Having a Ball with his Friends

~ Newsday by Blake Green; 13/11/2005 ~

As the corpulent Count Fosco, the handsome leading man of musical theater under the fat suit pauses to appreciate his careers

If he'd thought about it - and he insists he hadn't - Michael Ball would have imagined himself playing Walter, the handsome, romantic lead in "The Woman in White." That's the sort of role that Ball, one of Great Britain's leading musical theater stars, has built his reputation upon, beginning with the gallant and dashing Marius he created for 1985's "Les Miserables."

With no greater motive than an enjoyable evening at the theater, Ball went to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest Victorian melodrama-set-to-music in London earlier this year. A few weeks later, he was invited to join that cast - but as Count Fosco, a corpulent and conniving fop whose solo numbers include the aptly titled "You Can Get Away With Anything." (Michael Crawford, the original Fosco, had became ill.)

"It is nothing anyone had ever seen me do. I'd never been a villain, never been allowed to be funny or evil or to wear a fat suit," Ball reported happily from his dressing room at the Marquis Theatre, where he is re-creating the role for the Broadway production of "The Woman in White."

"It's wonderful to do something unpredictable. He's just horrible, without scruples; I love him to bits," said the 42-year-old Ball, comparing his character to Ron Jeremy, the doughy porn star.

The huge latex fat suit hangs next door; the prosthetic foam rubber double chin to be attached just below Ball's dimples rests on the shelf along with the curly wig (black) that covers Ball's own curly mop (blond) when he sashays onto the stage 30 minutes into the production.

The wax-mustachioed Fosco, in cahoots with the villainous Sir Percival Glyde, travels with a medicine bag (the better to sedate you with, my dear) and a menagerie. Offstage, a white rat, a mouse and several cages of chirping birds occupy their own dressing room upstairs behind a closed door with a sign that warns "Do Not Put Your Fingers in the Cages."

Ball suspects the birds are stand-ins for the people Fosco would like to keep in cages. The rat speaks for itself, although, in real life, "Beatrice is really quite sweet," said Ball who apparently doesn't mind being upstaged by a rodent that uses his shoulders as a platform. "Oh, sometimes they do pee," he complained mildly.

A ready-made rapport

When the actor agreed to play Fosco - after conferring with Cathy McGowan, "my better half of 13 years" - he had 10 days to learn the role, a feat made easier "because I already had a kind of shorthand with some of the people."

He'd previously worked with director Trevor Nunn and with Lloyd Webber, whose musicals helped create Ball's romantic image: He played Raoul in "The Phantom of the Opera" in London and made his Broadway debut as Alex in 1990's "Aspects of Love." The actress Maria Friedman, who has starred in "The Woman in White" since its London premiere, is his friend and former co-star from the London production of "Passion." (Friedman's Broadway debut has been abruptly interrupted by breast cancer surgery , but she has vowed to return to the production before Thursday's opening.)

Every bit as difficult as committing the lines and music to memory was adjusting to wearing the fat suit, Ball said. "I sweat hugely under it; I have to constantly take in fluids to keep from becoming dehydrated. It really inhibits your movements - just getting out of a chair is different. It's all about dexterity. You have to seem light on your feet, dainty almost. There would be no charm to the man if he was just a lumbering oaf." Ball calls his fat suit "Bernard," explaining that "it looks just like one of those plucked turkeys" hawked on television by a British farmer with that name.

Born in the West Midlands section of England, Ball said he considers himself Welsh - "at least in war and rugby" - from his mother's side, also the source of his musical inclination. He traces his ham gene to his father, "a motor industry executive" once voted "the best after-dinner speaker in the country." Most important, the actor said, is that his parents often took their three children to the theater. "As a 13-year-old, I sat through 'King Lear,' and it all came alive for me."

A star for many mediums

After drama school, Ball was cast in the John the Baptist-Judas role in "Godspell" - he broke into a few bars of "Prepare ye the way of the Lord" - followed by the romantic lead in Joseph Papp's version of "The Pirates of Penzance" in London. It was there he was seen by Cameron Mackintosh, who cast him in "Les Miz." (Ball revisited the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire earlier this fall when he played an Oscar Wilde-type poet in the New York City Opera's production of "Patience.")

Describing himself as having "dual careers," Ball is also well known in Britain as a concert headliner and recording artist, having made 11 bestselling albums, including the recent "Michael Ball's Music." He has been a familiar face on television talk shows .

Sipping water from a stemmed glass the other day, Ball reported that he'd been on the Zone diet. A friend had inquired why he was dieting "when for the first time in my life I could let myself go. I really haven't got an answer for that."

Maybe he has: Any assumption that Fosco marks Ball's graduation into character roles full-time gets instant rebuttal: "I certainly hope I can go back to playing handsome men; I haven't exactly let myself go."

Copyright (c) 2005, Newsday, Inc.

Thanks to Terry Von Glahn for providing the interview :-D

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