27/102001 by Sue Wilson - Transcript by Debbie Norris ~
S - My guest this afternoon has, in his time, made the world of the West End musical his own, starring in Les Mis , Phantom and Aspects of Love , amongst others. He's also one of our top recording stars, with 11 gold discs on his wall for his albums. And he has performed in some of the biggest concert halls and arenas around the world to packed audiences, as well as starring in his own TV series. He is, of course, Michael Ball. A very good afternoon to you, Michael.
M - Hello Sue.
S - Lovely to speak to you again. I talked to you about this time last year and you were then hot foot from your UK tour, and you'd been recording an album and a video. You'd had a pretty busy year. Have you had a busy year again, this year?
M - Yeah, it's been fantastic actually. I've really enjoyed it. For the first time I went down to Australia, and. Have you been there?
S - No, I haven't.
M - Oh, it's just a great place. I really, really recommend it. So I spent some time down there, and did my summer open air concerts, which I always enjoy doing. Recorded the album. And then had a really interesting time doing a show at the Donmar Warehouse. Um, which - just two weeks - doing something totally different. Sort of getting back to my theatrical roots, if you like.
S - Yeah, this is a much smaller venue than you're used to really, isn't it?
M - Yeah, what it is, it's a really sort of hot experimental sort of theatre. And they attract people - well, its' the place where Nicole Kidman went and famously got her kit off in The Blue Room . And they seem to have this knack - I think because it's run by an amazingly talented man, Sam Mendes, wonderful director. He directed American Beauty , and won the Oscar for that. He runs it and he kind of persuades people to come to the venue and risk everything. For nothing, basically. [both laugh] And, you know, it worked for me. I went there. I devised a show, a theatrical piece, which kind of stripped everything bare for me. I didn't sing any songs I'd ever sung before. It was all new material. There was no kind of direct contact with the audience through talking. It was all done through song, telling the story through song, and the emotional content was all done in the song, just with a piano. And as you say, a much smaller venue. Only 250 people, and people are literally or virtually sitting in my lap in the place, which is not bad.
S - So which is scarier then - working to a big audience which you can't really see or being there where you can look straight into their eyes?
M - I have to say it was the scariest thing I've ever done. The opening night when we'd been rehearsing for about a month or so, and when I finally first walked out in front of an audience and I literally could see the whites of their eyes, and every nuance, every gesture, every word is magnified a hundred times. That really, really, really scared me. And I thought if I can do this and get through this I don't think anything else will become anything like as scary. The thing is when I've done really big gigs, like I remember walking out at the opening of the Millennium Stadium for the opening of the Rugby World Cup, and there's 72,000 people out there
S - Goodness.
M - and there are I don't know how many million watching on television throughout the world. That is so huge, and so beyond comprehension, you're not actually nervous. You feel like your just one little part of a huge event. I really can't explain that. And when they all start singing Bread of Heaven with you, you've got 72,000 backing singers, you just feel all the confidence in the world. So I can't really explain that one. You would have thought the bigger the audience, the more scared you'd be.
S - It must have been quite emotional too, when they sing something like Bread of Heaven , because you're quite an emotional person, aren't you?
M - Had you noticed? [laughs] I just thrive on it. The songs I love to sing have a great emotional content, I think, and I'm not scared of showing my emotion. The pride I felt when that happened and when everybody sang. I was on stage singing with Shirley Bassey and Bryn Terfel singing the Welsh National Anthem. It was - oh - a fantastic feeling.
S - It's one of those times when the hairs go up on the back of your neck isn't it?
M - Absolutely.
S - So you were saying there about nerves - before you go onstage and so on. Do you have a routine that you go through before you go on stage?
M - I drink a bottle of vodka, and [both laugh]
S - I thought that was Madonna. Just the one is it?
