LJ Neilson arrived in South Africa six years ago and has rapidly become one of South Africa’s most in demand musical theatre performers. She has starred in some of South Africa’s biggest hits including Dirty Dancing, Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Girl and Saturday Night Fever for which she was honoured with a 2017 Naledi Award nomination. Later this year she will take on the role of Eva Perón, twice a week, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita which begins performance at Joburg’s Montecasino in October before transferring to Cape Town’s Artscape Opera House in December.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
It’s a multitude of things and a multitude of people and experiences. Initially, I was inspired by my big sister who was a dancer. She was a beautiful ballet dancer. She didn’t pursue a career in the end but she influenced me to go to classes. Secondly, my grandmother. [She] and I would watch old classical movie musicals together. That kind of inspired me to follow that dream of becoming one of those musical stars that I saw on TV.
What do you prefer about the industry here compared to England?
First and foremost I think it would probably be the closeness of the industry. There are a lot fewer performers here. I really enjoy that I know a lot of people and I’ve met and worked with a lot of industry people now. It is really a close-knit family community. Because it is such a close industry and a smaller pool of people, I find that it is a very encouraging environment to work in. People are ready to share their knowledge and teach you. I find that beautiful and very inspiring.
What was your first production here?
Was that your first professional audition in South Africa?
It was my second audition. I auditioned for Jersey Boys first. They auditioned at the same time and I was waiting to hear from my Jersey Boys audition while I was at Dirty Dancing. It was terrifying. Then I heard from Dirty Dancing first. That was my first big audition process. It was absolutely nerve-wracking, obviously, but more so because the audition process gets fitted into one or two weeks whereas in the UK it is drawn out over six to eight weeks so you have a lot more time to learn your material and a lot more time to educate yourself on the material whereas here it is very fast paced.
What I think is quite unique about you is that you have worked pretty consistently since you arrived here.
I’ve been incredibly lucky.
Is it a case of you just wanting to stay busy or are you conscious about the work you choose?
All of the above. When you are in the performing industry, you might be very comfortable in a production that you are in but you are always searching for the next job. You are always searching for the next role and the next opportunity. I think one of the core foundations of being successful in musical theatre is just constantly looking for the next thing and searching, never to become complacent.
Do you still get nervous when you audition?
Absolutely. Every time. I think now that I’ve been in the industry for a lot longer and speaking about it being a smaller industry as well, when you get into an audition room often I know the South African half of the panel. That definitely helps with nerves. I still get nervous every time. It never goes away but I think it is healthy to have a bit of nerves. I think it’s just honing in on those nerves and using it to suit yourself and to push you.
You have just completed your run in Funny Girl. How has that experience been?
I found it completely different to any other contract that I’ve ever done mainly because this whole process was a new creation. A lot of the work that I have done in South Africa has been previously choreographed and directed and is being brought to South Africa from the UK or from the States. Doing a whole workshop process and creating something and being a part of it was absolutely sublime and such a new and wonderful experience. Working with The Fugard is a big tick off my bucket list. Ever since I saw Rocky Horror on that stage, I wanted to be on there. It’s been a big bucket list career tick for me.
In Funny Girl in addition to your own role, you are also covering the role of Emma. What are the challenges that come with covering a role?
One of the biggest challenges is that once you are in production and performance, you can’t stand in the wings and watch the person that you are covering. You can’t stand in the auditorium [and] you barely get to hone in on it during a show because you are so busy with your own track. It’s very difficult. You can do your prep in the rehearsal room but then keeping on top of that work throughout the run and not being able to have a peek and go, “That’s where she goes now. That’s what I pick up.” That is the biggest challenge. I think another challenge is making the role your own. As a run goes forward, a show becomes very grounded and settled. The actors know how the other actor is going to respond and they know how they are going to look at them. When you go on for a cover role, it is difficult to make that your own and not fall into the shoes of the actor who has previously played it or who is playing it six or seven times again.
You are about to step into the Hal Prince directed version of Evita where you’ll be starring as the alternate Eva Perón. What are you looking forward to within that production?
