Michael Ball: 'I really am a bit odd!'
The Musical megastar on his 25 years in the business, superstitions and unlikely cover versions
The Guardian - Nosheen Iqbal - 8 September 2009
Smelling nice for the ladies and gentlemen ... Michael Ball
You're about to embark on a 25th-anniversary tour. Can we expect a lot of big showtunes?
Yes, but lots of pop too. I've got an old Kiss number and some current pop songs I'll be covering. I got away with doing Amy Winehouse's Rehab last time – I like to keep it a bit tongue in cheek. But I always put in stuff people expect to hear. I would hate people to go away disappointed, thinking, "That wasn't the show I was expecting to see." I want people to be moved, made to laugh and have good memories.
Do you have any quirky pre-show rituals?
I'm really superstitious. None of us quite know why something works, but you try and do everything you can to replicate that success. I really am a bit odd. I do lots of finger-tapping before I go on. I have to suck a sweet at a certain time, have a drink at a certain time, and nobody is allowed to whistle backstage. The last thing my dresser has to say to me is: "Are we smelling nice for the ladies and gentlemen?"
Musical theatre has changed a fair bit since you started out. What do you make of the industry now?
It's changed a lot. There's a whole variety and reality-TV side to it now that didn't exist before, which has its pluses and minuses. Musical theatre is now more popular than it's ever been. In commercial theatre, that's great news – people are still going to the theatre and there's still new stuff to be seen among the revivals.
You were a judge on Soapstar Superstar. Do you see a difference between a musical theatre reality show and other talent shows?
The people who are auditioning to become musical stars have all had an apprenticeship, and worked and trained before – they have an idea of what is required and they get actual work, not just a farcical recording contract. Those million-pound deals mean nothing: it's all hype. After six months, the people on those shows are hung out to dry, unless they manage to do a Will Young. With theatre, they're in a job for a year with a company that gives them guidance.
The only naff thing is when they put on a cheap, terrible production and shortchange the audience. If you do a West End show, you have to do it properly. There's no point in shoving on an old production and hoping for the best. Look at Oliver! – it's amazing. Cameron Mackintosh could have very easily put in an old production, but he invested millions in augmenting sets and refitting the theatre.
Who are you keeping your ears and eyes open for, in terms of the musical stars of tomorrow?
I think Jodie Prenger is very credible, and I think Kerry Ellis is just brilliant – she has a great future. Julian Ovenden isn't a beginner as such, but I saw him do Grand Hotel at the Donmar and Marguerite at the Haymarket, and he was pretty special.
What has been the highlight of your career?
It wasn't strictly part of my career, but seeing Jesus Christ Superstar at the age of 12 was a pivotal moment. Probably the proudest moment professionally was doing a Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in 2007, singing with a symphony orchestra.
What did you make of the consternation from classical music fans around that particular concert?
I never thought of myself as a particularly controversial figure. You're right, though – it caused a lot of trouble, which I thought was hysterical.
What's the biggest myth you'd like to dispel about yourself?
The biggest myth I'd like to bust isn't about me – it's about musicals. So many people dismiss the entire art form through highbrow snobbery, but I think a lot of those people would be suprised if they actually saw some. Musicals aren't two-dimensional froth. Take Stephen Sondheim: it's as cleverly written, structured and profound as you'll find in any other writer.