When actress, singer and West End performer Marisha Wallace found herself beginning to feel unwell at the dawn of spring this past year, not for one minute did the Broadway superstar believe it was possible that her symptoms were those of the highly infectious, and potentially dangerous, coronavirus disease.
“I just thought I had a fever!” Marisha tells us aghast as we begin our virtual interview via Zoom. “Then when we found out that other people from the show had tested positive, we knew what we had to do – self-isolate and stay home.” Reflecting further on that time and the effect the global pandemic has had the world, Wallace adds: “It has been devastating for my industry. Not only performers but everyone backstage, all the creatives, admin, everyone. So, I thought, what can I do to help?”
Feeling compelled to bring about change, and with the encouraging words of her late Grandmother echoing in her ear, calling for Marisha to follow her passion and share the gift of song with the world, Wallace knew what she had to do…
And so, armed with nothing more than her God given talent and a £100 microphone bought online from Amazon, Marisha turned her Greenwich apartment into a makeshift recording studio and began to SING!
“I feel like I’ve found my purpose; a purpose that I’ve been looking for, for a really long time.” Wallace says. “I’ve done some amazing things in my career – I’ve been so fortunate, I’ve been on broadway, I’ve done TV shows and movies, but this is the first time that I feel like I’m really doing what I was put on this earth to do.”
“It’s like I’ve been waiting my whole life to make music like this… I just didn’t realise it was going to take a global pandemic for me to get a record deal (laughs).”
When I’m stuck with a day that’s grey & lonely…
It was back in May of this year that Marisha found herself searching for a deeper meaning to her life here in London. With the country in lockdown, West End theatres closed and people encouraged to stay home and stay safe, Wallace sought refuge in her art, recording a gospel inspired version of the Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin Broadway classic, Tomorrow – it’s message of hope and resilience seeming pertinent and relevant to the times in which we’re living.
With its gentle, sparse piano arrangement, stirring orchestral strings and rousing church organ Wallace’s take on the song served as a tonic to the soul – her heavenly vocals striking a chord with people up and down the country, resulting in the track landing on BBC Radio 2’s playlist and reaching No. 2 on the UK download chart.
“It’s almost like the world needed to shift.” Marisha says thoughtfully as we discuss the publics reaction to her interpretation of Tomorrow. “Because I feel like my music is music for the soul and for the times, it has a way of helping people cope and get through whatever struggles they’re facing in their lives, and maybe the music industry as a whole didn’t have a place for that until now.”
“So when Tomorrow came out, I think a lot of people were like ‘woah I haven’t heard anything like that before!’ and I’d get feedback from people saying they’d heard the song on the radio and they’d have to pull over onto the side of the road because they felt so moved by it.”
To hear these kind of stories and to be on the receiving end of such praise, must at times be somewhat overwhelming. How does it feel we wonder, to possess a gift so powerful that it can effect the human spirit in such a strong and profound way?
“It feels wonderful!” Wallace smiles. “It feels truly wonderful because it’s not just about singing for me – it’s ministry, it’s about helping people and this (my music) is how I feel I can be of help to people. I can be in their homes and be of comfort to them whilst their going through their struggles and hardships – I want to be able to use my voice to try and help to heal them.”
“I’m releasing music that feels hopeful, against this backdrop of uncertainty and I think that’s what’s connecting people to it most.”
Marisha Wallace – Tomorrow (Official Music Video)
I’m releasing music that feels hopeful, against this backdrop of uncertainty and I think that’s what’s connecting people to it most.Marisha reflects on why people are relating so much to her new music
You’ll know my name before I go!
Having grown up on a farm in a small rural town in North Carolina, far, far away from from bright lights of Broadway, life as a child was very different for Marisha Wallace. With her Mother working in a nearby factory and her Father helping to build and transform the families neighbourhood church; Wallace always had dreams bigger than her reality. And so, with the self-belief bestowed upon her by her beloved Grandmother, Marisha packed her bags and set out on a journey into the unknown, taking a leap of faith to pursue a career in the arts and entertainment industry.
It was that brave spirit and gusto that landed Wallace her first professional job in the touring company of the Tony Award winning musical, The Book of Mormon – winning rave reviews for her accomplished and seasoned performance, before going on to secure a lead role in the new stage version of Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway.
