Don't mention middle-of-the-road

~ The Financial Times - 24/08/07 ~

Michael Ball has put on a fair bit of weight. “I've given up smoking,” he says. “I used to chain-smoke, especially before going on stage. Now I just chain-eat. I feel like I'm studying for a PhD in sweets.”

Broad-shouldered, with an oddly large head, a two-day-old beard and big, sausage-fingered hands, he carries the extra weight well. One suspects that inside this famously youthful, dimple-cheeked entertainer, there was always a big man desperate to squeeze out.

The physical transformation of Michael Ball mirrors a rather curious transformation in his career. He has just finished a run in the English National Opera's troubled production of the 1950s musical Kismet , a badly designed and clunkily directed show that was savaged by critics.

“Ah, Kismet , or Carry On Camel, as we called it,” he laughs. “I thought the show was shocking. It was the worst designed production ever but it's got a fantastic score. It's not an awfully good book though. You really have to work hard to eke out any laughs from that script.”

Ball saves his ire for the show's ultra-fashionable designer Ultz (“Real name David Fisher,” he snorts), but thinks there was a management problem. “You had an award-winning director, designer, choreographer and musical director, a creative pot which should come up with something extraordinary, but did the exact reverse.”

Ball, however, survived unscathed by the critics. Playing a roguish, wise-cracking street poet in 11th century Baghdad who, in the course of a single day, rises from beggar to prince, he managed to combine razor-sharp comic timing, romance, lechery and pathos. There was a palpable sense of relief whenever he came on to the stage.

Indeed, there appears to be something of a Michael Ball reappraisal afoot. His next project is a similarly ambitious starring role at the BBC Proms on Monday, accompanied by the full BBC Concert Orchestra. When the outgoing Proms director Nicholas Kenyon chose Ball, he described him as “one of the great, intelligent singing artists today”.

Any grumbles that this represented the “dumbing down” of the Proms were drowned out by serious music critics who had seen him steal the show in Kismet , perform Gilbert & Sullivan with the New York City Opera or watched him perform in Stephen Sondheim's highbrow song-cycle Passion .

“I suppose people are going to see it as a freak-show event, like Shirley Bassey doing Glastonbury,” he says. “But I can assure any classical-music purists that it's not something I take lightly. It's a huge privilege to have access to a full 70-piece orchestra, as opposed to the 12-piece band I'd usually tour with. And, not only is it a huge honour to play at a Prom, but there's a responsibility that comes with it.”

For most of the two decades since he came to the public's attention, Michael Ball's area of the music business has been the rather nebulous middle ground between musical theatre, light classical and middle-of-the-road pop. He is routinely dismissed as “the housewives' choice” and his albums of pop cover versions described as “music for people who don't like music”, enjoyed by those who buy their CDs in Asda. The musicals he made his name in – populist hits including Les Miserables, Phantom Of The Opera and Aspects Of Love – are commonly rubbished by critics as entertainment for people too thick for opera and too square for pop. Does this annoy him?

“What does annoy me is when critics use me to ridicule my audience. All the stuff about ‘Tesco housewives' and ‘the blue-rinse brigade'… I honestly don't think I've ever seen anyone with a blue rinse in my audience in my life!”

Michael Ball was born 45 years ago in the heart of middle England, Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, the middle child of three. His musical side, he says, comes from his mother Ruth, a teacher from Wales who sang in choirs and played the piano, while the theatrical side comes from his father Tony, a one-time apprentice at the Austin Motor Company in Longbridge, Birmingham, who worked his way up to become its youngest ever sales director. He is now in demand as an after-dinner speaker.

“He was from a working-class family and wanted to be an actor but his parents discouraged him,” says Ball. “I guess I'm lucky enough to have the career he wanted.”

Ball's happiest childhood memories were the three years spent in South Africa in the early 1970s while his father was managing director of the Barlow Rand Ford car company. “This was the height of the apartheid regime: TV was banned, cinema films were censored, so we spent three years listening to the World Service and singing around the piano,” he recalls. “The house we were renting had a huge collection of old albums – cast recordings of 1950s musicals, Sinatra's Capitol Years, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald – and we'd sing along to them every evening. That's where I got the bug.”

When the family returned to England in 1973, Ball was packed off to boarding school in Plymouth (“which was shit”, he says), and later attended Surrey County Youth Theatre and the Guildford Drama School. The apocryphal story that he won Opportunity Knocks as a teenager amuses him but he did attend an open rehearsal for Pirates of Penzance at the Manchester Opera House in 1985. Up against 600 other hopefuls, he landed the lead role. By chance, the production was seen by stage impresario Cameron Mackintosh, who quickly cast the 22-year-old Ball as Marius in Les Miserables later that year.

He followed with two Andrew Lloyd Webber shows – as Raoul in Phantom Of The Opera (1987) and Alex in Aspects of Love (1989). The latter landed him a number two hit single with “Love Changes Everything”.

It was around this time that Ball was interviewed by Cathy McGowan, presenter of the 1960s pop show Ready Steady Go , for a BBC TV documentary. The two have been together since and it was her who persuaded him to redefine his career.

He explains the thinking behind this: “Only 4 per cent of the country visits the theatre – that's a lot of people, but you need to look beyond that. Cathy convinced me that a hit record meant people outside the world of musicals were aware of me. So I got a record deal, did some concerts and some one-man shows. I made a name for myself and developed my own following.”

