Recently, Alex James Ellison has been filming for an upcoming Netflix/Nickelodeon production Mia and Me, and as part of LDN Unplugged, performed his original music and covers at his concert at Live at Zédel. Alex has also co-written, directed and starred in new musical Fiver, which had a sold-out run at Southwark Playhouse earlier this year, and has now seen him and the show be nominated for awards. We spoke to Alex about performing at Live at Zédel, writing FIVER the Musical and putting the show on at Southwark Playhouse.
How did your show go at Live at Zédel?
It was so exciting to be part of the LDN Unplugged gigs at Crazy Coqs. I have hardly gigged my own music at all this year as FIVER has been taking up most of my time, so it was so much fun to share some of my pop stuff as well as some covers and of course to get to sing with my guests!
Did you play new music at the event?
I got to sing some brand new songs that most people in that room hadn’t heard as well as some from my EP (which is now over five years old!) and some singles that I had previously released. I wanted to make this gig as special as I could so I learnt some new covers that I hadn’t done and also featured the loop pedal as much as I could. This was the first time I played lots of different instruments into the loop pedal so I could build up a one-man track using piano, guitar, vocals and beatbox!
Was this your first time performing at Live at Zédel and what do you like about the venue?
This is the first time I had performed at Zédel! We were lucky enough to be offered our first performance of FIVER at Zédel nearly two years ago, where it was only an hour long as part of the NEW. festival of new British musicals. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to perform in that version, but I love the space and would definitely like to do more there!
What was the response like to FIVER at Southwark Playhouse?
The response to FIVER was completely overwhelming. When we started planning this production, we had no idea how well it would do or if it would sell, and to fast forward a year and to have just finished a sold-out run with a phenomenal cast and team feels surreal. The reviews were very positive, and the buzz around the show from audiences young and old makes all the hard work worth it.
How did you and Tom Lees come up with the idea for the musical?
Tom and I wanted to write a musical that was new and different to other musicals out there. We wanted a unique idea that could link our songs together in a sort of song cycle format. The more we developed the characters, we found so much more substance and so what started as 12 unrelated songs, became a full two-hour show with a script that linked all the people together in an interesting and captivating way. The actual idea of the FIVER came about when we were sitting in a pub at a time where we were brainstorming ideas for our musical and one of us said something along the lines of ‘Isn’t it weird that you never know where a fiver has been before you’ve had it’. From that moment, we knew that this was an original, relatable idea that people would invest an evening in!
When writing the script, had you always known you wanted to be part of the cast, and how was it performing in your own show?
Up until about two months before rehearsals, we had always thought there would only be four people in the cast, and it had always been in our minds that I could be in it. The busker character would open and close the show but would also take on some of the other parts too. We thought about other performers who could play this as, for me, the feeling of having someone else perform your work is amazing. The fact that the fourth person had to be able to play a wide range of characters AND play the guitar meant that it was quite hard to find the right person. We workshopped the piece with four actors and it was clear from that, that having those four tell the story and me narrate as the all-seeing busker, worked much better. From this point, we could develop my character much further and added in lots of extra bits for the busker to be a part of. Performing in the show was incredible. My character allowed me to watch so much of the show from the audience, and getting to see our wonderful cast do such a brilliant job each night was a pleasure.
Was this your first experience of writing and directing and do you hope to do more in the future?
I have written lots of pop songs for myself, but FIVER was the first time I had been writing material for other people to perform and by far the biggest project I have worked on like this. Tom has more experience in writing a full show as he has written the music to a few different shows, but this was the first time he had been so involved in the book and lyrics as well as the directing. I absolutely loved doing it and being able to work so closely with Tom made the whole experience much more fun. We live together (in a best friend kind of way), and so every song was written in a different way. Sometimes he’d come up with some music and play it to me, and I’d record it and write some lyrics, other times I’d play him an idea on the guitar or piano, and we’d work on it together. The point is, we don’t really have a formula to how we work, it’s very organic. It was much the same for the script; lots of rewrites and edits, especially as the piece developed, we would keep going back through to link characters and themes so the piece fitted together nicely. We debated a lot about whether to get an outside director in for the Southwark run and eventually decided that we wanted to do it ourselves. For me, this was the best decision as I learnt so much from taking on that role and although there were many challenges, I was very proud of how it turned out!
What was your favourite song to write from the musical and do you have plans for a cast recording?
My favourite song to write would have to be all of the letters. Getting my mind inside a psychotic teenager who is stalking their teacher was lots of fun and creating the journey through the five songs took a lot of time but was very enjoyable. We started by mapping out the structure of all of them as a whole and then slowly started filling them out. At one point, they were almost a series of poems and we thought they would all be rapped, but then we decided the journey of the letters would be more effective if they started off being sung and then as they got darker, they became more aggressive. Trying to fit in lots of hidden Shakespeare quotes and references as well as changes in time signature, key signature and tempo made them equally challenging and satisfying.