Following her stint at the New Amsterdam Theatre, Marisha began workshopping alongside legendary lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked) arranging scores and constructing harmonies for what was to become the theatre impresarios latest musical production. It was during this time that an unexpected call came through that was to change the course of the the North Carolina natives life and career forever…
All you’ve got to do is Dream.
When producers of the West End production of Dreamgirls starring Glee’s Amber Riley in the role of Effie, telephoned requesting for Marisha to be her alternate, without a single thought or hesitation, Wallace packed her bags and got on a plane to London! Making her international and West End debut at the iconic Savoy Theatre, Wallace says of her time appearing in the hit Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen musical: “‘Dreamgirls’ changed my life. It was crazy in the beginning as I had to learn the whole show in five days! But I loved it, I absolutely loved it!”
How was her experience performing for the first time in front of a British audience we ask: “Well, I cannot lie, it was a little bit demoralising to start with (laughs) because I would watch Amber every single night, and each time they said, ‘Here’s Effie…’ there would be this huge ovation! Then when I did the part and they said, ‘Here’s Effie…’ there was silence! I understood it because nobody knew who I was, but I’m proud to say by the end of ‘And I’m Telling You…’, the whole crowd stood up and wouldn’t stop applauding even though they didn’t know who I was… and from what I’m told, British people do not give everyone a standing ovation… especially before half-time drinks!”
Marisha Wallace – And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going
Having been granted an exceptional talent visa allowing her to stay and work in the UK, following her phenomenally successful run in Dreamgirls, Marisha accepted the role of ‘Becky’ to play alongside American Idol alum Katharine McPhee in the new hit musical, Waitress before embarking on a national tour as opening act for American singer/choreographer Todrick Hall as well as a headline tour of her own.
And the rest as they say, is HERstory…
I played alone, I played on my own… I survived!
Having attracted the attention of the A&R Team at Decca Records, following the runaway success of Tomorrow, Marisha signed a global publishing deal with prestigious music label and wasted no time in beginning the process of compiling tracks for what was to become her debut album.
“In the beginning it was actually pretty tricky to know what songs to chose to record.” Wallace says of the mammoth task of sourcing songs for the project. “And I say that because I feel like my demographic is so broad because I can go from working on a cruise ship singing in front of an audience made up of 60 to 90 year olds who love my music, and then on the flip side there are 11/12 year olds who love my music and everyone else in between who may have seen me in a theatre production so I really wanted to find songs that would be universal, and that all my fans would love and could relate to.”
“I didn’t want to create a niche album or do straight soul or straight pop because I feel like I’ve always been told by people ‘oh well, you’re good at everything but you’ve just got to pick one style, one genre and stick to that’ and I was like ‘nah, I’m gonna do a bit of everything and serve it up and be like here, there you go, listen!’ (laughs).
Finding a musical mentor in the shape of the incomparable Steve Anderson (Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears) Wallace suddenly found she now had the credence and conviction to truly give the album her all.
“Steve Anderson…” Marisha says with a smile and a knowing look. “That man is incredible! One of the first things he said to me was ‘we’re not going to squash your voice, we’re going to make the production bigger so that your voice has room to what it needs to do’ and I was just blown away by that!”
Forming a close bond and friendship, born out of the duos mutual and shared appreciation for music, the pair worked diligently to create an inspiring piece of art that would serve as the perfect showcase for Wallace’s capabilities as an authentic and bonafide recording artist, in her own right.
“The whole process of making this album has been really interesting to me.” Marisha reflects. “I found that I took a lot of what I’d learned from the musical theatre world and applied those same techniques and approaches to what I’m doing now. And what I mean by that is, because I used to do a lot of the workshops for new shows, before they came to Broadway, I was working with all of the composers and directors, figuring out the harmonies, the melodies and arrangements, that’s what I did – so I was used to creating things from scratch, and as I said, I took all of those experiences with me and utilised them the best I could, to make an album that I’m really, really proud of.”
That’s not to say however, things were always plain sailing and that the team weren’t faced with any challenges on the way…
I took all of my experiences from the world of musical theatre and utilised them the best I could, to make an album that I’m really, really proud of.Marisha on marrying together the two very different worlds of musical theatre and pop
With recording studios strictly out of bounds as a result of the national in lockdown, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Marisha found herself recording and producing all of vocals from the comfort of her couch in her London apartment.