M - then someone tries to unclamp the jaw and throw three valium down it. And that tends to do the trick, funnily enough. I do have a routine. Yeah, very much so. When I'm doing concerts, I always do a soundcheck sort of about 5.30 - make sure everything's working and in place. I have this weird - I don't know about other performers - but when I get really nervous and strung out, I become really tired, and I can't stop yawning. So I go to bed for an hour. Literally. I do. There's a little sort of cot thing in the dressing room. I go to sleep for an hour. And I just keep really really quiet. Sort of nice smelly candles going on, and before I go on stage all the hype really sort of - I try to keep it focussed until I go on stage. And then about ten minutes before I do a bit of a vocal warm-up. I get all the company and the cast around who are doing the show - you talked about Madonna earlier - you see the In Bed with Madonna , where they all get round and cuddle and do the pray together?
S - Yes.
M - Well, we do a send up of that. We all get in to the thing and sort of - it does get us all together, but it is a mild send up. And that sort of focuses us all and gets the energy centred in the right place, and then you just walk out on the stage.
S - Now, hopefully you don't drink the bottle of vodka because I shouldn't think that would be very good for the voice. Do you have to take care of your voice?
M - Well I should do. But I don't. I'm terrible. Because I'm not - I don't have singing lessons. I don't do the best things for my voice. But it's kind of like any muscle - the more you use it, the stronger it gets - [laughs] - actually, I shouldn't have said that should I?
S - [laughing] -
M - What am I saying? I still believe what I'm saying? The more you use it the better it is.
S - I'll take your word for that.
M - ???
S - Shall we do that one again?
M - No, I'm quite happy with what I said. [both still laughing]
S - Right. OK. I shall carry on from that moment there. Now you're going to be 40 next year, aren't you?
M - Thank you for that, Sue. [mock pain]
S - I thought I'd bring you back down to earth.
M - Yes, everything will be dropping off soon.
S - No, well, I was wondering if these small kind of cabaret concerts you've been doing - are you having a bit of a mid-life crisis? Do you want a bit of a change?
M - Or am I going through the change, do you mean? I think as an artist, you have to keep trying new things. I'm doing my usual big concerts at the end of the year. We're doing Birmingham and Cardiff, Bournemouth and back in London. I wanted to do a Christmassy kind of a show. But you have to do other things to challenge yourself. So, I mean I'm lucky, I do sort of go from genre to genre. I'm in the recording studio, I'm in the theatre, I'm in a concert hall, I'm on TV, presenting radio or whatever. I can do different things but within those confines you still have to find ways of expressing yourself, so by doing those shows at the Donmar - I mean I had the option of taking that show into the West End. I didn't want to. That was a show designed specifically for the Donmar. And was one of the most creatively furtive times of my life. Similarly with albums. This album is going back - that I've just released, called Centre Stage - is going back to my theatrical roots. The last album I did was called This Time It's Personal , and contained very personal songs to me, songs I'd written myself, so you do have to keep stimulating yourself artistically in order to grow, and to keep interested as well. You can't keep doing the same things.
S - Yeah, I mean do do you find that people still remember you mostly for the musicals or not? How do you fell that people see you?
M - I really - it really - I think - I think because I haven't actually done that many musicals, but they were the things that brought me first into people's attention. And the music I've loved to sing and that I do sing - quite a lot of it comes from that genre. I'm very much established in that area. But many people came to know me through, well through one thing I did way back, the Eurovision Song Contest. Or someone did. And pretended to be me.
S - I know last time you told me it wasn't you.
M - It wasn't. And if I find out who it was, they're in real trouble.
S - It's your double. It's your twin brother.
M - Yeah. Or they came to know my music through TV shows or whatever, but I think I am and always will be indelibly linked to musical theatre. That was my first love and I keep returning to it.
S - Mmm, I mean lots of big stars are queuing up to get back into the musicals now, aren't they? I mean they are queuing up for roles in Chicago certainly, aren't they?
