On Friday 13 November Jingle Jangle came out on Netflix, with Marisha Wallace taking the lead vocal on ‘Miles and Miles’. Then, on the Saturday, Blessing Chitapa sang Wallace’s ‘Before I Go’ in The Voice UK 2020 final – and won the competition. The weekend prior, BBC One aired Festival of Remembrance, for which the star of Waitress provided a powerful ‘(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover’ – “the most British I’ve felt,” the southern American says from her Greenwich home. She grew up in North Carolina, but London is where she discovered herself.
“You know when you’re living somewhere,” she starts, “and you always feel a bit out of place? Then you go somewhere and you’re like, ‘whoa, they get me.’ I feel like I have been limitless here; no one’s ever said, ‘you can’t do that.’” Instead, agents have responded to her “hare-brained ideas” with enthusiasm, she says through an infectious laugh. Plus, in the West End “they love an underdog [and] following your journey.” There is more of a “here today, gone tomorrow” culture on Broadway, she states, where there’s also less risk and experimentation. Her West End debut was as the alternate for Amber Riley in Dreamgirls, treading the Savoy Theatre stage in front of an audience expecting the Glee cast member in the role of Effie. People would applaud Riley’s entrance, she says, “I come on, they’re like, ‘oh...’” She could win them over by the end of ‘And I Am Telling You…’ “It’s pressure,” she tells me, “but I know how to do my job well. That’s all you can do. Amber is the best version of her and I’m the best version of me.”
After Dreamgirls she took on the part of Becky in Waitress, the cast of which would soon be hit by coronavirus; Sara Bareilles, Gavin Creel, Wallace, “everyone in the cast” catching COVID. Recovering, she wondered what could be done to help those in the theatre industry “living paycheque to paycheque”, for whom two weeks off work could prove detrimental. Then, with the backing of Broadway Cares (USA) and The MAD Trust (UK), she recorded Annie’s ‘Tomorrow’ “to help people pay the rent”.
Produced by Steve Anderson (Kylie Minogue), the track reached number two in the download charts. Its release coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement, for which this year she has noticed more support from outside the BIPOC community. People have been waking up to whether there are black women on her roster, makeup brands have reached out to her to help them diversify. “I don’t think we’d even be having these conversations if it hadn’t been for the Black Lives Matter movement.” The conversations black people have been having between themselves, she says, are now taking place in boardrooms – perhaps a sign of “real change” to come. She’s achieved so much under oppression: “Now, what will we do if people are like, ‘here’s the gate, I’m going to leave it open for you to walk through.’”
Speaking of change, is she encouraged by the US election result? “I was so happy that day. I am a positive person and know nothing gets done if we’re divided. Nothing. And if you’re running a campaign of divisiveness – no matter who you are, no matter what side you’re on – that’s not something I support. I support togetherness. Now it’s about the world,” she continues, “it’s not even about your country – being a separatist is not going to help anybody. We need to come together so we can save this planet – so we even have anything to fight over.”
‘Tomorrow’ now features on her album of the same name. Recorded at the former choir director’s home, every vocal part on the record is hers, except for in ‘The Show Must Go On’ duet with none other than Michael Ball – “my homeboy!” Ball was a supporter of ‘Tomorrow’ and its cause, via his BBC Radio 2 show, plus she’s due to join him in Hairspray at the Coliseum in 2021. “He’s been a champion of me and my music, and he doesn’t have to be, which is such a highlight of his character. If he sees someone he believes in, he will go out of his way to promote them.” Unlike others, she says, Ball has brought people up the ladder with him.
She's one of ample musical theatre performers “crossing over” and making their own stuff. People try and pigeonhole artists, she says, “I’m like, ‘no, we can do everything.’” That said, is there a musical she’s still longing to do? “My dream would be to do an original show, an original role that’s never been done before. I’ve always had to be in other people’s shoes, and I’ve been pretty successful at that, but now I want to make the shoes; create the prototype, then other people can make their own versions.”