His albums – largely anodyne cover versions of pop songs – started to sell in huge quantities (each one has gone gold within weeks); he represented the UK in the 1992 Eurovision Song Contest, coming second with “One Step Out Of Time”. He's still an occasional guest host on ITV's This Morning ; hosts a Radio 2 series looking at US musicals called Ball Over Broadway; and is a popular fixture on chat shows (Jonathan Ross describes him as his favourite guest).

The problem is that all this threatened to turn him into a naff empty celebrity, the kind of face who is famous simply for being famous. When he briefly returned to music theatre in 1996 to perform the highly demanding lead role in Stephen Sondheim's complex, half-sung, half-narrated song-cycle Passion – pretty much his only stage appearance of the 1990s – critics and theatregoers suddenly realised that this was a remarkable performer.

They were reminded again in 2002 when he played Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; and in 2005, when he was called in, at 10 days' notice, to replace Michael Crawford as Count Fosco in Lloyd Webber's The Woman In White. Later that year he played the Wildean character of Reginald Bunthorne (sporting purple nail varnish and a camp, Kenneth Williams accent) in the New York City Opera's production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience . “I received the best reviews of my life for Patience ,” he says.

In October when Ball takes on possibly his most unorthodox role yet – dragged up as Edna Turnblad in the London transfer of the Broadway hit Hairspray . He has signed up to a six-month run, for which he's earning a reported £25,000 a week. His name on the bill should ensure that Hairspray doesn't suffer the same fate as most productions at the Shaftesbury Theatre, a venue that's become a graveyard for flops such as Bat Boy, Daddy Cool and Calamity Jane . So a lot is resting on Ball – along with his co-star Mel Smith and the show's director Jack O'Brien – to bring in the crowds.

In John Waters' original cult film, Turnblad was played by the terrifying drag queen Divine. In the original Broadway show she was played by the gravelly voiced Torch Song Trilogy actor Harvey Fierstein. In the new movie version she's played by a (virtually unrecognisable) John Travolta. Isn't he something of a surprise choice as Edna?

He describes the offer as a pleasant surprise. “I saw Hairspray in New York and had one of the best nights I've ever had in the theatre,” he enthuses. “I laughed my arse off. It was clever, it was political, but it was also utterly escapist. I left the theatre thinking, damn, if this ever came over to London, they'd never in a million years consider me for that role...”

“You have to play it as a woman, not a drag queen,” he says. “You have to believe in the family unit. It's intrinsically funny that it's a man dressed up, but nobody mentions it. It's like Dame Edna. There's no double-entendre jokes, no innuendo – we're all part of the conspiracy. And one of the most beautiful moments is the soft-shoe shuffle, where Edna and her husband Wilbur express their love for each other through dance. It's genuinely moving.

“And the thing about the show is that it's about people who've been marginalised throughout history – fat people, black people, gay people, teenagers – who suddenly become central to the action. Suddenly everyone wants to be like them. The uncool outsiders are the actually the coolest!”

Rather like Michael Ball fans?

“Absolutely! The Tesco housewives have nothing to be ashamed of! They are the coolest of the cool!”

Follow the lieder: what Ball will sing at the Proms

1. The Pearl Fishers, by Bizet: “I feel I should do a few arias or lieder, this being the Proms, and this one is just gorgeous. It's from Bizet's opera Carmen and I'm getting Alfie Boe – my co-star in Kismet at the ENO – to help, because he's a classically trained singer. Hopefully he won't make me look too bad.”

2. The Show Must Go On, by Queen:“I'm tempted to sing lots of pop at the Proms, just to annoy classical purists – stuff similar to what Amy Winehouse, the Scissor Sisters and Gnarls Barkley sing – but I think

I can justify singing this Queen song. It has a really over-the-top, operatic structure and such a wonderful, symphonic string line that will work brilliantly with a full orchestra.”

3. This Is My Beloved and Stranger In Paradise, by Robert Wright and George Forrest: “Even though I was on stage for nearly the entire production, I didn't get to sing the two best songs in Kismet.

Here we put them together, and they sound stunning.

Whatever you think of the book, the show has one of the best scores of any musical. They're borrowed from themes by the Russian composer Borodin and they're just beautiful.”

4. Losing My Mind, by Stephen Sondheim: “In 1998, I was part of a Sondheim tribute show and Steve wanted me to do a version of

Losing My Mind, from his musical Follies. I'd already recorded it, but he said he wanted me to do it absolutely straight, the way it was heard in the original show. And he gave me an hour-and-a-half masterclass on this one song – just me, him and a pianist. I came away knowing every nuance; why he wrote everything that he did; why every note was in its place; why the phrasing was like this. So, I feel that this is one song I have an absolute right to perform the definitive version!”

5. Gethsemane, by Andrew Lloyd Webber: “This was a seminal moment in my life – my dad took me to see the original production

of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Palace Theatre in 1973. I thought it was just amazing, so powerful.

The idea of using rock music

to tell the story of Jesus was incredible. And Gethsemane is one of the greatest songs ever written in the history of musical theatre.

So I have to do it at the Proms.”

Michael Ball's BBC Prom is at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday August 27. ‘Hairspray' previews at the Shaftesbury Theatre from October 11, opening night October 30.


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