Stage

Stage Legend Kelley Abbey Reveals Why She’s Returned To Musicals After 20 Years

By Krisinda Merhi March 14, 2019

“It was this year I kind of had that calling.”

Interviewing a musical theatre, dance and stage legend can be a little intimidating. Especially when your idea of dancing involves shuffling from side to side and clicking your fingers. 

Would they be able to tell I’m an amateur just by my walk? 

What if I trip over when I try to shake their hand? 

But there’s something about Kelley Abbey that makes you relax instantly. She has warm eyes and a kind smile and answers all of your questions carefully and after a calculated pause. 

Kelley is an Australian legend in her own right. She’s built a wildly successful career off the back of her passion for performing arts, especially dancing. 

She's been in a range of musicals (Fame, Grease and Hair, to name a few) and choreographed a range of productions, including Footloose and the original Boy From Oz arena show with Hugh Jackman (for which she won a Tony Award, just by the way). 

Kelley also choreographed the penguin dance in the hit animated movie Happy Feet. 

Yes, this one:

When Kelley talks, her passion is clear. She speaks about dancing and choreography like it’s her reason for existing. And it is. 

“I started dancing when I was three. I remember my mum taking me to dancing and most kids would hang on to the teacher's leg and cry and wait for their mum to pick them up. I think I cried when my mother came to pick me up because I didn't want to leave,” she remembers.  

“The music and the ability to transport yourself physically - it’s like a silent soul conversation that you're having. When I dance I feel invincible. I feel physically like I have the power of ten men. I feel like I could lift a building in my own arms. I feel superhuman.”

Kelley’s passion for dance was the reason she decided to step off the stage 20 years ago. 

The last musical she performed in, Fame, saw her both perform the lead role and choreograph the musical as well, “which was a big call to do both things”. 

“I got quite highly acknowledged for that show and so my choreographic career really took off. The roles I had been playing prior to that were like Olympic marathons to get through,” Kelley explains. 

“At that point I was really happy to swap one for the other side. I absolutely love choreographing, I love directing and I love creating, so that became a really satisfying thing because it was new.” 

After a long hiatus, Kelley has decided to finally return to the stage as the character Mrs Wilkinson in the Australian production of Billy Elliot The Musical. 

So why now?

“It was this year I kind of had that calling,” she muses. 

“I was like, ‘I'm ready to kind of push myself and grow again,’ because I've been choreographing for a really long time. 

“I think it's really important to push your creativity and keep putting yourself in an uncomfortable place and to grow,” she says. 

Kelley explains that while Billy Elliot is a beautiful and inspiring story, this particular musical ultimately wasn’t what inspired her to audition; it was the role of Mrs Wilkinson, Billy’s ballet teacher. 

“I've taught dance like since I was 15 – I’ve been teaching dance all my life and choreographing and mentoring kids and students and young dancers and adult dancers and performers, and part of that process for me is about mentoring. And I absolutely love doing that,” Kelley says. 

“So when this came up I was like, ‘Well if I'm going to go for it I think this is kind of a perfect fit for me.’”

Kelley notes that her approach is a lot gentler than the “hard” Mrs Wilkinson. 

“The character is very unlike me because I'm much softer,” she says. “But I enjoy jumping into something that's very different to me.”

Kelley thrives off a challenge, she’s made that much clear. And her decorated career is nothing short of impressive (especially to a one dance-move kind of gal like myself). So her casting in a popular musical like Billy Elliot makes complete sense. 

But Kelley says she was surprised she got the role:

“I just I walked in kind of not thinking this was ever going to happen in a million years,” she tells me. 

“I just walked in going, ‘You know, I haven’t auditioned for 20 years. I'm just going to put myself through the process... I'll just get over it try and get through the nerves of doing it.’ I had no expectation of getting [the part] at all.”

You can watch Kelley Abbey in Billy Elliot The Musical at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from October 2019. Buy tickets at billyelliotthemusical.com.au

Images: Supplied.