The accidental entertainer
Australian dancer-turned-soapie star-turned-choreographer-turnedstage veteran Kelley Abbey tells Stellar about the “course of glorious accidents” that saw her become a musical theatre favourite
Kelley Abbey on the “course of glorious accidents” that led her to the top of the musical theatre world.
It’s hard to believe seasoned performer Kelley Abbey is nervous about taking to the stage in a few weeks for the opening night of Billy Elliot The Musical. But she is. “I can’t even think about it,” the 53-year-old tells Stellar. “As soon as you do, you put yourself in a place of fear, and then you’re in no place to perform.”
To Australian theatregoers, Abbey is a very familiar face, having mastered acting, singing, dance and choreography to become one of the most recognised names in the industry. She’s played lead roles in Sweet Charity, Grease The Arena Spectacular, Fame The Musical and Hair, as well as having choreographed myriad shows. But many Australians will also remember Abbey from her role on the prime-time soap E Street, which aired from 1989 to 1993.
Looking back, Abbey compares the series – which made household names of Melissa Tkautz and Simon Baker, and catapulted countless pop hits to the top of the charts – to the US series Glee. “There was lots of music on E Street and my character was a singer,” says Abbey of the show’s heyday. “Forrest Redlich, the producer, had Westside Records, so he was pumping pop through our show. The girls were called The Teen Queens. I never signed a deal. He offered me one, but I never took it.”
Abbey grew up in Brisbane and from the age of four, wanted nothing more than to dance. “At my ﬁrst ballet lesson, all the kids were crying because their mothers had left, but I cried when my
mum picked me up. I fell in love with dance very quickly.” She spent her childhood and early teens at the studio learning jazz, tap, ballet, hip hop and every other possible style of dance on offer. Eventually, with her parents’ support, she headed to Sydney at 17 to pursue a career as a professional dancer.
“I didn’t work the whole ﬁrst year I was here. There were no dancers’ agencies, so I had to wait to be asked into a clique of dancers that got booked directly over the phone by the choreographer. The ﬁrst big job I got was on a ﬁlm called Rebel, starring Matt Dillon and Debbie Byrne. That was my ﬁrst ‘in’.”
E Street followed and when that came to a close, Abbey surprised colleagues, family and fans by choosing to step away from television. “Against everyone’s recommendation, I auditioned for West Side Story because I wanted to dance so badly. I never had any ideas that I would be a lead in a show, as I didn’t consider myself a singer, but I was chosen to understudy Anita, who was played by Caroline O’Connor at the time.”
Abbey’s next role fell into her lap by accident. She was overseeing the dance auditions for a production of Sweet Charity in 1996 and, after listening to the same songs over and over, found herself singing them when she went to the bathroom. The director heard her and convinced Abbey to audition, despite her protests. She relented and auditioned, only to be overcome with tears as she ﬁnished the song. “I did the most awkward exit because I thought,
‘Oh no, Kelley, you’ve cried in front of everyone, but it doesn’t matter, you’ll never see these people again. Just forget about it.’”
But a week later, she landed the lead role. “I nearly fell off my chair,” she recalls. “I thought maybe they were looking at me for one of the best friends and then they said, ‘You’ve got Charity!’”
The show was both physically and emotionally draining. “At eight shows a week it was an Olympic marathon,” she says. “I had an oxygen tank side-stage for me just in case. I didn’t use it, but every show I couldn’t feel my legs because the oxygen would leave them and they’d go to jelly.” Emotionally, it was also a difﬁcult time. “My dad was dying of cancer, so it was a bit of a dream and a nightmare. But wonderful, too, because he got to see me do it. I was just a little girl from Inala in Brisbane, so he got to see his dreams as well, you know?”
Burnt out and grieving for her father, Abbey wasn’t interested in performing after Sweet Charity wrapped. Also not one to sit on her hands, she took a job choreographing Grease The Arena Spectacular. On opening night in Brisbane, Dannii Minogue, who was playing the role of Rizzo, came down with food poisoning and Abbey was the only person who knew the part. Once again, she found herself in a plum role. Looking back at her career, she muses, “My life has been a course of glorious accidents.”
The upcoming production of Elton John’s much-loved Billy Elliot The Musical marks Abbey’s ﬁrst foray onstage in 20 years – but this time it’s no accident. Despite being scared to audition, she tells Stellar her fear also fuelled her drive. “I realised I don’t know this 53-year-old as a performer. I’d like to know who that is, or I’d just like to have a go and see if I could do it.”
And so, having landed the role of Billy’s dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, it’s time to stare down those preshow jitters. “I always say to myself before I go onstage, ‘Someone in the audience is seeing their very ﬁrst show ever, and someone in the audience is seeing the last show they will ever see, so give it 200 per cent.’ I will let Mrs Wilkinson do the show, not Kelley – I’ll leave her in the dressing room.”
Billy Elliot The Musical opens at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre on October 10 and Melbourne’s Regent Theatre on February 20, 2020. For tickets, visit billyelliotthemusical.com.au.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, Kelley, you’ve cried in front of everyone’”
A SONG AND A DANCE (from top) Kelley Abbey with fellow cast members from the upcoming Billy Elliot The Musical; with Simon Baker in E Street in the early ’90s; in a dress rehearsal (centre) for stage show Sweet Charity with (from left) Kelly Aykers and Mandy Carnie in 1997.
KELLEY WEARS Sass & Bide jacket, sassandbide.com; Zara pants, zara.com/au; By Charlotte necklace, bycharlotte.com.au; her own earrings (all jewellery worn throughout); (opposite) Jonathan Simkhai dress, myer.com.au; Tony Bianco shoes, tonybianco.com.au