Brenda Edwards burst into the public consciousness in 2004 as a contestant on Saturday nights on ITV’s The X Factor, but has since carved out a career on the stage with starring roles as Mama Morton in Chicago in the West End, and now Pearl, a role created specifically for her, in Carmen Jones at the Royal Festival Hall.
Edwards began singing in her local church the age of eight, going on to sing for competitions, weddings and funerals. Then along came The X Factor giving her the opportunity to showcase her talent to a national audience. Although voted off in fourth place, Edwards has perhaps had the most success out of all the contestants she shared the stage with.
Based on Meilhac and Halevy's adaptation of Prosper Merimee's Carmen, Carmen Jones was written by Oscar Hammerstein II around Georges Bizet’s original music for the opera. Set during the Second World War, the 1943 musical tells the story of how Carmen Jones (played by Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi) seduces a soldier named Joe (Andrew Clarke), who forgets his sweetheart Cindy Lou (Sherry Boone) when faced with Carmen's spirit and charm. When boxer Husky Miller (played by Rodney Clarke - Rolan Bell takes over from 28 August) then turns Carmen's head, Joe's jealousy has tragic consequences.
This new production of Carmen Jones is presented by Raymond Gubbay to celebrate the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall following a two-year, £111 million refurbishment. The 40-strong company is directed by Southbank Centre artistic director Jude Kelly with designs by Michael Vale.
Lives now in
I still live in Luton (Bedfordshire) where I was born.
What made you want to become a performer?
I was always, always singing. I started off in a church choir and loved the sound of the harmonies. It’s something in me – my passion, and I love to perform. I am so happy that I can call performing my job - not many people can say that what they do for their job is also their passion.
If you hadn’t become a performer, what might you have done professionally?
Well before going on X Factor, I was an accounts manager, so I’d probably be doing that still. I enjoyed that job, talking to people and ordering items. I just love talking and being around people.
First big break
It has to be X Factor. Did you know about me before then? Definitely X Factor.
Career highlights to date
Most probably the X Factor tour. Playing the 27-date tour to crowds of 15,000 was just phenomenal. Just unbelievable - I loved it. Another highlight is what I am doing now, Carmen Jones at the Royal Festival Hall. It’s a big, big thing – it’s amazing. The venue and the orchestra are amazing. It gives me goose pimples! I never thought a few years ago I would be on stage at the Royal Festival Hall!
You made your West End debut last year playing prison matron Mama Morton in Chicago. What kind of experience was that?
New. A totally new experience. I enjoyed it so much and tried to make each performance different and fresh so that each audience would feel like they were the first to see me, even though I was in the show for a year. Chicago is the favourite production I’ve worked on so far. It was something so different to what I was used to. There was so much dancing and singing going on at the same time on stage. You could see the show so many times and see something new to you at every performance.
Many performers came & went during your time in Chicago. Who were your favourite co-stars?
Bonnie Langford has to be one. She’s a veteran of the stage and someone who I learnt so much from. She taught me to just be myself and how to put my character together. Ashley Simpson was also great to work with, she was a fantastic and a very different Roxie Hart as she was so young. Aside from more celebrity names going into the show, I got to work with some fantastic, raw West End talent. My favourite has to be Amra Faye Wright - she stayed in the production throughout my run and was great to work with.
I am loving Jude Kelly at the moment. She’s artistic director here at the Royal Festival Hall and has also directed Carmen Jones. She really brings us all into the production – that’s very different to the direction I had in Chicago. Jude allows you to be more free and individual, which I love.
Favourite musical writers
Kander and Ebb have to be in there. I grew up and still listen to musicals. I like the classics through to modern day stuff and like listening to rock, pop and soul music.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Wicked. I loved the singing, acting and the staging - it was amazing and really spectacular. I also really want to see The Lord of the Rings, but I may have to wait a while what with being in Carmen Jones at the moment.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Be yourself and keep it real – Sharon Osbourne told me that.
Did you watch Any Dream Will Do or Grease Is the Word. What’s your view on these type of reality TV contests?
I watched both of them! Due to my work schedule, I generally have to record things on Sky +, but I try to keep up with them all. I watched Grease Is the Word and thought Danny Bayne and Susan McFadden were fantastic and deserved to win. On Any Dream Will Do, I thought Lee Mead had the best voice. I am definitely a fan of these types of shows. I know a lot people knock them but the X Factor gave me a chance. In this industry, you can turn up on the wrong day and so easily miss opportunities like I did. These shows give people chances.
If you could be anyone (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Whitney Houston. She is my idol. I know recently she has been going through tough times but she is a phenomenal woman with an extraordinary voice. I would love to have her glamour for the day!
I love the Harry Potter books. My son is currently reading the new one - I will read it after.
Favourite holiday destination
Barbados. I got married there 11 years ago, and it’s so tranquil and lovely.
Why did you want to accept the part of Pearl in this production of Carmen Jones?
Pearl doesn’t really exist - it was created for me in this production. I asked to go along to the auditions and sang “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on the Drum” and then got the role. What made me want to do it was that fabulous song.
Had you seen Carmen Jones before?
I have seen the film, which I love - I loved all the songs and the high emotion. I’ve never seen it on stage though. I don’t think it has been on stage for about 15 years now.
What’s your favourite number from Carmen Jones?
Without doubt, my song - “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on the Drum”!
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals or the run to date?
Probably me falling off a chair! I toppled over after I got my foot caught – this was in a performance - I just got back up and carried on. You have to. But that’s probably the funniest thing. It’s quite serious working on this production as it’s never been done at the Royal Festival Hall before and it’s still been quite a while since it was last done in London. So we are all taking our roles and rehearsals very seriously to try and create a great show.
What are your future plans?
After Carmen Jones, I want to try and get something released. I have written lots of new songs with my band, and I would love to do a theatre tour of my music, something intimate and live.
- Brenda Edwards was speaking to Ryan Woods
Carmen Jones opened on 31 July 2007 (previews from 25 July) at the Royal Festival Hall, where its limited season continues until 2 September 2007.