Last week, singer Michael Ball revisited the scene of his first triumph and his darkest hour

~ for Sunday Express by Mark Shenton (21/11/ 2004) ~

Michael Ball was barely a year out of drama school when he was invited to be one of the principal performers in the original production of Les Misérables in 1985, but both the man and the show have journeyed a long way since. While the show has gone on to become a globe-trotting phenomenon, Ball too has seen his career traverse Wet End and Broadway hits, chart-topping recording success and stints as a radio and television host, most recently on ITV's This Morning.

Last week, however, he returned to the place where it all began, for a special one-off performance of Les Mis (as it's commonly known) at Windsor Castle, before the Queen and President Jacques Chirac as part of the centenary celebrations of the Entente Cordiale.

But there is no disputing, either, the professional territory that Ball now occupies. He's a leading man of musical theatre and boasts a solo recording and concert career that has him marked out by some as another Cliff Richard, with his wholesomeness and still boyish good looks, his likewise adoring female fan base, and crooning. But when I suggest it, Ball explains: “There's only one Cliff! He's in his fifth decade of hits and writes his own copybook.”

Nevertheless, Ball is well on his way. Now 42 years old, it is 20 years since his first professional job and, though Les Mis provided him with his big West End break, it also nearly derailed his career before it had even begun.

“I got glandular fever during the run of the show and then started having awful panic attacks on stage “, he remembers. “I actually thought I was going to have to give up the business and, in my head, I did. I couldn't put myself through it any more and had to leave.

“I was in the biggest show ever and I wanted to do it, but I couldn't even get off the sofa. I felt as if I'd let everyone down and that no one understood.

“I went from this person who could go out all night partying and who thought that nothing could touch me, to feeling vulnerable and naked on stage. But that's the job we do: you are exposed and naked, if you do the job right. After having those anxiety attacks, it opened up a whole area of demons in my head. ‘When is it going to happen again?' ‘Why are all these people staring at me?' It was the blackest hour of my life.”

But it also helped him to grow up, he says now. “There were two ways of going: either you give up, or you deal with it. I faced the demons and beat them. All I could say to myself was that I would never get that low again. And it was a good lesson for me, otherwise you probably leak and sense of humanity.”

He was thrown a professional lifeline by producer Cameron Macintosh, who invited him to take over a leading role in The Phantom Of The Opera. It was an established hit, so there would be less pressure. “My recovery was gradual,” he says. “I did the show on Beta-blockers. They stop your heart from racing as much and give you a psychological lift. Instead of fearing a wave that is about to crash over you and leave you out of control, you have to find a way to stop the wave and instead say, ‘I'll surf it'.”

For his next show, he was once again in the spotlight, and far more prepared to ride the wave of success that followed: he was cast as the young lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects Of Love in 1989, with Roger Moore as the star. When Moore withdrew during rehearsals, Ball was propelled into the spotlight, partly thanks to his chart-topping success with a song from the show called Love Changes Everything.

It did indeed change everything. “It brought me to a much wider public, people who would never go to see a Lloyd Webber show.” It also introduced him to Cathy McGowan, the veteran TV presenter, who was then doing celebrity interviews for BBC London's news programme. When the show went to Broadway, he followed it there. So did Cathy.

When he returned after a year in New York, they moved in together and have shared a home in Barnes, south-west London, ever since. “It's the best thing that could have happened to me – it's kept me safe,” he says.

That was the case four Christmases ago, when Cathy rescued him from their burning house. “I had a rotten old cold and couldn't sleep, so I told Cathy I was going to watch some TV, took a large whisky and some Night Nurse and crashed out. The next thing I knew, she was hitting me to wake me up.”

As they watched their house burn to the ground, it also wiped out all of his memories –pictures, gold discs, videos of out-takes and more. “But no one was hurt and we were alive,” he says.

Home's important to him. “I'm a Cancerian, we like our nests”, - but so is his privacy. “Cath and I are private. We don't open our home to the press. Something Cath instilled in me early on is that if you let people in, you can't ask them to leave.” Instead, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

As well as the shows that have also included Passion (for which composer Stephen Sondheim wrote an additional song at Ball's request), the original version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and a solo cabaret show recently seen at London's Haymarket, there have also been a dozen solo albums and a new greatest hits double CD. He's also soon to start work on a new solo album that will precede another big concert tour.

Not one to rest on his laurels, for last week's appearance in Les Mis, Michael actually played the principle role of Jean Valjean for the first time, and remembers that when the cast first heard Colm Wilkinson sing the character's big song in it, someone shouted out: “You told us this show was about God – you didn't tell us he'd be singing the 11 th – hour-number!”

Michael, whose drama-school training did not include singing lessons, has finally had to face up to taking some: “Les Mis is so close to my heart but Valjean is one of the toughest roles in musical theatre, and I wanted to be sure I'd be up to the job.”

Somehow, I don't think that was ever going to be in doubt.

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