M - Yeah, well, it's a great show. There are a lot of kind of mediocre and average shows that come along, and when you find a great show you want to be a part of it. Because it was what I was saying before, you want the stimulation of trying something new. Um, I was talking to lovely Clare Sweeney - she's a smashing girl. I first met her quite a few years back at the Welsh BAFTAs would you believe, and she, she was in Brookie , and she was getting up and singing that night. I think it was one of the first times she'd performed in public singing, and she's got a great little voice, and she always said her dream was to be in a West End musical, and she's achieved that and it's a joy to see someone who is genuinely talented, is committed, works hard and gets where she wants to be. I'm all for that.
S - Now you created a couple of roles in musicals, didn't you? Alex in Aspects of Love and Raoul in Phantom of the Opera . Is it quite difficult when a musical is starting out to actually create the role, or is it easier taking over from someone else?
M - It's both. It's the most challenging to create a role because there is nothing, there's no benchmark. Quite often - when I created Marius in Les Mis , for example, most of it hadn't been written, so you've got the outline - the basic outline of the show but you don't quite know what the finesse is going to be, the intricacies, the delicate characterisations, because they literally haven't been written, but then when things arrive, because people have heard you sing, kind of know your character they are almost tailor-made to who you are, how you're interpreting the role, and that's just - to be able to say you created a role in a show like Les Mis . 16 years later there've been countless Mariuses throughout the world, and you were the first one, and they're having to base their role on what you did. It's the most exciting thrill, it's the biggest challenge and when it pays off there is nothing better.
S - Yes, because I confused Marius in Les Mis with Raoul in Phantom , but you did work quite a bit with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
M - Yes.
S - Does he get really involved with his musicals?
M - Oh totally, yes. Totally. Andrew is a great mercurial talent. I have a lot of time for him, and a huge amount of respect. He is deeply - you can tell by his music - he is a deeply passionate man. I don't think there's been a show - I hope he won't mind me saying this - I don't think there has been a show that I've been involved with him that come the dress rehearsal when everything goes wrong, the set doesn't work, the sound isn't right, the thing just isn't working. You think it's never going to work. He will run down to the front of the stage, jump into the pit, pick up all of the music, round the orchestra, saying 'Right, that's it. No one's going to play my music. That's it. I'm going home. It's just not happening.' Because it's like a child for him. His shows are like his children, and he's desperately protective of them. And I've got a great deal of time for him.
S - That's probably one of the reasons why he's been so successful. Because he cares so much.
M - Absolutely. Absolutely. The people who really care and think that what they do matters, put that extra bit of effort in.
S - Would you like to go back into another musical?
M - Yeah, I would. Yeah, I would. Um, uh. I'm always looking out for one. Quite a number of times things have come along that I'm interested in. You start talking about them, and it's just not going to work out. But I'm keeping my - I've been in talks about a couple of things for next year. I don't know if they're going to pan out. You know. That's the only thing. You don't know if um - there's many a slip twixt cup and lip, as they say.
S - You trained as an actor rather than as a singer, didn't you? Obviously we've seen the acting skills in the musicals, but you haven't really done any sort of straight acting, have you, that we've seen?
M - No. Well, I did a movie called England, My England , which was the story of Henry Purcell, the great British composer. Fantastic thing to be involved with. It was John Osborne's last script. It was Sir Robert Stephens' last movie. Playing opposite Simon Callow, and I really enjoyed doing that, but because I've always felt my strength is music, my favourite way of communicating with an audience, and trying to move an audience is through music, I've concentrated on that, and haven't really put myself in the eye line for straight theatre. And I think that when you've done that people would find it harder and harder to cast me in something. I think there would have to be something specifically right for me, for me to do some straight theatre. But yeah, you know me, I'm up for anything.
S - Wouldn't you like to try some Shakespeare, because you come from Stratford-upon-Avon, don't you?
