The Times Profile
profile: Michael Ball
By Beth Bain
His role in the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang demonstrates that Michael Ball is not about to change a winning formula
Even the recent Buffy the Vampire Slayer television episode featuring a Rodgers and Hammerstein-style extravaganza cannot hide the fact that the musical is a devalued currency in modern culture. Looking back at the brilliant productions of Hollywood's all-singing, all-dancing heyday, it is initially hard to fathom out why that should be: shows such as Guys and Dolls and Singin' in the Rain were impeccably cool more than 50 years ago and retain every bit of their zing and zest today.
Yet the reasons why the nation's children would rather eat their So Solid Crew CDs than watch West Side Story are clear: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. Between them, the composer and the impresario have ensured that a whole generation has been raised to believe that musical theatre is only one step up the coolness ladder from a pac-a-mac and a rain bonnet.
So it follows that the musical actor Michael Ball, the star of Aspects of Love , Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera , should be the least cool man on the planet. And that is even without taking his 1992 Eurovision Song Contest entry into consideration (it was called One Step at a Time and he came second).
This week, Ball returns to the London stage as Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Palladium. Despite playing to thousands of matrons, birthday parties and tourists every year, the theatreland community is a curiously anonymous one. Somehow, though, Ball has crossed over, ensuring that his name is known even by those who would rather drink hemlock than sit through one bar of Aspects of Love .
Ball left the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, in 1984, embarking on a touring production of Godspell before joining a production of The Pirates of Penzance opposite fellow stage-diehards Paul Nicholas and Bonnie Langford.
His career took a dizzier turn in 1985, however, when Mackintosh asked him to audition for the role of Marius in Les Misérables . From there he played Raoul in Phantom and starred in Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love , the production that spawned his hit single Love Changes Everything .
He has recorded ten solo albums (all of which went gold), filmed three series of his own television show, on which he duetted with such luminaries as Cher and James Brown, and became a household name, particularly in households that featured women "of a certain age". Renowned for his niceness, his suits and his "boyish charm", Ball quickly became the golden boy of female theatregoers and, later, the subject of dozens of adoring websites.
To his credit, he has tried to ratchet up the sexual frisson: "I'm not sure it is mothering they want to do," he wryly told a journalist last year. "At least, that is not how my mother mothered me. I'm certainly not doing Oedipus."
Yet a performer does not become such a showbusiness fixture without having a good understanding of how the game is played. Despite all the light-entertainment smiles and suits, Ball has recently displayed a canniness beyond his something-for- Mother's-Day image. In 1995 he starred in Steven Sondheim's Passion , a role that pitched him beyond his usual cosy limits. "It was about not just wanting to be typecast," he once explained. "It is about not wanting to limit what I'm allowed to do. Part of the reason that I did Passion was because there had been so much Michael Ball, the personality, that I thought if I don't watch it there will be no way back. People would be thinking, that is not Giorgio, that's Michael Ball. I would hate that."
Last year, he further realigned his image with a cabaret residency at the Donmar Warehouse in London singing songs - scarcely believably - by Radiohead, David Bowie and Joni Mitchell. There are signs in his personal life, too, that he is not a completely old-fashioned kind of guy: he lives with the Sixties television presenter Cathy McGowan, 15 years his senior, and describes himself as a "common-law grandad" to her daughter's child. There was even a market among less maternal fans for rumours that the singer had undergone liposuction - rumours that Ball robustly squashed.
He could cover the whole of Eminem's oeuvre, however, and the kids still wouldn't be digging his "natural voice" and that "boyish charm". It is probably just as well. Ball's role is to represent an enduring theatrical subculture, a world of matinees, Thermos flasks and family-sized boxes of Fruit Pastels. Those Radiohead songs are just a distraction. Love may very well change everything, but Michael Ball certainly won't.
Michael Ball stars in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Palladium, London W1, until Sep 28 (020-7494 5020)
CV: Michael Ball
Born June 27, 1962
Lives In Southwest London with his partner, Cathy McGowan
Education Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Big break Appearing as Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance alongside Paul Nicholas and Bonnie Langford
Career high Playing Marius in Les Misérables; reaching No 1 with the single Love Changes Everything in 1989
Career low The three seasons of his television show Michael Ball