We are definitely planning a cast recording at some point, but we want to both be heavily involved and don’t want to rush it, and since FIVER, we have both had very busy schedules! Who knows what the next few months may hold!
What can you say about being involved with Mia and Me on Netflix?
For the last two months, I have been back and forwards to Belgium, where I have been filming for the newest series of Mia and Me! It has been such an enjoyable experience, I have learnt so much about the world of TV and Film, and I would love to do more of it. Having trained in musical theatre, I have gotten used to a certain way of working with text and with a director and this has been completely different. I have filmed lots of adverts and a few student films but nothing on this scale and having the opportunity to work for a couple of months as one character with different scenes each day has been so enjoyable.
It’s going to be released at some point next year, probably mid to late 2020, on Netflix and Nickelodeon and I’m very excited for all my friends and family to see it! When I auditioned for the part of Matiss (a fifteen-year-old boy), they asked me how old I was, and I lied and said I was eighteen as I thought if I had said twenty-six, they wouldn’t have hired me! It obviously worked, and we laugh about it now!
Can you tell us about playing Timmy in Aliens Love Underpants at the Dominion Theatre and on tour?
A few years ago, I was cast as Timmy in the family show Aliens Love Underpants. It was one of my first big jobs out of drama school, and I ended up spending about a year touring the country and internationally. I made some of my best friends on this show and had so much fun sharing the popular kids book with thousands of kids all over the country. One of the highlights was when we spent the summer at the Dominion Theatre! It was slightly surreal to be walking out onto that stage every day, and as we had mostly morning and early afternoon shows, we were normally finished by 3pm! Because of this show, we got to travel to Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – half to perform and half to see the world, so I am very grateful for the experience.
When and how did your music career start?
My music career probably began when I was about fifteen when Oli Reynolds and I used to busk on the streets of Brighton! I remember my mum being worried about it the first time we went, but then I came back with £50 after a couple of hours, and she soon came round to the idea! I then stopped thinking about that side of things for a few years whilst I trained at The BRIT School and Mountview and then when I graduated, I was lucky enough to inherit Joe Sterling as my housemate and we quickly became best friends and started to write songs together. I was 21 when I released my first EP Duvet Days and then from there, I started gigging and getting myself out there! It’s always been challenging as it has always been self-funded and recording and releasing music isn’t cheap, so it’s been a bit stop and start! Since then, I have been fortunate enough to support the wonderful Samantha Barks on her UK tour as well as winning Pride’s Got Talent meaning I could perform on the main stage in Trafalgar Square at Pride in London!
Which came first for you, acting or music and what do you find rewarding about each?
I cannot remember a day in my life where I have not wanted to be an actor. When I think back to being at primary school, I always wanted to go to the drama clubs and I would watch every TV show thinking ‘how can I be in that’. I got my first agent when I was 11, and have been auditioning professionally ever since. My dad is very musical, and so my brothers and I always had music lessons when we were growing up. People always ask me which I prefer and it’s a really tricky question because I ultimately want to do it all – pop, TV/film and theatre! Right now, I want to do more TV work as I’ve loved doing Mia and Me.
What do you enjoy about screen work?
I love that, in TV, you never get bored as you’re always working on something new. You’re constantly learning new scenes and shooting them every day so it’s not as repetitive. It comes with its challenges, of course, especially if you’re rubbish at learning lines like I am! I am very excited to watch it back when it’s done!
If you weren’t a performer, what do you think you’d be doing?
This is such a tricky question as I have literally ALWAYS wanted to be a performer. It may be something to do with animals, like a professional dog-cuddler or a wild killer whale trainer? Maybe a professional fizzy drink taster as I can always tell the difference between diet or low sugar drinks and I’m still furious at Lucozade and San Pellegrino for ruining some of my favourite drinks. If you want a serious answer… maybe a presenter, a musical director, a stand-up comedian (I’m pretty funny) or a writer. Something creative, but that keeps your mind thinking!
What are your acting and music plans for the rest of 2019?
At the moment, I don’t have any plans for performing after Mia and Me as I decided to not do panto this year so I could focus on auditioning for longer-running shows and projects. My dream list at the moment (it always changes) would be Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Dear Evan Hansen and of course some more TV work! This month, we start auditions for West End Calling, which is a musical theatre competition I run for young performers across the UK! We are auditioning in eleven cities this year and have some exciting plans for the final which is in May in the West End!
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