I’m looking forward to being an absolute sponge and absorbing as much information from the directors, from Hal Prince, learning from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work. I’m looking forward to absorbing as much as I can and working with some real rock star personalities in musical theatre land and working alongside them. This is my first major lead role. I’m excited for the experience.
I must ask you about your performance as Anybodys in West Side Story.
That specific show was a whole other kettle of fish for me purely because I’ve never thought of playing a tomboy. I’ve never been tomboyish. I’ve always been a real girly girl. It was quite a challenge and a half but I loved it.
I was wondering if you’d be up for a lightning round of questions about the productions you’ve been in?
It’s an online tag called “Role Call.” What role was the most fun?
Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain. I covered Lina. She was so much fun.
Role that kicked your ass?
Anybodys in West Side Story.
Role that made you feel like a star?
That’s Lina again.
Role that you’d love to do again?
My ensemble track in Singin’ in the Rain.
Role you wish more people had seen?
When I played Baby in Dirty Dancing.
Role which felt the most like you?
The role that had the best costumes?
Singin’ in the Rain. That seems like my favourite show, doesn’t it?
What is still on your career bucket list?
I need to think about that because previously it was to play a lead but now it is going to happen at the end of the year [in Evita.] I think I’d really like to do something within the TV and Film industry one day.
In terms of being a triple threat, what order would you list those traits?
It’s such a tricky question. It’s always been dancer, dancer, dancer. That is kind of where I started and it was my forte but now that I am a little older, I would probably put my singing at the forefront. I’ve really developed as a singer and I’ve really grown into my voice. Acting is always a tricky one because I always say to people that acting comes part and parcel with dancing and singing. You can’t be a musical theatre actress if you can’t act. You can’t be in the ensemble and be a dancer or a singer if you can’t act your role.
Did your singing develop later on or did you always feel confident with your singing abilities?
I always had a voice but I didn’t quite know how to control it yet. It took a long time to figure out how to use it properly. Even after I left college, I still couldn’t control my voice like I can know.
How did that develop over the years?
Just constant training and being fully employed in musical theatre as well and getting to work on those techniques during a show. I think a lot of it is stamina as well and performing eight shows a week and just allowing my voice to grow within that.
Do you have any rituals that you do when you are in a production?
Not really other than I just have a very specific order that I do stuff in. My show prep is very specific and that can differ from show to show depending on what’s required. I don’t really have any specific rituals.
Do you have to structure your life differently when you are in a show?
Definitely. First and foremost, when you are in a production you have to make sure you are on top form every night come 8pm, that you are not tired and you have not overworked yourself during the day. I have to be very careful that I don’t overdo it during the day and tire myself out. Because I am a little bit of a gym-a-holic and I am a little bit of a social bunny, I just have to keep that under wraps and make sure that I don’t overexert myself during the day especially if I am playing Anybodys and running up and down that stage.
That stage looked absolutely massive.
It was. It’s a double depth stage. Double the depth of any stage I have ever worked on.
That’s insane because I remember watching it and going, “Damn that girl can run.”
And she runs everywhere! Every line she ran on and every exit she ran off.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
When I first arrived, the two biggest inspirations were Samantha Peo and Angela Kilian. They are obviously well very known, strong, fierce women in the industry that I aspire to. I was lucky enough to do a corporate with Samantha during my first couple of years here. She was just so down to earth and grounded and fun. I couldn’t believe that such a successful woman in the industry was so down to earth and so lovely. She is my inspiration to be like that and stay grounded. I am very good friends with Genna Galloway and she is a big inspiration of mine. Recently she took a really big leap of faith and did Hedwig. That was such a massive thing that she took that big leap and threw herself into that show and she got a Fleur du Cap. I am absolutely so proud of her. And Genna’s mom, Delia Sainsbury. I must put Bethany Dickson in there as well because she is just fabulous and I love her to pieces. I worked with her in The Sound of Music and Singin’ in the Rain and she is just divine and so incredibly talented.
You can catch LJ in Evita which begins performances on October 14th 2017 at Montecasino in Johannesburg until November 26th before transferring to Artscape Theatre in Cape Town from December 1st until January 7th 2018.
For tickets please click here.
All photos were taken by Wynne Bredenkamp.