Interview: On the Ball

~ The Belfast News Letter, 31/10/2003 by Jeff Magill~

LAST WEEK, the UK's most popular musical star Michael Ball popped over to Belfast for a promotional appearance on the Kelly Show, ahead of his concert in the city tonight.

While he was here, we phoned him for a quick chat about his new album, A Love Story, which was released last week. As we talked to the singer, he was being driven along the Sydenham Bypass, where he was shown the Odyssey Arena (which he is playing tonight) and, judging by his reaction on the phone, it's fair to say that he was a little overwhelmed by the size of the venue.

"Oh my God, why did they put me in there? It's massive," he said rather humbly.

In truth, it's unlikely that the 9,500-capacity arena will be fully opened for Michael's show, but the singer is underestimating his appeal if he thinks he can't shift a few thousand tickets.

For the best part of two decades, Michael Ball has been Britain's number one musical star. After training in the Guilford School of Acting, he won parts in productions of Godspell and Pirates Of Penzance, the latter of which is where he was spotted by famous theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh. Mackintosh offered him the role of Marius in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Les Miserables and the rest, as they say, is history.

Les Miserables led to Andrew Lloyd Webber casting him as Raoul in the Phantom Of The Opera in 1985 and then as Alex in Aspects Of Love. The main song from Aspects Of Love, Love Changes Everything, went on to score Michael his first Number One in the late 1980s and since then Michael has appeared in countless musicals, released more than 10 albums, starred in his own TV shows, sold out many UK tours (including a couple of sellout shows in the Province), represented the UK at Eurovision and, most recently, he went down a storm in the West End production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

But of all Michael's work, the most interesting is perhaps his performance in the one-man show Alone Together. A somewhat darker affair than Michael's usual productions, the play focused on the life of an entertainer and was told through song, with numbers used from acts as diverse as Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Segue and Gershwin.

Michael won critical acclaim for his performance in the show and was so inspired by it's method of telling a story through song that he decided to make an album under the same premise.

Thus, A Love Story, Michael's new album was born. The 12-track CD tells the story of a relationship, from it's beginning to it's bitter end. The album features songs from the likes of Robert Palmer (She Makes My Day), Burt Bacarach (This Guy's In Love With You) and American singer Kenny Chesney (You Had Me From Hello) and even includes a duet with Spanish actor Antonio Banderas on the classic song Me and My Shadow. But while the album gels together nicely as the story of a relationship unfolds, Michael says that choosing the tracks for the album was no easy task.

"Choosing the songs was the hardest part. I quizzed everyone I knew about the songs that meant something to them, whether it be when their relationship went bad, the song they played at their wedding or songs they like to dance to.

"We collected a vast catalogue of songs and then I asked myself which songs spoke to me," he says. "Then the songs just came together."

One of the more enjoyable moments on the album is Michael's duet with Antonio Banderas on the final track Me and My Shadow.

Michael became friends with Antonio after they met at the Andrew Lloyd Webber's 50th birthday celebrations at the Albert Hall, at which Michael literally gave Antonio the shirt off is back so that he could go on stage.

The incident led to a long-term friendship between the men and Michael flew out to New York, where Antonio was starring in the Broadway show Nine, to record Me And My Shadow.

But it seems the duet nearly didn't happen as, soon after Michael arrived in New York, the famous Black Out hit the city, meaning the singer's recording studio was inoperable.

"I got to New York on a Friday and, bang, the lights went out. Our studio wasn't working, but we managed to find one that had all the computers up and running and we recorded the song. I'm so proud o0f how it turned out.

"Afterwards, we went over to see Melanie [Griffith, Antonio's partner] in Chicago and it was fantastic.

"I ended up sitting with Antonio and Melanie and couldn't even use my phone to call anyone because it wasn't working.

"But it was an exciting three days in New York and everyone was so nice to each other," says Michael.

Fans can expect to hear "the arch" of the A Love Story album at his concert tonight when Michael will perform nearly 30 songs, including many of the much-loved musical numbers fans have come to know him for.

Let's just hope the electricity stays on for this performance.

l Michael Ball plays the Odyssey Arena tonight. Tickets cost pounds 21-pounds 31 and are available from the Odyssey box office on 028 9073 9074.

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