Michael Ball on his Heroes tour at the Liverpool Empire and playing Sweeney Todd

~ LIverpool Echo - 20/05/2011 ~

Michael Ball discusses his heroes and tells Catherine Jones why he loves the Liverpool Empire

MICHAEL Ball and I are chewing the fat about the art of interviewing in, well, an interview. And the entertainer, and presenter of his own radio and TV chat shows, has very firm views on the responsibility of the person being quizzed.

“Don’t you just hate it when you have the yes-no interludes?!” he exclaims.

“And you think – hang on, you agreed to come on here, I’m very happy to talk about whatever it is you want to plug, but there’s a price for that and that’s being interesting and actually connecting.”

Luckily the 48-year-old is ready to practice what he preaches.

So what does he have to plug?

He smiles: “New show, new tour, new album – which went in at number 10 in the charts. I was very happy with that.”

Both the album and the tour are entitled Heroes, and Michael explains the thought behind the song choices which include Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind, Scott Walker’s Joanna and Neil Diamond’s Play Me.

“They’re the people I listened to that taught me to sing, or that I admire and have come to later in life or who inspired me when I was younger,” he says.

“And it was about finding the songs from those heroes that suited me and made a nice album to listen to.

“Because quite often you put on an album and think ‘I’ll skip this one, I’ll skip this one, this is breaking the atmosphere’ and I like the idea of people putting it on and just having nice music wash over them.

“And at the end we frighten the animals with Avenues and Alleyways!”

Expect the entertainer to perform a series of songs from the new album, along with old favourites, when he appears at the Liverpool Empire next month alongside a 12-piece band and with five backing singers.

He explains: “The lovely thing about it is it’s all songs people know so it’s not like we’re playing some obscure Lithuanian goat calling music.”

That could be the next album I suggest.

“Yeah,” he considers. “Goat Calling 2! Actually that’s not a bad idea. Wasn’t Chico a goatherder?”

June 4 is a welcome return to the Empire. The last time Michael brought his show to Liverpool it was to the ECHO arena which, he admits, wasn’t really the right venue for him.

And, he reveals, the Lime Street theatre has a special place in his affections.

He says: “The Empire is one of the first places I ever did a concert. It was my first tour, I think it was the first night or the second night, and that was the first time I experienced pandemonium at the stage door.

“And I’ve been coming back ever since.

“I love the Empire, it’s a proper old theatre. It’s got the atmosphere, it’s a good size – it’s one of my faves.”

It was also where Michael appeared in fat suit, fake bosoms and heels as Edna Turnblad when the Hairspray cast took part in the Royal Variety Performance in 2007.

At the time he told me the performers were crammed four to a dressing room.

He recalls: “It was unbelievably tight, but those things always are, you have to check your ego at the door.

“It was really lovely, and it was Mel Smith’s birthday as well and we had a huge party afterwards.”

An Olivier award and a national tour later, Michael has just hung up Edna’s costume for the final time, and says he loved every minute of his time in Hairspray.

He also ventured into the world of producing for the UK tour, and admits it was a ‘fascinating’ experience.

“To deal with actors, you understand what a pain in the a*** they can be, and how fragile, and naughty, and frustrating and fabulous and exciting they are.

“I understand the management point of view and the actor’s point of view. They can both come to me and I will treat every problem fairly.”

Michael says he’ll be ‘there in the mix’ when it comes to producing Sweeney Todd at Chichester this September, where he is set to play the demon barber opposite Imelda Staunton’s pie-making Mrs Lovett.

“It’s always been a little fantasy and a little dream,” he says of the musical, being directed by Jonathan Kent. “We’re doing everything we can to make it great.”

So, when he started his career some quarter of a century ago, did he have a plan?

“Oh God no!” he giggles. “I just knew I loved working, I loved the environment, I loved new challenges. I just don’t think you can ever plan a career, because any time you make a plan and a decision, something will come along to change it.

“You can say right, I’m going to do this show for this amount of time, and it could close so you’re out of work. Sometimes two jobs come along at the same time – which one are you going to do? So you’re constantly at crossroads that take you down different directions.

“Two months before I did Hairspray, I didn’t know I was going to do it. I was at the ENO doing Kismet, and then I heard about it and it’s probably one of the most important roles of my life.

“And when the new album came out I was thinking oh God, wouldn’t it be fantastic if it went into the top 10? And it did.

“But I don’t take any of it for granted. And the longer it goes on the more it surprises me.

“I thought I’d have been caught out years ago!”

Michael Ball brings his Heroes tour to the Liverpool Empire on June 4.

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