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Keala Settle - Cadogan Hall

Photo credit: Fourth Wall Live

Stories of inconsiderate audience behaviour will always do the rounds, and I had the ‘privilege’ (inverted commas mine) of sitting behind a couple of older women who thought it was acceptable to speak at length at full conversational volume during Keala Settle’s concert. Their talking was so animated that at various points, they were laughing at the most inappropriate moments imaginable – a tribute Settle gave to her late mother, for instance, or her recalling times in her life when she had gone as far as to attempt being taken by her own hand.

Everyone else, however, was very much living in the moment. Keala (she’s so personable that it’s first name terms from the outset) had spoken before about how people had contacted her through social media and other channels to say how her performance in the motion picture The Greatest Showman had impacted them. So many people have been damaged in various ways, whether physically, psychologically, or both. Along comes a set of characters in a movie, looked down on and treated atrociously by society at large, but find a way of coming together, belonging and thriving in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible if they had not triumphed over adversity in the first place.

Keala’s mother Susanne, a New Zealander, and even more specifically, a Māori, is no longer with us, though her English father David was in the audience at Cadogan Hall for her first ever concert, as were other members of her family. Dedicating ‘The Rose’, from the motion picture of the same name, to her mother, emotions reached a peak as her voice cracked on the final note. Later, in the second half, Settle spoke about how she had come to accept the various messages of love and positivity she had received, and let go of other things and thoughts that were less helpful. I need to get better at that myself.

Having Māori and British influences whilst being brought up in Hawaii meant she was exposed to a lot of different ways of living, which ultimately led her to conclude that the ‘American Dream’ is fundamentally a universal one, in that there are at least some people in every society who want to make improvements to their standard of living. Her mother gave up a singing career in New Zealand to start a new life elsewhere and raise five children, of which Keala was the eldest. But there was no undue pressure on Keala to do what her mother didn’t get around to, only parental unflinching support.

I take the view we have moved on slightly from literally risking our lives to attend a live event (others may – and do – have a different stance). But I understand Keala’s uncertainty as to how this debut concert would go – not so much whether anyone would turn up, because her family and friends wouldn’t have missed it, but how it would be received by the rest of us. Three standing ovations speak for themselves.

Very few people wouldn’t have known about ‘This Is Me’, which is, should she continue doing concerts, probably going to be the tune she will close with every time. Avoiding reprising songs from most of the shows she had been in – nothing, for instance, from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the Musical, in which she had made her Broadway debut, or Waitress, where she originated the role of Becky, or Hairspray, in which she played Tracy Turnblad in a US national tour – the audience was given a tune from Hands on a Hardbody. Hardly anybody in the London audience, yours truly included, knew anything about it, as it only managed 56 performances on Broadway, half of which were previews.

Keala had two background vocalists, Sejal Keshwala and Kayleigh McKnight, who were given a chance to shine in the second half. McKnight picked a song she had written herself, which segued into Keala returning to the stage to present one of her own songs too. She can’t write about things she hadn’t experienced for herself before, she said, and so the selection of her own material we heard was largely about carrying on the good fight and not letting the bastards win. A true inspiration to anyone who has ever felt like giving up on a seemingly unattainable goal, the key messages from this incredible evening seemed to be: dig deep, reach out for help when you need it, and enjoy life as best you can.

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