"Michael shall go to the Ball'
Evening Standard - 17/04/02
by Warwick Thompson ~
"When Michael Ball was a 'Diva at the Donmar' a while ago, a surprise visitor turned up in his dressing room after one performance. It was Barbara Broccoli, the moneybags behind the James Bond movies. 'We want you to play Ian Fleming's greatest hero,' she purred. Ball was thunderstruck. 'I thought: Brosnan's out. Ball's in! And then she explained. She wanted me for Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,' he says with a grin.
Michael Ball (with co-star Emma Williams) is back on the West End stage as Caractacus Potts.
I'm talking to MOR superstar Michael Ball in his plush cream dressing room at the Palladium Theatre and he appears relaxed, cheerful and calm. In the prop-strewn corridors outside, it's a different matter, however: enormous canisters of CO2 ('for some gizmo that flies'), explosives, heaps of gold confetti and intriguing mechanical whatnots are all rubbing shoulders in glorious profusion. Chitty is said to be London's most expensive musical ever, and is estimated to have set back Ms Broccoli's coffers by £6million. This could be mere PR puff, but when, on my way to Ball's creamy sanctum sanctorum, I catch a glimpse of a gleaming winged car rising up through the main stage on a spectacular hydraulic crane, I begin to believe it.
What's it like to have £6million riding on you, I wonder? 'It's not just on me,' he chirps quickly, 'the show's a collaboration.' Then he adds quietly, 'You just can't think about it.'
Balladmeister Ball is famous for his 11 solo albums and huge UK tours, but hasn't done a stage musical since Sondheim's Passion in
1996. What tempted him back to the West End? 'There were three musicals that were my staples as a kid,' he says, 'Mary Poppins, The Sound Of Music and Chitty. I even had a toy Chitty that used to go into battle against FAB1, Lady Penelope's Pink Rolls Royce. The chance to lead the cast in my favourite childhood fantasy film was too good to turn down.'
Has much been changed in the transition from screen to stage? 'We've cut one musical number and added four new ones, including a big opening scene which tells the history of Chitty before the crash.' Are those composed by the original songwriters, the Sherman Brothers? 'Yup, they're still going strong. When I think what else they did - Mary Poppins, The Aristocats, The Jungle Book - I can honestly say those song-writers wrote my childhood.' Any other changes? 'I never really thought there was much spark between Truly Scrumptious and Caractacus in the film, but our Truly is much more feisty and spunky. She's a mechanic and enters on a motorbike wearing jodhpurs and a leather jacket.' So still very much the traditional Edwardian lady then? 'Well, there are a few liberties,' he laughs, 'but the basic setting is around 1915, yes. And some things are still the same. Richard O'Brien, with his Nosferatu fingers and stringy black hair, is as frightening - perhaps even more so - than the original Childcatcher.'
Has it been challenging working on such a technically demanding show? 'We were working from nine in the morning till ten at night for weeks on the technical side of things. Normally, with a show this size, you'd have out-of-town try-outs - we've literally gone from the page straight to the biggest stage in London. Another challenge is that I have to dance - I've never danced on stage before.' And how's it been? 'I've never known pain like it,' he sighs.
And what about that car, the prop that could make or break everything? 'When we climb into Chitty and fly out over the audience's heads, the response takes the roof off. I've never heard a crowd roar like that. I haven't done a musical for six years, but I guess you could say I've now found the right vehicle,' he quips.