Behind the Scenes with Michael Ball
AFTER massive success at Chichester Festival with Sweeney Todd, Michael Ball is returning to the theatre in the musical Mack And Mabel. CLAIR WOODWARD found the singing star on sparkling form.
~ Express ~ 22/07/2015 ~
Michael Ball should be available on the NHS.
As we talk in his dressing room at Chichester, where he is starring as early movie mogul Mack Sennett in the musical Mack And Mabel, we talk about 1970s daytime television (That's My Dog with Derek Hobson, Crown Court), sing a bit of the Human League, agree that only the best people pepper their conversation with quotes from Victoria Wood's As Seen On TV series, and generally have a marvellous, cheery time.
However, when it comes to his work, Mr Ball is incredibly serious.
It is one of the reasons why he was awarded an OBE for services to musical theatre in the Queen's birthday honours list last month.Following his incredible success as Sweeney Todd at Chichester in 2011, he is now back there starring in Mack And Mabel with Rebecca LaChance as Mabel Normand, the movie starlet he discovers, with whom he has a stormy love affair.
Michael's varied achievements in acting, presenting TV and radio and being heavily involved with the musical theatre productions he has appeared in mean he can see some parallels in his own career with Sennett's.
"His showmanship really appeals to me," he explains. "I feel I understand him and why people followed him.
"I discussed the role with people when I was exploring doing the musical and they said 'He's a monster!', but that wasn't the character I'd read about.
It's the relationship between Mack and Mabel that's at the heart of the show, and the sadness that they are both at different times in their lives so they just don't connect how they should
"I thought he was an inspiration. People wouldn't have worked with him if he was a shouting, bellowing monster.
"Yes, he was tough, driven and uncompromising, but I can be all those things too."
Mack Sennett was an early Hollywood powerhouse, opening the Keystone Studios in California in 1912, and creating comedy stars including Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and young talent Mabel Normand.
"It's the relationship between Mack and Mabel that's at the heart of the show, and the sadness that they are both at different times in their lives so they just don't connect how they should.
"He's obsessed with this thrilling genre that had just been invented; that he was a pioneer of.
"His work was so powerful that anywhere in the world where they had a police force, you'd find a sheet hung between two trees with a Keystone Cops movie being projected on it.
"He was making the world laugh."
Michael says he can see himself turning to directing at some point.
While not officially producing, he had a large say in the production of both Sweeney Todd and Mack And Mabel, and says he and Chichester's Artistic Director Jonathan Church have discussed Michael directing some shows there.
Does the affable Mr B have the ruthlessness required to be the tough guy in charge?
"Well, there does come a point where I can just go 'no'," he explains, pointing his finger at me and giving me that steely stare he gave to actor Stephen Toast, when he had a cameo role as Andrew Lloyd Webber's "enforcer" in sitcom Toast Of London.
"That kind of thing doesn't happen very often, but I can say 'This is what we need and how to do it'."
Michael Ball starring in Mack And Mabel with Rebecca LaChance as Mabel Normand
Suddenly you do see how he could play the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the award-winning role which changed his career forever, but it is a homely housewife, the generously-proportioned Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, that began to change the perception of Michael as just an attractive young lead who had sung for Britain in Eurovision.
"Nobody had thought of me for the part before, so I had to put myself forward.
"There was a lot of: 'Really? Michael Ball playing Edna?' talk at the time."
"Well, you were a heartthrob," I say.
"Those days are long gone. More like heart murmur," Michael laughs.
(Just to reassure fans, it is not true. He has still very much Got It).
"Edna was a lovely success for me and did change people's opinions, but I wondered how I could change them even more, and realized that Sweeney was the biggest challenge in every sense; the biggest risk I've ever taken both personally and professionally.
"If the National Theatre had decided to put on Sweeney Todd, I wouldn't have been the first, second or even fifth or sixth choice, so I had to make the show happen myself, and make it the best it could possibly be."
He clearly delights in being able to pursue the diverse elements in his career, and recalls one memorable Monday afternoon: "I was recording my Radio 2 show and afterwards I'd been booked as a guest on Paul O'Grady's show.
"At 10 past four I got a call saying Paul had been taken ill, and could I host the show live at 5pm?
"So I got on a motorbike at 4.20 and 15 minutes later I was at the studios, managed to do make-up and rehearse the opening link.
"After that, I had no idea what the rest of the show was going to be, can you imagine?
"It was hilarious."They got Brian Conley to replace me as a guest, there was the singer Gabrielle, some lollipop ladies…it's such a blur now.
"But I thought 'what the hell!'. And I'm so glad that people can accept me doing shows like that, but also being Sweeney Todd and Mack Sennett."