Keeping an Eye on the Ball
by Mark Shenton for The Stage (14/10/2004) ~
Michael Ball has been in the business for 20 years now, and looks backwards as well as forwards with Mark Shenton
Michael Ball has come a long way since he was a student at Guildford School of Acting, where he graduated exactly 20 years ago, making a few bob by busking in the underpass that goes over to Debenhams. “I was learning that I could make a noise that people would listen to,” he tells me, sitting in a hotel suite in Kensington. He's conducting press interviews fresh from a live appearance on BBC1's Breakfast News to promote his solo cabaret show Alone Together that he reprised at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, after debuting it at the Donmar Warehouse three years ago. People have not only been listening to the noises he makes, but paying to do so in their hundreds of thousands, ever since he left drama school.
Now a well-established star of stage musicals, his own television shows, sell-out concert tours and 12 previous solo albums, he's had what he calls “a kind of eclectic career” and there's much else to look back over as well as forward towards. As well as the Haymarket season, this month also sees the release of a new double CD set, Love Changes Everything - The Essential Michael Ball, which will be followed next month by the issuing of a new DVD of his last concert tour show, recorded live at the Hammersmith Apollo.
“I've been in the business for 20 years now and it felt kind of right to go and look back at what I've done over all those years,” he says of the new album, “but also to add a few new things as well so that it's not purely recycled stuff. The difficult thing in fact has been to decide what goes in - there are tracks that I personally love that would mean absolutely nothing to anyone else. At the same time, I'm thinking, ‘do we really have to put One Step At A Time on it?', but of course we do!”
He's referring to the 1992 British entry for the Eurovision Song Contest that he sang and was narrowly beaten to taking the prize home for when Cyprus cast a final winning vote for the Irish entry instead of him. “But at least it means that I would never be saddled with Eurovision Song Contest winner next to my name!” he says.
That Eurovision experience he calls “an amusing footnote to my career now”, but he also acknowledges its importance: “It did mean that people got to see me singing a different style of song away from musical theatre, as myself, and were appreciative of it.” It may have come second at the contest in Malmo, Sweden, but it topped the UK charts, as had Love Changes Everything - the song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love that had first really introduced him to a wider Top of the Pops public when he first sang it outside the show three years earlier, and the two songs represent the two main strands that his career has evolved along ever since. “I will forever be regarded quite rightly as a musical theatre performer, and it remains my first love, but I'm also a solo singer, too.”
Both were facets he had actively sought to cultivate. A meteoric rise through the ranks of musical theatre performers saw him quickly progress from his first jobs in rep at Aberystwyth and Basingstoke to taking the lead role of Frederic in the Broadway version of The Pirates of Penzance in Manchester (which he won via an open audition he read about in the pages of this newspaper). From there he was sought out to play the principal role of Marius in the original production of Les Miserables, first for the RSC at the Barbican and then at the West End's Palace Theatre. He was still busy with it when The Phantom of the Opera first opened, but when the chance came to take over the role of romantic lead Raoul, he seized it, and then created the role of Alex in Aspects of Love that subsequently took Ball over Broadway, as the title of his ongoing radio series has it, for the first time. “Even if I'd never worked again, I could say I've starred on Broadway - they can't take that away from me!”
He learnt a lot there: the show was panned by many critics, not least the all-important New York Times. “It was a really broadening experience to be on the receiving end of negativity on such a scale for the first time”, he comments. But it nevertheless ran and he saw out his year there and became part of the Broadway ‘community'. “To be part of that whole theatrical community, which is very, very different to how it is here, was wonderful. It's much closer, there's a lot of interaction between the shows, and you all get to meet up after the show in hangouts like Don't Tell Mamas. It was fantastic, living in Greenwich Village and becoming like a native New Yorker for a year”.
But on his return from Broadway, he realised something else, that despite all his stage success he hadn't yet established himself as a solid name in his own right. “There were performers who were doing lead roles, going from Les Mis into Phantom and then Miss Saigon, and then maybe back to Phantom, but they didn't have the recognition: the show was the star. I thought that there had to be a way to break out of that, to actually make a name for yourself. All of us want our name above the title, and kind of the only one who had done it was Elaine Paige. She did it through making records to bring her to a wider public and through the TV exposure that resulted.”
So he signed a record deal, and started work on an album. “But I hated the way it was going - it was like karaoke, I didn't know what I was doing and didn't have the right people around. That's when the opportunity came from the BBC to do Eurovision. So I thought, let's see if we can make this work to my advantage, and it really did.”
Bolstered by the increased exposure it brought him, he returned to work on his debut album with renewed confidence and a sense of direction. A small concert tour of four shows was booked as a try-out in Bristol and Wales. “It was shockingly bad,” he admits now, “but I got through it and people came!” After the release of the album, he staged his first proper tour - and even more people came. By the night of his 30th birthday, the album had gone to number one, and he was playing a sold-out house at Hammersmith. “It was Hammersmith Odeon on the Saturday night and Hammersmith Apollo on the Sunday, so I closed the Odeon and opened the Apollo.” Cameron Mackintosh took to the stage to present him with his first Gold Disc. It was, he realised, “the start of a whole different career for me”.
