper (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pete_Friesen) and Bruce Dickinson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Dickinson). I wanted to study media studies, but looked at the music department there with my parents, and ended up in it. After that, I went to the Brighton Institute of Music which was founded by Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden.
It was great learning experience there, because it was competitive, especially for girls. I decided I wanted to be the best at it and learning from rock stars made the difference because they taught about it as, you know, really being a career. I was quite self conscious and learned that being the best at it would be the only way to stand out because there were this skinny blonde girls and, you know, the music industry for women is so hard. With singing and girls, it is just very competitive. At that stage you have to learn that you do have to be better than everyone else to succeed.
So after that, did you feel ready to start auditioning professionally?
I never felt “ready” to audition. It was just a choice between going to work in an office or McDonalds...so it was either go do it, or....don’t.
Meat is not a typical stage role because she’s a “meaty” person - and big and pisses of everyone and that’s pretty much my life - pissing off everyone. So it was a good role for me, I guess...(laughing)
In one of your emails to me, you said, it’s “bloody hard work!” Tell me about that...
It is lots of work - most of my time is spent in rehearsal and directing other singers. I spent a year year and a half comparing songs in the show, which was a lot of work. It’s a process of getting where you want to be. It’s not all fun like people think it is.
We usually spend up to 12 hours ripping apart every piece of the music. You work until you get it right. When you work in a show like this you end up having a lot of respect for musicians because it’s really REALLY hard work.
I’ve heard that Brian May and Roger Taylor are actually at rehearsals. What’s that like?
Yes - some of the legends are there - not here - but definitely at home, and yes it’s nerve wracking. That’s a bit like, “Ohmygod. People you idiolize are there.” Usually they work with the people they need to - like guitarists work with the guitarists.
Luckily, I don’t have Freddie Mercury breathing down my neck (laughing). But yeah - I think it can be intimidating. But then again, the musicians in this show are really good, so they can handle it.
The hardest part is you have to keep it true to what it has to be. It is under the microscope. YOU are under the microscope. If there’s anything not right or changed, they’re holding you responsible.
Is it weird adapting this iconic rock music for theater?
Truthfully, I’m not a total musical theater lover. A lot of it makes me cringe. But thankfully, we have to stay true to the music, and like with Queen - it might have been a little camp, so as long as we’re true to that, its fine. But we definitely have to sing things a little differently - we have to pronounce words for the stage, not in the way you would sing it as a rock singer.
Because I imagine, you guys are not singing with hand held mics, right?
No. We’re all individually miced, so you are really out there and it’s very intimidating.
And you have to figure out what to do with your hands?
YEAH...and I’m so bad with my hands! There’s always something you have to do with them...and you’re always aware that there’s certain pop song moves that don’t work in this show.
What’s the hardest part? This show isn’t traveling, but I know there must be things that are still hard.
The hardest part is being really far away from family and friends. It’s kind of weird to have landed this dream job and you’re not with the people that you love. There’s some really cool stuff happening and I want to be able to share it with some of my favorite people, but you can’t. And that’s really hard. I mean...my parents won’t be at the opening show. And my friends who all encouraged me - who were all there for me, like when I quit my job - they won’t be able to be there. That’s really hard...I think I might cry...
Oh...don’t cry. I’ll be there. I promise.
(laughing)...yeah - that part is definitely hard. It’s just a long way to come. So I don’t know who will be there really...
So what do you do to keep up this level of constant vocal work?
You need to eat properly, and sleep. I’m telling you what you need to do, not necessarily that I do it. (laughing). I have to eat properly, actually. And the one thing I do use is ginger and honey...and aspirin...and hot lemonade. I hate those lozenges - those vocal numbing things - you can’t feel if you’re doing any damage, so I don’t use those. Whiskey - that does work. But after... (laughing).
Is there a hard part of being onstage all the time?
Being onstage is really the payoff. I love it...
So that part is good...
Yeah, I love it. It’s really the reason you do it.
What’s it like to work this closely with other people all the time?
Well - everyone is great. And we like each other. We go our separate ways when we’re not working, but they are all great. I would say that when you work with creative people, it can get dramatic sometimes because creative people can be flamboyant. But they are the best actors and actresses I’ve ever met, so it’s also a great experience. but then again, I can be a really grumpy person, because I’m really unlucky. I lose things. And like the other day, I broke my glasses. And one day, I fell off the stage... (laughing) I fall over all the time...
So...is that a challenge for you? Is there a lot of movement in the show?
No - not really - there’s some jumping around, there’s not much choreography, I mean...there’s some dancing, but not like choreography. Which is fine because I’m not a great dancer...
Neither am I. I tell people I have three left feet...
Yeah - me, too. You know - there are very few people that are really good at all things. (laughing)
Was this your ultimate goal - to be in a show like this?
No. I want to be a recording artist. I work with a guy at home called Garreth Hicklin who’s an amazing producer and musician.
So what kind of stuff do you write?
Like...ballady type of stuff...everything really... it’s all over the map.
And I think that the ability to make your own recordings now is so great and there’s so much opportunity now because of that. And it’s great to be able to sell your own music because, you know, people are always telling you that you should only do this because you love it, but - you know - you have to be able to make your living, make a bit of money...
Yeah - we’re the only people on the planet who are supposed to work for free...
Exactly - there’s a balance - yes of course, you love it, but you have to be able to survive if this is what you do. You can’t get nothing for it, but appreciation...you know..sometimes (laughing).
So, which performers or singers were you into growing up?
Michael Jackson. Yeah. I just thought he was amazing. I cried for a week when he died. Hanson. Honestly - one of my favorite bands ever. I’m not embarassed. They are just amazing. Jeff Buckley - big fan. My mom introduced me to Jeff Buckley.
So that’s all over the map, too...
Yeah. My main one was definitely Michael Jackson. Especially as a performer.
And what about the new ones?
I’m not really into the modern singers. I find some of the pop stuff quite boring. Because there are the singers who have really trained so it feels a bit like athletes, you train and train and train, and then someone who says “hey - I run” and they let them come in and run the race. I feel some of them lack the craft. People will think I’m jealous...but then there are those, like Adele - that are so good. Adele is kind of at the top of my list right now. I think she’s really hit the top - I don’t think she can get any bigger. I’m a little jealous of her...and she’s stunning as well!
So what advice do you have for other singers who some day want to be where you are today?
Work hard and respect what you do. Respect the art and those around you. Take advice - don’t try to do everything on your own because you can’t. Because this looks easy, but it’s not.
The Vegas production of We Will Rock You opens in August of 2011 at the Paris.