One of the staples of musical theatre is the rags to riches story and Marisha Wallace is living proof of that making her way from a rural farm in North Carolina to starring in the West End.
Then when she was recovering from COVID-19 her home recorded version of Tomorrow went viral and Decca Records signed her to make an album. But her first really big break came in this country after she’d just finished Something Rotten on Broadway when she was asked to understudy Effie White in the West End version of Dreamgirls.
“I had five days to rehearse and go on for the role because Amber Riley had gotten pneumonia,” recalls Marisha. “You know, usually when Effie comes out everyone goes ‘Yeah’ and my first night they go ‘oh’ as they didn’t know who I was. I’m telling you everything changed, and they were all on their feet screaming, and you know Brits do not like to stand up unless it’s really, really good.
“I was like ‘Oh my God I’ve caught fire here’ and I stayed. I ended up taking over the role, and subsequently did more West End shows, I played Becky in Waitress and now Motormouth in Hairspray with Michael Ball.”
After Waitress it was time to go out on her own UK headline tour singing songs she loved but coming off the road Wallace started to feel unwell as the country went into lockdown. Wallace put her illness down to coming straight off a long theatre run, but a quick phone call led to a different conclusion.
“I had a fever that was so high when I put my hand even away from my face, I could feel the heat. Then we started messaging each other on our WhatsApp group for the Waitress cast, and everyone’s like ‘are you sick’, ‘are you sick’, and everyone was sick.
“Sara Bareilles went back to the States, she got tested, and it came out in the news that she had coronavirus as well, so the whole cast had gotten coronavirus. It was so scary because it felt like the apocalypse as I was thinking at that time people didn’t know if you died so it was really, really scary.”
Once she began to recover this naturally optimistic performer decided to do something positive for an industry that has gone dark with no prospect of fully reopening any time soon. The musical theatre catalogue is full of songs about hope and defiance, so what made Wallace choose Tomorrow, usually sung by a younger performer playing a flame haired orphan?
“I feel like people haven’t really listened to the lyrics, because we’re so focused on who’s singing it, so I was like let me slow it down because these lyrics are amazing,” says Wallace about her more grown up version.
“It came out during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, the height of coronavirus, everyone felt hopeless and helpless because we couldn’t even get out of our houses to help. I feel like no matter what, the sun will come out tomorrow, and that things will get better no matter how bad they are they will always get better.”
The viral success of her version led to the Decca deal for an album also called Tomorrow, which has musical theatre tunes running through it. But one pop classic stands out, and that is her heartfelt version of a Prince classic she recorded for a very personal reason.
“I chose Purple Rain because during the lockdown my ex-husband tried to commit suicide, and it was something that rocked me because I’ve never had anyone that close to me attempt something like this,” reflects Wallace on that challenging song choice.
“He’s now in recovery, and he’s fine, but it just was so real. So many people were saying that their mental health has been rocked by this coronavirus because not only have they had these problems, but now they’re stuck in the house alone dealing with these problems.
“I recorded Purple Rain because it’s all about somebody wanting to help someone with mental illness, and not being able to do that cause all you want is for that person to be happy, and you just can’t really understand why they can’t be happy.”
One of the highlights of the album is a quite bonkers version of Queen’s The Show Must Go On Wallace recorded with Michael Ball where both of them go at it full blast. How did this duet with the king of British musical theatre come about?
“Michael Ball was the first person to ever play my songs on the radio here. He played Tomorrow that first weekend it came out and he is the one that kind of introduced it to the world.
“We are playing opposite of each other in Hairspray, so we had known each other from that because I got cast as Motormouth, and he’s Edna. We did a concert with each other a year ago, and then when the album came around I asked him would he do this duet with me to be a rallying cry for our industry that the show must go on.”
In what has been a genuine topsy turvy year for this personable singer it ended on a high note when she was invited to sing wartime anthem The White Cliffs of Dover at the annual televised remembrance service in front of the Queen. That’s a long, long way from a rural farm, and typically for Wallace there was a bit of drama when she got the call hours before the event as another performer took ill.
“I had five minutes of rehearsal with the MD at a piano, and then I got glammed up in 45 minutes, then I’m on stage with this 100 piece orchestra with everyone in their military outfits and everything.
“I wasn’t even scared. I was like this is my moment to do something for the country that has embraced me for all these years, and that was so powerful because as soon as I sang it I was thinking how did I even get here.
“If you had told that little country girl living near the cows and the pig farm that she would be singing for the Royal Family they would have never believed me. It’s just a testament to what you can do if you believe in yourself, you work hard and stay kind to people.”
Tomorrow is out now on Decca Records.