“I did all of this here by myself in my house.” Wallace says proudly. “So I did all of the vocal arrangements, all of the singing, every single voice you hear on the album is me… apart from Michael Ball of course (laughs). All of the choir parts, every single backing vocal, everything – I arranged and sang every single part! I would be up till 6am in the morning like a mad scientist but I loved it!”
“It’s been a crash course for me in many ways because it is different from my life working in the theatre, with regards to the structure of how everything works but it’s a little bit more freeing that theatre because when you’re playing a role, it’s already made, the whole show is made so in many ways you have to follow that set format of what the show is meant to be. But in this instance I was every note, every vocal choice, every riff came from me and I really enjoyed having that kind of creative freedom. And to do it in my house was even better because it didn’t feel like I was performing – I could just let loose without anybody watching me. That was really liberating for me, because in many ways I feel like I’ve always felt a kind of pressure to perform and that pressure to deliver what people want me to, instead of doing what I knew I could do and was good at. Now I just want to do what I feel is right…”
Marisha Wallace – Climb Ev’ry Mountain (From ‘The Sound of Music’)
I know times are changing…
Anytime we as human beings challenge ourselves to go outside of our comfort zones and overcome our fears, we often discover new and surprising things about our character that we simply didn’t know before; whilst going above and beyond our perceived capabilities to learn and accomplish things we never thought possible. Being so open to try new things, is the primary way by which we grow, so we’re intrigued to know what Marisha feels like she learnt about herself and the world around her, whilst putting this album together?
“As a singer I have learnt that they have put black women in a box for a very long time.” Marisha says defiantly. “And what I mean but that is we’ve been told for too long that we can only sing a certain way or a certain style of music, and I’m not going to listen to that anymore. With this album my goal is to break all of those stereotypes – yes, we can sing soul, but we can also sing country, we can do rock, we can do Broadway we can do whatever we want!”
Empowered by her new creative freedom and renewed sense of perspective, Wallace adds: “I don’t want be compressed or pushed down anymore, I want to be revolutionary – I don’t want to be boxed in or told who to be, so I’m not holding back anymore.”
“I also learnt that I’m a fighter – I’ve had to fight hard to get to where I am today. And I make no complaints about that, I wouldn’t change a single thing about my journey, but I think people don’t always see the journey, they see the end result, and it’s important for them (people) to know that none of this just magically happens overnight.”
Becoming emotional Marisha continues: “When I walked into that studio and I heard the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing my music… I just wept! And I had to go into the bathroom and call my Mum because I could not. stop. crying.”
“And the reason I so desperately wanted to call her and no-one else, was because nobody knows my journey like my Mum. When I got rejected from American Idol, The Voice and all of those other reality shows, because I wasn’t ‘what they were looking for’ or because I was too ‘this’ or too ‘that’, she was there for me, she helped me to manage my disappointment and taught me that I had to believe that somebody was going to believe in me.”
Wiping away tears, Marisha says softly: “When I sing, all of the emotion you hear in my voice, is a culmination of all of the things I’ve been through to get here.”
I don’t want be compressed or pushed down anymore, I want to be revolutionary – I don’t want to be boxed in or told who to be, so I’m not holding back anymore.Marisha on her new found creative freedom and renewed sense of perspective
Follow every rainbow…
“I want to give people hope.” Marisha says as we ask of her overriding aspirations and desires for the album upon its release. “I want people to know that It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you’ve come from, you can still make your dreams come true, you can still defy the odds – even with oppression, even with systematic racism, even with everything thats going on in the world right now, you can still push through to get to your goal.”
“I know that there is a little girl, living in a country town right now, feeling like ‘I don’t know if I will ever make it out of this small town or if I’ll ever make it onto that big stage’ and I’m here to tell those people that they can and they will if they believe in themselves and work hard. They have to keep fighting, and not listen to the naysayers because I didn’t, and look where it got me.”
“So don’t give up, don’t lose sight, don’t let anything stop you – positivity will propel you past all of those things standing in your way; believe that you can win, because I know that you will.”