Golden Voice changes his tune!
In an airless rehearsal room off Marylebone High Street, the singer Michael Ball, for so long the golden voice of the West End, is revisiting his glory days in preparation for a one-off concert with the opera singer Lesley Garrett.
He belts out the show-stoppers that have brought lumps to thousands of (mainly female) throats and tears to thousands of (mainly female) eyes. "Anywhere you go, I will go too", he booms, unleashing the full strength of his crowd pleasing, high baritone in a hit from Phantom of the Opera.
"You're such a natural, talented, wonderful, instinctive musician" coos Garrett, not altogether seriously.
"Girlfriend, throw down that gauntlet," he cracks back before ripping into his signature tune, Love Changes Everything.
The song - from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love, the 1989 musical that first made him a star - requires Ball to hit two high B flats, which, he reminds Garrett, he used to have to deliver eight times a week, twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays. "None of this opera bollocks" he says, "where you maybe show up twice a week".
The teasing is both good humored and revealing. Ball turns 40 next year - the thought makes him wince - and he has decided to cast a long, hard look over his technically punishing but all too easily mocked repertory.
There's a lot to look at; 10 solo albums, all of which went gold, with three TV series slotted in between, eight UK tours, four Royal Variety performances and a Blackpool Illuminations gig, "Of all the Blackpool Illuminations turner onners we've had, you're one of the top." But now Ball wants to change his tune.
From tomorrow, and for the next fortnight, he will be taking time out from his well-worn routine of mega-concerts to sing - alone but for a piano - in the intimate and extremely fashionable Donmar Warehouse. The place holds 250 people, as opposed to the 12,000 who have paid to hear him belt out his standards with Lesley Garrett.
Although the Donmar run sold out within days, you can safely say he's not playing there for the money. "At these prices? It's costing me to do this."
The risk is not simply financial. There won't be a single note of Lloyd Webber in his set, which will include songs by David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead and Adam Guettel, an innovative young American composer who happens to be Richard Rodgers' grandson.
"I love my big halls and my concert shows with the orchestra, I love it, but you don't want to keep doing it. I wanted to see if I could do a show without any safety net at all. I don't want any of the razzmatazz. I'm not going to talk to the audience - it's almost as if I don't want to be me," says Ball, describing the evening as cabaret with a through-line linking the songs.
It may sound like a mid-life crisis, but Ball is wise enough to know that you can't peddle the same wares forever. For years he was the West End's favourite son, one of the few to pass through the Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh musical machine - a treadmill known for it's anonymity - and emerge a star. (Elaine Paige is probably the only other).
In many ways it was accidental. He studied acting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, not singing - and it was some time before he realised he was not just an actor with a good voice, but a genuine singer. "If I'm realistic, I know I communicate better through music than I would through speaking."
He has what he calls a "natural voice - I just hear the notes in my head and they come out", and although he can't read music, inevitably experience has helped him fine-hone his technique. (The Broadway diva Patti LuPone taught him, he says, the value of the "money note").
After playing Marius in Les Miserables, he graduated to Phantom and Aspects, repeating the latter show on Broadway, and was the gigolo Joe Gillis in the first workshop of Sunset Boulevard. In 1997 he turned his back on the world of British musical behemoths to lead a far riskier venture, into the West End playing the lovesick Giorgio.
His co-star Maria Friedman won the Olivier Award, but Ball got the much desired boost to his street cred and Sondheim wrote him a new number, I Love Fosca. "It was about not just wanting to be typecast", says Ball, "about not wanting to limit what I'm allowed to do myself.
Part of the reason I did Passion was because there had been so much Michael Ball, the personality, the TV series and blah blah that I thought, if I don't watch it, there will be no way back. People would be thinking, that's not Giorgio, that's Michael Ball and I'd hate that.
But where does this need to escape his limits leave his fans - more than 80% of the female - who will travel the length and breadth of Britain to see their favourite singer in the flesh? (In Grimsby he was once mobbed by 40 women in the street). They love to hear Ball in the soaring mock - Puccini of Phantom or to see him hosting the National Lottery. How will they deal with the rejection of the old style that the Donmar run suggests?
Ball denies that he is turning his back on them, though he takes droll issue with my suggestion that they want to mother him; "I'm not sure it's mothering they want to do. At least, that's not how my mother mothered me; I'm not doing Oedipus.
"People say, 'Don't you think it's sad that you see the same people coming to every night of every show,' and I say 'No, why the hell not? There is a camaraderie.' It's a two-way traffic. I'm just very open; I'm not afraid to show emotion and I like people to show me their emotion."
In any case, he says, "they know there's a reason I'm doing this at the Donmar and some, I'm sure, will come along and absolutely hate it. But I'm not saying everything I've done in the past I'm now negating; this is a new direction". Indeed Ball has a major UK tour planned starting next May, preceded by one to the Antipodes and the Far East: "The Michael Ball that everybody knows is not disappearing overnight".
It's simply that the bravura technician behind Love Changes Everything - in an American pastiche the song was called I Sleep With Everyone - feels he will be stranded if he doesn't diversify soon. "I've been around long enough and there are plenty of actors my age, with my look, who would be far easier to cast than me," he admits.
As for television, "I look at it now and think: What is there? A quiz show? There are no entertainment shows, no music shows. I don't actually see a vehicle that would be right for me" He poses the underlying question, "What do I do for the next 15 years?"
Ball hopes his new show might supply the answer and that it will have a life beyond the Donmar run, possibly involving him as director instead of performer. That's assuming that he makes it past the opening night. "I'll be so nervous, I'll probably have cancelled by then." In which case, he laughs, "I'll be showing everybody pictures of my trip to Peru". And you know what? If he did, those fans would probably forgive him.