Jenna Lee-James has come a long way in her performing career, from childhood dance classes in Scotland to the bright lights of London’s West End. So far, the multi-talented performer has toured the world with Hugh Jackman, released a debut album, and played several beloved characters in hit musicals.
For the last couple of years, Bronia Buchanan’s talent agency BBA Management has represented Jenna. Now, she’s embarking on her latest West End role: Queen Elsa in Disney’s Frozen.
While preparing to play Elsa, Jenna sat down to talk about landing the iconic role, working with the BBA team, and how Hugh Jackman helped her make her dad’s dream come true.
Jenna started performing at a young age: She took dance lessons from the age of three and singing lessons in Glasgow from the age of eight.
Whenever she went on holiday with her parents, Jenna would “enter all the talent competitions.” Inspired by a friend, she then learnt to sing classically. She was soon competing in talent competitions every year.
At the age of 16, Jenna took her first job as a performer: “Bobby Davro’s Rock With Laughter was my first summer season,” she says.
A few years later, Jenna started to consider a future performing in shows: “I loved going to the West End. I loved watching performances. I used to do amateur dramatics as well when I was younger. I thought, ‘It’s probably not me,’ but I thought, ‘Do you know what? I will try.’”
After four years of auditioning, Jenna landed her first role in a West End show. “I always wanted to sing and dance… and the acting side of it as well. I just love theatre, so that was why I wanted to be there.”
Four years is a long time to wait, but Jenna considers this a character-building time in her life.
“I’ve had more knock-backs than I’ve had jobs,” Jenna says. “You learn a lot about yourself because when you’re young, you think you’re indestructible and you can do anything. ‘I can play that and I can do that.’ But [the question is], what are you actually right for?”
Jenna has two pieces of advice for aspiring performers: Don’t give up and just be you.
“Don’t think you have to be a carbon copy of somebody else,” Jenna says. “You can be the greatest singer in the world and you can be the greatest dancer in the world, but if you’re trying to be somebody else, it’s never going to shine through. So, walk in a room, embrace the person that you are, and be true to yourself.”
While Jenna only became a BBA Management client two years ago, she’s known Bronia Buchanan, the agency’s founder, for almost 20 years. “We’ve got lots of mutual connections. Lots of [Bronia’s] clients are friends of mine.”
Before joining BBA Management, Jenna had been with the same agent for years. Then, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Jenna changed agents, but things didn’t work out. She reached out to Bronia, who invited Jenna to meet the BBA team over a Zoom call.
“I decided that it was the right option for me,” Jenna shares. “I love [Bronia’s] work ethic. I love all the girls on the team. They all work in their own departments and they have such a great work ethic. They are strong individually at what they do, but also across the board, and Bronia Buchanan is the best team leader of them all.”
Jenna’s favourite quality in an agent is someone you can “have a chat with, tell them how you’re feeling, tell them what’s going on, and they get it. [Bronia] really understands what I do and what’s [a] priority.”
Jenna feels that BBA Management is the best-fit agency for her, as Bronia Buchanan and the team fully support the range of creative pursuits the performer takes on.
Jenna explains that BBA Management has “different [agents] looking after different sectors of the entertainment industry,” whether that’s plays, musicals, theatre, television, film, or adverts. “They all deal with individual things so nobody crosses over, but they all manage the same diary. They’re great at making that work.”
Jenna emphasises that BBA clients don’t just receive support from a single agent — it’s a full team effort: “It’s like you’re looked after by everybody.”
Jenna recently released her debut album, On the Edge, which she recorded at Abbey Road Studio Two.
“I funded it myself,” she explains. “The main cost was the studio and I wanted to invest the money into that because I thought, ‘The sound matters to me more than anything.’”
At first, Jenna was unsure about recording the album: “I was like, ‘Who’s going to buy it?’” But her producer and friend Chris Egan encouraged her to go for it.
“[Chris] said, ‘You know what? If you just do one copy you [can] give it to your mum and dad.’ I went, ‘Well, that’s the reason to do it, isn’t it?’”
Jenna credits the success she’s achieved throughout her career to her parents: “The past couple of years have been really difficult for me and Mum and Dad are the ones that kept me going. Without them, I wouldn’t have achieved half the stuff that I have done.”
Jenna was Hugh Jackman’s featured vocalist on the 2019 world tour of his production The Man. The Music. The Show. Jenna calls the job “an incredible opportunity” and a highlight of her career.
“I just couldn’t believe that I was about to work with this megastar, Wolverine, the Greatest Showman, who then became a friend.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anybody who thinks more about everybody else than he does about himself,” Jenna emphasises. She adds that Hugh is “the most generous man on and off-stage.”
One afternoon, during rehearsals for the show in New York, a good friend of Hugh’s, who is also his life coach, came in to deliver a talk to the cast and production team.
“It was the most inspirational three hours of my life,” Jenna says. “We all got involved and it made me learn a lot more about what’s important.”
