An X Factor triumph, records sales topping four million, and now an acclaimed stage success. Alexandra Burke arrives at the Congress with Bodyguard next week, and she takes the breath away.
At just 27, Ms Burke has not quite done it all, but she has done most of it. Born into a musical family – mum Melissa Bell was a key member of Soul II Soul – and blessed with a magnificent voice, Alexandra simply grew up singing. Storming to the X Factor title in 2008, set her on a remarkable recording career, including her stunning hallmark version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Since then, a seamless move into musicals has made the lead Bodyguard role of Rachel Marron her own. She took it over in the West End in 2014, from Beverley Knight, and now Alexandra rounds off the Bodyguard tour in Eastbourne – only to move straight on to Sister Act, playing the bite-your-hand-off role of Deloris in Craig Revell Horwood’s new production at the Leicester Curve. Phew.
Now, interviewing these performers ahead of their Eastbourne gigs is always fun, and you have to be quite agile to catch up with them. But this time, Alexandra Burke takes the biscuit. Or the dog biscuit. We can’t manage to meet in person, so her wonderfully unflappable PA, Jess, sets up a conference call. The technology works, but Ms Burke isn’t on the end of the line. Juggling mobile phones, Jess explains...
“She’s walking the dogs! We are just dashing around and Alex is almost back, but she has all her dogs on the road this week.” Fleetingly, a Legally Blonde image flashes through my head – do I have the wrong show? Jess laughs. “It’s because she’s away from home so much and it’s nice to have that bit of company. There’s Milo the French bulldog, Alfie the Chihuahua, and two others. They are all lovely, and all characters in their own right!”
The lady herself joins the conversation. “Sorry, brisk walk! It’s been a really intense schedule – I have had less than a month off in total in well over a year. We finally finish the tour in Eastbourne with hugs, tears, but a sense of satisfaction too, and a brief pause for breath. But then it will be straight into full rehearsals for Sister Act!
“Six shows in a week is nearing the limit for any performer, if you’re going to do the part justice and satisfy the audience. Bodyguard is a very intense show, and physically it demands concentrated energy. As for the musical numbers, some say it isn’t a musical, it’s a juke-box : they are not lightweight numbers! It’s Whitney Houston, after all, and she never did lightweight.”
Bodyguard, I venture, is not your standard fluffy musical. “It’s powerful and I think it is as thrilling for the performers as for the audience. You incorporate the whole Bodyguard storyline from the movie, with its tension and emotion. So every new live performance is a challenge, but that’s the satisfaction of it too. This has been an unforgettable time, touring the show, and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.”
Coming to it from the movie, how are audience expectations met, I wonder? “Well, what you shouldn’t expect is some kind of mimic of Whitney Houston. Heather Headley and then Beverley Knight and now myself, we have all brought our own interpretation, and I suppose our own personalities too. Some people come to the show thinking oh, we’re just going to hear some Whitney tunes. And others wonder whether the Bodyguard movie and story can really turn into a stage musical.
“And I’d say to them, fine, walk into the show and wait for it – because it will open with a bang and suddenly the unexpected is happening. The songs absolutely bring the show together and they are not add-ons. They are woven into the story, and the way the writing and direction has done it is genius. I can still come off stage, eighteen months in, and think: wow!”
It has been a remarkable couple of years, Alexandra. Do you ever pinch yourself? “Absolutely. It’s been such a journey and not just in the touring sense! I have been so lucky to be a part of all this. I’m gutted that I’m leaving, but it’s time now for another challenge.”
That next challenge comes with Sister Act, and a second absolutely iconic role. “I did want another acting credit under my belt, but preferably something different to extend me in a new direction. And Sister Act is completely the opposite of Bodyguard. Deloris is a wicked humorous role, with lots of fun and a different feel from the Rachel role.
“I haven’t worked with Craig before, but I have met him a few times and I know he directs brilliantly.
“I’ve not played Eastbourne before, and I always get a real buzz from a new venue. I suspect we will get quite a few of our real devotees making a special journey too, as this is the final stop on the tour. “
Now, Alex, about the dogs. “Yes! Can you hear Alfie in the background? He’s crying his eyes out in the next dressing room because I’m chatting to you and not giving him any attention! Myself and my boyfriend, we take it in turns to look after them and my family are a massive help as well. They are my four little babies and everyone falls in love with them. They will all be coming to Eastbourne and I understand there is a wonderful promenade to walk them along!”
Further ambitions, Alex, beyond Sister Act? “Well to be truthful I wasn’t instantly going to take Sister Act, but it was too good to turn down. But my music career remains the longer term plan, and I have got most of the tracks down for my third album. Doing the acting and musical theatre has been a fantastic way to extend my experience. It is live, it is engaged with a real audience, it needs teamwork, flexibility, so many things that are different from working in a recording studio.
“I am just so grateful for all I have learned from Bodyguard, and I plan to relish every performance at the Congress. Can’t wait to meet you all!” Thanks, Alexandra. We’ll see you on stage, and we might just spot you walking those mutts...By Kevin Anderson.