M - Well, the thing about Shakespeare and Stratford is my Dad used to take me there from quite an early age before Shakespeare got ruined for me at school, as inevitably happens. Unless you've got a really great English Lit teacher Shakespeare can become totally daunting and you just don't want to know about it. I went to see it where it should be seen, at the theatre, played by wonderful performers and never had a fear of it and have always loved it, and did some early on when I was in drama school and when I was at Basingstoke, in rep but the opportunities never came along. I remember my Dad saying to me, when I was doing my first big job in Manchester in Pirates , Pirates of Penzance and he said, 'Well, this is great but when you start appearing at the RSC, even as a spear carrier, that's when I'll think you've arrived'.
S - Oh, dear. Has he been disappointed then, Michael?
M - No, well two weeks later I landed the role of Marius in Les Mis , which was done by the RSC.
S - Ah!
M - He did go 'Well it's not really Shakespearean though, is it - it's French!' [laughs]
S - Well, you were half way there.
M - Exactly. You can't win.
S - So now you've got a new album out, haven't you? And as you say this has got a lot of songs from the musicals, and lots of different musicals. So you haven't gone for just the ones you've appeared in, have you?
M - No, I've done some of those. I've done a couple of songs from Les Mis and from Phantom , because they're just great songs, they're current, and they're songs I didn't get to sing in the show and I'm jealous. There are a lot of - the kind of material I look for - are things that sort of work pan-genre. Ones that work on the stage, that work when you're in character, but also you can listen to at home, the song can be taken out of context, and does that cross over thing into the charts. So when you've got songs from The Lion King and from Rent , and quite a few Andrew Lloyd Webber songs in there. I just think they work. They're listenable to out of context.
S - Now it seems that every album that you bring out just goes gold, doesn't it? If you brought one out and it didn't, how would you feel about that, do you think?
M - Livid! [both laugh]
S - Do you tend to sort of look at reviews and things like that? Do you take a lot of notice of what people actually think about the work that you do?
M - Yeah, I'm pretty hyper-sensitive about it. I always say - when I did the Donmar thing, I said, right, I'm not going to look at any reviews - you know, I'm proud of what I'm doing. The reaction's great. I'm not going to look at any reviews. Then they started coming in and they were fab, so I went 'Oh, I think I'll have some of them, then'. But then, if you get into that you say why aren't you showing me the one in the Daily Mail? [laughs]. Luckily the reviews have been very good.
S - It's very difficult when you're in the public eye, isn't it? Because people do - I mean they judge you for who you are, don't they? I mean it's the same in radio as well. People judge you for your personality, not the piece of furniture you've made, or something like that. It's a very personal thing. And that's a very difficult thing to get used to , isn't it?
M - Yeah and they don't really know you, I suppose. I'm pretty up front, and pretty open and my work sort of speaks for itself as well. It's kind of part of the job - when I am buying music and watching films I'm interested in the person doing that work. You have to strike a balance between your private life and your public life and it's healthy to be able to go home and say - let's stick on Eastenders . You know.
S - What do you like to do when you do have a spare moment?
M - Watch Eastenders ! I'm obsessed with television. It's pathetic.
S - Are you really?
M - I'm terrible! I'll sit there moaning 'Isn't the state of British television terrible' and I'll watch everything. When Big Brother finished I lost all my mates. [laughing]
S - Yes, I think we were all a bit like that weren't we.
M - Pop Stars , things like that. Pop Stars and I am a dreadful soap fan, and the best news was Eastenders going to four times a week. Did you see that - do you watch it? The scenes with Kat!
S - Yes I do.
M - She was brilliant. It was wonderful television.
S - Yes, she's just won an award hasn't she.
M - Yes. Quite deserved.
S - Very well deserved, yeah. Well, it's been lovely talking to you again, Michael.
M - You too, Sue.
S - And I hope you're going to have a busy year again next year.
M - Yeah
S - And I hope you don't have a mid-life crisis with your 40 th birthday.
M - I shan't because I'm not having one. I'm going straight back to 35 and starting again.
S - Very wise. Very wise. It's been lovely to speak to you.
M - Cheers.
S - Bye.