Four more solo albums, including a ‘Best Of' collection, would follow before he finally returned to the theatrical stage in 1996. “After I finished with Aspects in New York, it was six years before I went back to do a proper production with the British premiere of Sondheim's Passion.” It was a bold choice to come back with and he says, “that's precisely why I did it.” When producer Bill Kenwright persuaded him to do it, Bill showed him the ticket stub from the opening night of the show he'd attended on Broadway: “He'd written, ‘Get the rights for Michael Ball' on it!”
Sondheim even added an extra number for the character Michael would play at his request, and he found himself challenged all over again: “I'd really forgotten the buzz of doing a theatre piece. That first day of rehearsal, of meeting up with everybody you're going to be working with, and the whole rehearsal process - seeing the set model, doing the first Sitzprobe, doing the first previews, getting your dressing room, I really missed that, and realised how much I'd missed it.”
He remarks that the great thing about theatre is that “it's just so not precious, like it can be in the pop and television world, where it's much more hierarchical and you can get isolated. But the more interaction you have with people, the more collaborative things are and the more you understand what people want when they come to the theatre. But it's also bloody hard work!”
There was another five-year gap before he returned to it, with the debut of his solo cabaret song cycle Alone Together at the Donmar Warehouse in 2001, which he calls “the most frightening thing I've ever done: there's something about the audience being literally in your face that meant that at no point could you fake it, or relax or be in your own space. It truly was like nothing I'd ever done before.”
The same goes for the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, of which he led the cast into the London Palladium the following year. “It was a great challenge for me - I'd never danced before on stage in my life!” But he faced it head-on, starting dance classes two months ahead of the rehearsals for the show itself, and vividly remembers the thrill of the ovation that greeted him at the first public performance: “After we did Me Ol' Bamboo, the place went mental. It was another picture to take in my head so I didn't forget it. I'd led a troupe of cracking dancers in this fantastically fast number on the stage of the London Palladium!”
But as well as putting his own best foot forward, literally, he's also aware of the responsibility the leading man has to energise the rest of the company. “The leading man has to lead the company, to set the example and tone of the production and to energise everybody. When people are in the fifth week of the tech and have given up completely, you have to say, ‘Come on, let's go and do something fun' and keep up the energy, as well as working on your own performance and taking the brunt of all the press.”
With comments like these, you know that he's in this business for the duration. Here's to the next 20 years in a fascinating and ever-evolving career.
MICHAEL BALL - A SUMMARY
1962 - born June 27, grows up in Midlands, Plymouth, Farnham and South Africa.
1984 - graduates from Guildford School of Acting; Godspell in Aberystwyth and repertory season in Basingstoke; Frederic in The Pirate of Penzance at Manchester's Opera House
1985 - originates the role of Marius in Les Miserables at the Barbican Theatre, and subsequently the Palace
1987 - takes over as Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's
1989 - stars as Alex in the original London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love at the Prince of Wales. Love Changes Everything tops the UK charts.
1990 - reprises his performance in Aspects of Love at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre
1992 - represents Britain at the Eurovision Song Contest, coming second with One Step Out of Time, but goes Number One on the UK charts. Releases first solo album, Michael Ball, and launches first National UK tour. Appears at the Queen's 40th anniversary gala and on the Royal Variety Show
1993 - makes first TV series, “Michael Ball”, for Carlton TV; second series in 1994 and Christmas special in 1995; makes second album, Always, which enters charts at number three and remains in Top 20 for ten weeks
1994 - release of third album, One Careful Owner
1995 - plays Henry Purcell in Tony Palmer's biographical film about the composer, England, My England; takes part in tenth anniversary gala concert
of Les Miserables at the Royal Albert Hall
1996 - stars as Giorgio in the UK premiere production of Stephen Sondheim's Passion; one song added specially for him
1997 - video release of The Musicals and Moreâ€šÃ„Â¶., entering the UK video charts at number one; launches the Wednesday Lottery Show, and guest
presents National Lottery Live Show in July.
1998 - Variety Club Award for Best Recording Artiste of 1998
1999 - seventh solo album, The Movies, receives Platinum Disc six weeks after release; presented with Theatregoers Club of Great Britain award for Most Popular Musical Actor of last 21 years
2000 - releases This Timeâ€šÃ„Â¶ It's Personal, including original material written by Ball himself for the first time
2001 - appears in concert in Sydney, Australia and stars in solo show, Alone Together, at the Donmar Warehouse as part of the Divas at the Donmar season, subsequently released on video
2002 - stars in stage premiere of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium
2003 - releases new solo album, A Love Story
2004 - records Sunset Boulevard for Radio 2 at Cork Opera House; makes American solo concert debut in Salt Lake City; reprises Alone Together at
the Theatre Royal, Haymarket; releases new compilation retrospective double CD, The Essential Michael Ball (release date: October 25), and Michael
Ball Live in London concert DVD (release date: November 8)