From cuddly Michael Ball...to the Demon Barber!: The housewives' favourite on transforming into Sweeney Todd
Daily Mail by Richard Barber - 22/03/12 ~
Michael Ball says it himself. ‘I’ve got soft features, curly hair with blonde bits and dimples. People think of me as a singer, an entertainer, someone who’s always there with a ready smile.
‘I’m a victim, if you like, of my own success.’ So by his own admission, he would not have been the first choice to play the title role of the tortured Sweeney Todd in the revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical, which had the critics reaching for superlatives when it opened in London’s West End on Tuesday.
‘Considering how dark a piece of work it is, this has been the happiest of experiences,’ says Michael, who turns 50 in June. He’s sitting in his dressing room, looking anything but dark and brooding.
To persuade audiences that he was this anguished creature, he had to come up with a convincing new look.
‘A look that obliterated Michael Ball,’ as he puts it. ‘At first, I thought I’d shave my head, but rejected it as being too gimmicky and, anyway, I might end up looking like Daddy Warbucks in Annie.
‘Then I thought I’d grow a beard but, as Todd’s a barber, it had to be a neat one with the sides of my face shaved. After that, it was decided to gel my hair, comb it all back and add a piece with a half-fringe at the front. With dark make-up around my eyes, I become someone haunted, angry, preoccupied.’
Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, at Chichester Festival Theatre
Looking the part in place, he then had to get inside the head of the character. He is nothing if not a perfectionist.
‘But it wasn’t hard,’ he says. ‘It’s written. It’s there in the brilliant music and lyrics. I’ve never been a mother of one from Baltimore [as he was when he played Edna Turnblad so convincingly in the musical Hairspray], but if the piece is well enough constructed, it’s not hard to tune in.’
Some audience members were so convinced by Michael Ball's performance they complained that he hadn't even been in the show
When Sweeney Todd opened at Chichester last September, some audience members complained that Michael hadn’t been in the show.
‘They didn’t ask for their money back because they’d enjoyed what they’d seen. It’s just that they didn’t think they’d seen me. They genuinely hadn’t recognised me,’ he laughs.
He’s much too nice to say ‘I told you so’ but if he ever did allow a trace of triumphalism to creep into his voice, it would be understandable.
The germ of the idea of his playing Sweeney was planted six years ago by Cathy McGowan, the iconic presenter of TV rock music show Ready Steady Go! in the Sixties who has been Michael’s live-in partner for two decades.
‘Cath saw a production of Sweeney Todd when I was appearing in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Woman In White in New York. She’s not particularly a Sondheim fan, but she said it was brilliant and that I had to do it.’
That was six years ago, but it was Hairspray (for which he won an Olivier), which gave him the clout, he says, to instigate this production of Sweeney.
He says he could never have expected a knock at his door if he hadn’t help set the wheels in motion.
‘If it had been mounted by the National, I know I wouldn’t have been the first choice to play Sweeney. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have been the second, third, fourth or fifth choice. I would have been perceived as bringing the wrong image to the production.’
The wonder of it all is that he doesn’t read a note of music. He played the Broadway cast recording of Sweeney Todd with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury over and over again.
‘I don’t have a vocal coach. I learn everything by ear. It’s a question of listening to it, repeating it. Once you’ve got it, it doesn’t go away.’
He acknowledges that Sondheim isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
‘It’s not easy listening. Sometimes, it sounds discordant, but that will be because it’s meant to.’
Sondheim flew over from America to see a preview before opening night. Afterwards, he had just one pointer for Michael.
‘He told me that in A Little Priest, the number that closes the first half, I sang: “Is it any good?” while it should have been: “Is it really good?” And then he gave me a big hug and burst into tears.’
But what did he say about Michael’s performance? Modesty, he says, forbids.
When you’re slitting throats at five-minute intervals and dispatching bloody corpses from your barber’s chair to the fiery furnace in the basement, there is huge potential for things to go wrong.
He chuckles. ‘There have been lots of times when the fake blood hasn’t spurted as it’s meant to.’
The blood, apparently, is made of a sticky, sugary solution.
‘On one occasion, I cut the throat of my first victim and the blood went everywhere including all over the chair as he slid towards the chute.
'The result was that, when I slit the throat of the next victim, he’d stuck to the fake blood of the first man and then, making what sounded like flatulent noises, slid very slowly towards the chute before an arm appeared and yanked him through the trap door.’
It’s a physical show from the off and his co-star, Imelda Staunton, in particular, is covered in bruises. ‘But she’s a little terrier, believe me,’ says Michael.
‘Indeed, she broke my rib at the cast recording. I put my neck out when I went for a high note.
‘Imelda ordered me to lie down and then knelt on my back before clicking my neck back into place.
‘Unfortunately, she popped my third rib in the process. It’ll take a few weeks before it’s healed.’
When he first appeared in New York, it was in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects Of Love in 1990. It was savaged by the critics, led by Frank Rich, the self-styled Butcher of Broadway. Michael shakes with laughter. ‘He described me as “a beefy juvenile who kept taking his clothes off for no apparent reason.” ’
He got generous notices when he returned in 2005 in The Woman In White. ‘But the show was an absolute dog and died.’
He rejects the idea, though, that he has a score to settle. ‘My only hope would be that the Americans would like our production of Sweeney.’
He always tells himself he’s not going to read his reviews. ‘But I always do and I always remember the bad ones.’
Whether the production ever crosses the Atlantic remains to be seen. In the meantime, where next for someone who’s scaled the heights of what he himself describes as ‘the King Lear of musicals’?
‘Oh, downhill,’ he says, cheerfully. ‘Seriously, I can make more records and do concerts. I can sing in another musical. I can do all that.’
When pressed, he wouldn’t consider doing a straight acting role, he says. ‘The truth is that there are better actors than me, but not too many good actors who can also sing. It’s always a sensible idea to play to your strengths.
‘You need stamina to sustain a role such as Sweeney. There are an awful lot of actors who simply wouldn’t have the chops to perform it eight times a week.’
It’s clear that Michael has never been happier.
‘Truly, how often can you have a dream about something, work really hard to make it a reality and then end up with something that’s better than what you’d ever imagined?
‘It’s an amazing feeling and it’s happened to me at an age and stage when I’m old enough and wise enough and experienced enough to appreciate it for what it is.’
West End star Michael Ball claims it was his award-winning performance as Edna Turnblad in the musical Hairspray that gave him the clout to instigate the new production of Sweeney
A meaty role for Imelda
It's thanks to his co-star Imelda Staunton — who chops up the corpses of Sweeney’s barber-chair victims and turns them into the most popular pies in London — that Michael Ball says he’s never had such fun or laughed so much in a show.
Her involvement began three years ago when Imelda (below) was a guest on Michael’s Radio 2 Sunday lunchtime show.
‘While a record was playing,’ she says, ‘he asked if I fancied doing Mrs Lovett opposite his Sweeney when it eventually opened. It was an ambush. I found myself saying yes. Working with Michael is pure joy. Singing together is terribly exciting.’
It’s a mutual admiration society. ‘Imelda plays her like a witty Lady Macbeth,’ says Michael. ‘She’s the evil, manipulative one. She’s only after one thing: me. Sweeney commits appalling crimes but he’s a man bent on vengeance for the terrible wrongs done to him.’