Diehard fans are passionate about their musical cause

~ Having a Ball ~

Michael Ball has a close connection to his fans, writes Bernard Zuel.

The middle-aged woman too blonde, tanned and casually dressed on a Thursday morning to be anything other than a tourist could not have ditched her husband faster. They'd been watching Michael Ball have his photo taken and now, seizing her opportunity, she came barrelling towards him. Happy to oblige, he asked if their photo was to include her husband.

"No, no, just me," she said in a Brummie accent, waving a dismissive hand in hubbie's direction before saying, to anyone and everyone, "Fancy seeing Michael Ball here."

Fancy that indeed. Ball may not earn a second glance in most parts of Sydney but anyone who's attended a West End or Broadway musical in the past decade would know his face, his name and certainly his voice.

While ahead of him lies a radio production of Sunset Boulevard, with Petula Clark for the BBC, behind him are three different productions of Les Miserables and star turns in the likes of The Phantom of the Opera, Pirates Of Penzance and, recently, the extravagant Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which have made his name in musical theatre.

He also successfully revived in London a Stephen Sondheim musical that bombed on Broadway, and created a one-man show for Sam Mendes's Donmar Warehouse Theatre ; which stripped Ball of his usual orchestra, stage patter and songs, and surprised many by becoming a major success.

Altogether it's earned him the kind of enthusiastic, if not fanatic, support that encourages "a planeload" of British fans to fly to Australia for his five-concert tour, which begins tonight.

"There are certain fans who come to everything I do," he says.

"And fans here will look after them, take them out so they're not afraid or isolated. They're really nice people."

They're also really specific in their nature.

"The majority OK, all of them are women," he says with a smile. "Well, the diehards are women. They'll drag their old man along sometimes, but it's difficult for women to travel alone and if they can't get their old man to come along, because he's sat in front of the telly watching sport, they want an outlet."

Lonely women who follow him from the UK ("from all around the world, actually".) to Australia , many of them writing letters to him asking for advice. Odd behaviour? An eyebrow could be raised at least.

"None of them are weird," Ball assures. "None of them follow me home. Nobody's trying to jump me in hotels or anything. It's just a really healthy outlet."

For all the mild mockery from disgruntled media types who don't get anyone stalking them no matter how hard they may try Ball's connection to his audience goes beyond the stage door. But not quite how you imagine.

Twelve years ago his sister-in-law, Angela, died of ovarian cancer, within six months of being diagnosed. The speed of her deterioration the fact that even then it was clear more could have been done if her cancer had been detected earlier galvanised Ball and her family.

"When Angela died we became extremely angry and put all our energies into finding out why there wasn't more research going into this," Ball says, his expressive hands working furiously. "We discovered there was one tiny research unit in London that was about to close for lack of funding. We said that we would try and make enough money to keep it going. At that point it was testing 150 women nothing, absolutely nothing, for one of the biggest killers of women.

"Ovarian cancer is not very trendy but because of my profile at the time, because I'm a bloke talking about it, going on chat shows talking about ovarian cancer, it got a lot of interest in the UK and we began to make serious money. We eventually got 150,000 women being tested and we've now been given a grant for £ 22 million from the Government.

"Predominantly my fans are women who are susceptible to this disease and this was a way they found out about this, about the simple blood tests that could catch it in the early stages, and the support groups. It's not all nutty fanaticism."

Michael Ball performs at the Wollongong Entertainment Centre tonight and the Opera House Concert Hall tomorrow.


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