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Michael Ball: Mr. Showbiz

~ Musicweek- 25/08/2009 ~


West End headliner, big-selling recording and touring artist, acclaimed radio DJ… Michael Ball is no one-trick pony. After 25 years spent entertaining millions of music and theatre fans, it is time to mark Ball's silver jubilee and look back on a career spent at the top of the showbusiness ladder

Musical theatre gets a lot of mileage out of proverbial tales of young men who just want to sing. Usually they come from nothing, endure rejection, failure and disappointment and finish up on top of the world.

Michael Ball's own version of that story takes the basics but strips out most – or even all – of the rejection, failure and disappointment. After 25 years in the business, he is arguably the biggest name in British musical theatre.

An impresario would probably feel that Ball's career arc – rise to fame at first attempt, effortlessly sustain fame for several decades, curtain falls, audience applauds – lacks a dramatic narrative. But that is just fine as far as Michael Ball is concerned.

“It should appear effortless, even if the reality is obviously going to be different from that,” he says. “I'm quite lucky, because quite a lot of people haven't lasted that long. I have never sold records in their multi-millions, but I have always had a market, always had a bit of a following and always found new things to do.”

That is one way to put it. Another is that Ball has flourished in not one but several fickle businesses. While his peers' stars have waned, his has risen, while never moving out of the reach of a famously devoted army of followers.

Sell-out West End shows, fan-pleasing headlining tours, reliably successful albums and his own show on Radio 2 – these are the components of Ball's career. A quarter of a century in, all those parts are in motion at once.

Ball's role as Edna Turnblad in the highly successful London production of Hairspray came to an end in July after the best part of two years, having won him an Olivier award in March for best actor in a musical.

Waiting for him was a concert tour of his own, kicking off in September and running for a month, incorporating two nights at the Royal Albert Hall and 17 other dates in venues of a very healthy size.

The tour goes out under the name of Past & Present, which is also the title of his career best-of, released through UMTV last March. And through it all, he has made it to Broadcasting House once a week for his Sunday morning show on Radio 2, inherited from Michael Parkinson in April 2008.

“I'm lucky to have had a career that has been in different areas – to have made records, been in theatre, been a concert artist, done some broadcasting and, now, radio,” he says. “I absolutely haven't controlled it. I have had ideas. I hope I have got an instinct of the things I'm better at, but I have never had anything you would call a game plan. I am an eternal pessimist – I think every gig is going to be the last, I think I'm always about to get found out. But I haven't been.”

The reason he has not, of course, is because he has nothing to hide. In the words of Universal Music TV managing director Brian Berg, Ball is “a multi-talented entertainer, from musicals to TV and radio to making records, and he has an amazing voice”.

More than 20 years since Ball first signed for Polydor on the back of his Aspects of Love success – he has also spent time with both Sony and EMI, returning to Universal both times – Berg suspects that he may still have a gear or two left in him as far as record sales are concerned.

“He did well over 400,000 with the Movies album [from 1999],” says Berg. “He is normally good for at least 100,000 sales, and sometimes a quarter of a million or more. It is frustrating for us sometimes, when he is locked into a musical and he can't promote anything, but I think he has got a chance now to move it up another level.”

To Berg's chagrin, Ball's chart bogey consists of a persistent tendency to peak at number 11, which is the kind of bogey many people would not mind having. Even so, it is in his recording career that Ball possibly comes closest to underachieving. Not that he has not been prolific, and not that he failed to sell well, but he has a feeling there is more he could have done. “I think I got into this path of doing nice albums with a lot of covers on them and that sort of thing,” Ball says. “I enjoyed making those, but I think I could have spent more time exploring other avenues.

“I did record a few songs I wrote myself. I would never be a great singer-songwriter, but I could have done more of that. I could have looked for better original material. But then those albums might have died a death and I wouldn't have had a contract.”

For a performer in Ball's end of the business, there are plenty of ways to sell tickets and units apart from CDs. When his autumn tour visits the Royal Albert Hall, NBC Universal will be there to record the shows and release them on DVD in good time for Christmas.

“We are expecting it to do phenomenally well, because obviously his profile over the past couple of years is at a real high, with Hairspray and his West Wycombe outdoor concert in June,” says NBC Universal senior product manager Claire Hay.

