Michael aiming to have a Ball at Echo Arena

~ Chris High for What's On Stage - 27/05/2008 ~

Michael Ball is, without doubt, one of the UK's finest, most versatile and hardest working stage and singing stars. His CV boasts some of the biggest musical stage shows in history and his albums have topped the charts and won awards the world over.

Now, in Capital of Culture year, Michael is heading back to Liverpool to take part in the 2008 Summer Pops festival, being staged for the first time in the city's brand new Echo Arena. ‘I'm really looking forward to playing The Arena,' Michael said recently.

‘It looks amazing, it's a new venue, which is always an exciting prospect, and I hear it's got state of the art acoustics. It's great that Liverpool has a place now to host bands and other artists on a regular basis that is really state-of-the-art; something I think may have been lacking in the past. I'm also looking forward to visiting Liverpool in general. I think it's a great city, the people are lovely and there are some great pubs too. I'm am really looking forward to being here again in it's year of years.'

So what is it an audience can expect from a Michael Ball concert? ‘It's a very energetic and exciting show, so I hope people will have a really good time and go away from it humming – or singing – a tune or two. I haven't decided exactly what to perform yet but I may sing some favourites from Aspects of Love, Woman In White, Stephen Sondheim's Passion and, of course, Hairspray, although I may have to don a ball gown for that one.' In mentioning the ball gown, Michael is of course referring to his role as Edna Turnblad which is currently selling out in the West End and has received huge critical acclaim, not only for the show as a whole, but also for Michael's performances in it.

‘I went to see Hairspray on Broadway about five years ago and thought it was the most fabulous show,' he explained. ‘As I sat there, I thought if it ever came to the West End I would love to play the part of Edna, but doubted I would even be considered for the role. But then I got it and I have loved every minute of being Edna ever since. She's a beautiful, big-hearted woman who's a devoted mother and wife; she might look a bit dowdy at the beginning of the show but give her a gorgeous red dress and a pair of heels and she's away.

I usually go out and tour the UK regularly but with my theatre commitments over the last couple of years – Woman In White on Broadway, Kismet at the ENO, the Proms, then Hairspray - it's been difficult to organise. So this summer seemed like the perfect opportunity to get out there, put on a pair of trousers and a jacket and sing some of my favourite songs at some great venues. I love doing it and I think it's important to perform outside London. Not everyone is in the position to come to the West End, so this is a great way for me to keep in touch with fans.'

Michael Ball was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, of a Welsh mother, and an English father, who trained as an Austin apprentice at the Longbridge plant and went on to become a successful business man. In truth, however, Mr. Ball senior had always wanted to be an actor and would take Michael to see shows in the school holidays, including a Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon, which impressed Michael so much as a youngster, he joined a youth theatre. This in turn lead him into studying drama at the Guildford School of Acting, where he found an environment that suited him.

‘I've always loved music and theatre and, when I was just out of my teens, I was lucky enough to be spotted by Cameron Mackintosh when I was in a production of Pirates of Penzance. Cameron subsequently invited me to join the cast of Les Mis when it opened in London in 1985 and I've never looked back. I've been very lucky playing some of the great roles I have and can honestly say that I love all the characters I've played – from the fabulously revolting Count Fosco in Woman In White to the big, beautiful Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.

I'd say each part is very different and I love the challenge of bringing something else to, say, Caractacus Potts in Chitty to the young idealist Marius in Les Miserables. I think any actor brings something of himself or herself to each role but although I can't say that one of them is more like me than any other, they all share a lust for life I can certainly relate to.'

On top of everything else, Michael now hosts the lunchtime show on BBC Radio 2, having taken over from Michael Parkinson, and is relishing this fresh challenge as much as any other. ‘Over the years I'd done various shows for BBC Radio 2 including the series Ball Over Broadway where I'd get to review shows on Broadway and interview the stars which was great fun. So, when Lesley Douglas asked me if I'd be interested in hosting my own show, I absolutely jumped at the chance and the fact that I was taking over the hotspot vacated by the man himself was a really exciting prospect.

We call the show Michael Ball's Sunday Brunch and I like to mix up the musical styles, invite guests on to chat and generally enjoy myself. The challenges are mostly about planning the show in between Hairspray commitments and having enough time to watch some of the films and TV programmes we review each week and checking the Sunday papers very early on Sunday morning. Oh, yeah, and remembering to set the alarm clock is always a challenge.'

With so much experience under his belt, Michael is just the right person to ask advice from on behalf of those wishing to tread a similar path. ‘Just keep on trying,' he said simply. ‘There's lots of work out there and although there's fierce competition, I truly believe that talent will rise to the surface. You've got to work extremely hard and be aware of what's going on, know your strengths, keep a look out for auditions and make sure your CV's up to date with a great photo.

It's also good to go and see as many shows as possible. There's a theatre in every town so make sure you're up to date with what's showing locally and come to the West End if you can to check out what's happening so that you know what producers are looking for. It's also important not to become bogged down in it all and to try and relax. I love cooking and before I started the radio show I used to cook Sunday lunch for family and friends, but now I do it in the evening. There's nothing more satisfying than producing a huge roast with all the trimmings and, as a big fan of organic food, I like to buy all my meat and vegetables from the local shops. I also love walking the dogs and we go to the nearby park where they've been known to chase deer and end up in the pond.'

So, with a blockbuster West End show, a tour and radio commitments already taking place, what's next for Michael Ball? ‘After I finish in Hairspray at the end of October, I shall probably take a week off and sit by a pool,' he laughed. ‘After that I'll go into the recording studios to record my next album and, of course, I shall be on BBC Radio 2 every Sunday for the foreseeable future.'

Well, this article did begin with by describing Michael Ball as one of the UK's hardest working stars. What else did you expect him to say?

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