Jenna explains that the life coach helped the entire cast, band, and production team come up with five words to help them connect throughout the tour. These five words were “love, joy, present, inspired, and gratitude.”
Hugh would lead a group huddle before each show to discuss the five words. “There were 132 people on that tour and we got to know every single person,” Jenna says. “[We] became so close and that came from Hugh.”
Jenna performed at some amazing venues during Hugh’s tour, including Madison Square Garden, Hollywood Bowl, and The O2 in London. But one memory that will stay with Jenna forever is performing at the Hydro Arena in Glasgow, her home city, for the first time and fulfilling her dad’s lifelong dream.
“My dad, when the Hydro was being built, said to all of his friends, ‘One day, my daughter’s going to perform there.’ They all laughed at him.” Jenna told this story to Hugh, who said: “Well, then we need to make your dad’s dream come true.”
“On our opening night in Glasgow, [Hugh] decided that I was going to sing a song for my dad,” Jenna says. “In the middle of his show, [Hugh] called me out on stage. We planned it. We’d rehearsed it. He called me out on stage, said this story to 14,000 people, and then got me singing.”
While Jenna sang “Somebody to Love” by Queen, Hugh ran into the audience and stood next to Jenna’s dad. “I will never forget that, and my dad will never forget that for the rest of his life.”
Jenna has worked extensively as a top West End performer, playing notable roles like Grizabella in Cats. But her favourite role is the first she played on a West End stage: Scaramouche in We Will Rock You. “I think she will always be part of me. I can still tell you the lines now.”
Jenna’s approach to portraying characters has evolved over the years. While playing Donna in Mamma Mia, Jenna found it easier to connect with the character: “I was going through some stuff in my personal life, so it related to her character.” On the other hand, playing Grizabella was more about “encompassing the body language to find the character.”
Now she’s starring in Frozen, Jenna says she has to discover her unique way of portraying Elsa while encompassing previous on-screen and stage versions of the character.
“She’s such an iconic character, but I have to find my Elsa. It really is about reading the script in a way that you work out her journey, how you fit into that journey, and how you portray her, as well as how she’s already portrayed. I think that comes naturally when you find the character.”
Jenna has taken over the role of Elsa from Samantha Barks, who has gone on maternity leave. Landing the role came as “a bit of a shock” to Jenna. After an availability check in April 2023, she received an email from BBA Management about auditioning for the role in May.
While Frozen received quite a few submissions for the role, the production only auditioned a few people.
“I thought, ‘I just have to do the best audition I can and just encompass the character,’” says Jenna. “As somebody said to me years ago, ‘Don’t try. Just be.’ I was like, ‘Just be. Be the character. Do it.’”
The audition took place on the Friday of the May Bank Holiday weekend. Jenna was offered the role the following Tuesday and she went into rehearsals at the start of July.
2023 marks the 100th anniversary of Disney and the 10th anniversary of the film Frozen. While “there’s a lot of pressure,” Jenna says playing Elsa in Frozen has allowed her to realise one of her childhood dreams: “I, from a very young age, always wanted to be the voice of a Disney character.”
“It is probably the most exhilarating character and show I've ever been part of,” she adds. “Everything about it is just incredible. It’s the top show in London, it really is.”
When it comes to performing “Let It Go” — maybe one of the most famous musical songs of all time — Jenna says: “My heart literally pounds from the moment that music starts, to the moment I walk on stage, till I’ve sung it, till I get through to the end of the song. The audience is feeling the same thing.”
Jenna emphasises that Frozen is a show for everybody, not just children, with a message that anyone can relate to: “It’s about how love conquers all.”
One part of the show that Jenna is particularly excited about is Elsa’s dress reveal. While it’s the part she gets the most nervous about, she revels in the “adrenaline rush.”
“It’s the first moment that the audience gets to see Elsa wearing her ice gown, which is one of the heaviest costumes I’ve ever had to wear. [It’s] covered in these crystals, which are just incredible. My gosh, if you could see that costume up close, it’s phenomenal.”
Jenna adds: “[The reveal] is probably one of the only times in my career I’ve actually got to see the audience, because it lights up the entire audience and all you see is everybody with their mouths open. That moment, that’s the magic.”
While she’s achieved her dream of playing a Disney character, there are other roles on Jenna’s bucket list, including Elphaba in Wicked and Eva Perón in Evita.
For now, Jenna isn’t sure what the next stage of her career involves. She would “love to do a movie musical and maybe some more theatre.” She’d also like to release more music: “Whether it be on stage or in the studio, I just love singing and creating things.”
In the meantime, BBA Management is encouraging Jenna to explore new directions: “I think I will see where they take me and what we decide to do on our journey.”
Founded by Bronia Buchanan, BBA Management represents a boutique selection of actors and creative talent who work in television, film, advertising, and theatre. The London-based agency offers comprehensive, individualised representation that spans all aspects of a client’s career.
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