“He has got a huge fanbase, and that is one thing I have found, working with him – they are incredibly loyal. We did some leafleting at Hairspray for the DVD and all his fans wanted to take them for their Michael Ball parties.”

It is worth making the point that nobody, least of all himself, is accusing Michael Ball of being cool. He sings covers and he appeals to middle-aged women. His musical portfolio stretches from his 1986 breakthrough Les Misérables to Phantom of the Opera and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and he is as happy to sing Lloyd Webber as he is Sondheim.

The closest he has come to an overhaul of his image since rising to mainstream fame with Aspects of Love and its spin-off hit, Love Changes Everything, was the decision to don a frock for Hairspray.

But this lack of cool is also a key factor in his longevity and consistent success.

“It is the whole fashion thing,” he says. “I have never been in or out of fashion and I have never been that enormous. In terms of record sales, I think you have to be selling as many as, say, Rick Astley did, to then go so monumentally out of fashion. I have never done that, I have always just got on and done my thing.”

Between October 2007 and the end of last month, Ball's life revolved more or less around Hairspray, in which he played the dragged-up Edna role made famous by Divine in John Waters' original 1988 film and reprised by John Travolta in the 2007 movie adaptation inspired, a little confusingly, by the musical.

In London, the show opened with £5m in bookings, and Ball's transformation into an overweight housewife was so convincing that fans were reported to have approached the box office at the interval to ask why their favourite had not appeared.

The Independent called Ball's portrayal of Edna “one of the warmest, funniest and most oddly touching performances in a musical that I have ever seen”, and it reasserted him as one of the leading talents in the West End. But with a portfolio career to maintain, Ball elected to call it a day before his other audience began to grumble about his absence.

“I left Hairspray while it was still successful, because I didn't want to neglect being on the road,” he says. “It's been two-and-a-half years since I was last out and it felt like a good time to go out and do it again.”

The care Ball takes to make the career balance, to do justice to all its aspects at regular intervals, might look like the kind of plan he claims not to have. In fact, he suggests, it is just a typical freelancer's routine, designed to keep those various plates spinning for fear that one of them might one day fall.

“If I was purely a theatre animal, I would be waiting for the next job now and it wouldn't be there,” he says. “But I have never allowed myself to do that. If I was coming to the end of a stint in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I would go, ‘Right, I need to organise a tour and make a new record.'

“I can generate my own work, and on top of that, things will always come along that I wasn't expecting to do, that I hadn't planned on doing. I've never drawn the dole, not yet.”

If there have not been many dramatic downturns in the apparently seamless Michael Ball show, it did once nearly go off the rails, not long after it began, when a bout of glandular fever gave way to a paralysing series of panic attacks during Les Misérables. His anxiety problem forced him to leave the show, and indeed to step away from work altogether for most of the next year.

He gradually fought back to health and returned to the West End in 1987 as Raoul in the second casting of The Phantom of the Opera, but he admits he came close to quitting.

“It's about life, it's about sink or swim,” he says. “You have to get on with it, or find something else to do. I was absolutely going to chuck it in. Lucky I didn't, because there's bugger all else for me to do.”

Well, not quite. Just weeks ago, Ball announced that he would be producing the UK tour of Hairspray, marking his first venture into theatrical production.

He is on the lookout for further directing and producing challenges, and he has no plans to stop performing either. In fact, he will be onstage as Edna Turnblad at the Wales Millennium Centre when the tour kicks off in Cardiff next year, though he is unlikely to stay on for the entire run.

With all of his professional futures apparently assured, he is taking on yet another one. Never the one to talk himself up, Ball is happy to put his ongoing success down to luck, rather than planning.

“Things just appear from nowhere,” he says. “Hairspray appeared from nowhere – it just fell into my lap at the right moment. With Les Misérables. Cameron Mackintosh had cast the entire thing, with the exception of my part. I came along, and it just so happened that the right part was there for me. It was the same with radio. Who knows why it happens? It's just luck.”

Obviously it is not just luck, but there is never any harm in being humble and to keep on singing. Is there a song about that? If there is, it could only be in musical theatre. Perhaps the true story of Michael Ball will make it onstage one day, after all.

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