The Big Interview with Michael Ball
~ The Stage by Mark Shenton ~
I like to lead from the front, but it’s a dying art.
Olivier award-winner and musical theatre star Michael Ball is a dab hand at transformation, only this time he is applying those skills to a show. He talks to Mark Shenton about leading a company from the front and how he intends to rehabilitate the reputation of his latest project, the musical Mack and Mabel.
Michael Ball has never been an actor to choose the easy option. In a West End career that has now spanned some 30 years, stretching from originating the role of Marius in Les Miserables in 1985 to leads in shows by Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love and the Woman in White) and Stephen Sondheim (Passion and Sweeney Todd) as well as the original stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the London transfer of the Broadway hit Hairspray, he has also represented Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest and took part in his own BBC Proms in 2007.
When he starred in Sweeney Todd, which originated at Chichester in 2011 before transferring to the West End the following year and winning him his second Olivier for best actor in a musical (he also won for Hairspray), he told me at the time: “It’s the King Lear of musical theatre, which is why I wanted to do it, and especially on the back of Hairspray: it has taken me to both ends of the extreme, having to change myself in every way.”
In Hairspray, of course, he played the mountainous mother Edna Turnblad in a voluminous dress, and he added in relation to Sweeney: “Hairspray gave me the courage and determination to do this – the fact that I was able to immerse myself in that and be convincing was brilliant. It was a gag there that no one recognised me.”
When he first did Sweeney Todd at Chichester, there were actually complaints: “We were genuinely getting complains every day that I wasn’t appearing. I don’t think there can be a greater compliment for an actor.”
Now he’s back at Chichester, and attempting a different kind of transformation – not of himself, but of a show, whose reputation he hopes to rehabilitate.
“Sweeney was my idea and I couldn’t have been happier with the way it went, and working in Chichester provided such a great atmosphere for creativity and freedom. When I got the idea to do Mack and Mabel, it therefore became my first port of call. I’ve always had a thing about this show – but it’s one about which people have always said, ‘Great score, shame about the book.’
“But I was talking to Mark Bramble [now a director and book writer], who was company manager of the original production, and he said it isn’t a bad book, just that the original production didn’t gel. Gower Champion fell ill, and they went for a very dark, bland set that didn’t help. They wanted something to blame, and the book was it.
In the years since that original production, there have been other attempts to ‘fix’ the show: “The sad ending didn’t compute with audiences in 1974,” Ball says, adding “Since then, they’ve tinkered with it and updated and watered it down a bit, and tried various happy endings.
“But with Jonathan [Church, Chichester’s artistic director, who is also directing this production], we have got hold of every script – and there have been a few. We sat down with Francine [Pascal, sister of the late Michael Stewart, who wrote the original book] and went back to the original to work out what works in that, and there the revisions since have worked and where they haven’t. I think we’ve now come up with a really special version of it.”
It has, of course, a much loved score by Broadway veteran Jerry Herman (his other shows include Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles), not least the famous overture which British Olympic ice skaters Torvill and Dean popularised after they used it as their score for the 1982, and standout songs such as I Won’t Send Roses, Time Heals Everything and Tap Your Troubles Away, which have all become standards in their own right.
When I say to Ball that despite that, it has never really worked onstage, he asks me which previous productions I’ve seen. As I itemise them – including one in 1985 that originated at Leicester Haymarket before transferring to the Piccadilly, another using actor-musicians at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre in 2005 that transferred to the Criterion in 2006, and yet another at Southwark Playhouse in 2012 – I also tell him that the problem seems to be about balancing its buoyant score with its rather dark story of a troubled relationship, based on fact, between Hollywood silent film director Mack Sennett and the star Mabel Normand, whose career he helped to make.
“I think I’ve found a way of reconciling those things,” he replies. “The key to it is Mack and Mabel themselves, so we believe their story and follow it and care about them. The last thing that needs to happen is for the songs to get in a way of the storytelling and vice versa; it’s all one thing and that’s the language of the piece.”
Central to unlocking it for him has been the casting of his Mabel, and they searched high and low to find the right person. Rebecca LaChance, an understudy in Broadway’s original production of the Carole King musical Beautiful, is that person, and he says: “You can’t make a star – they just have it. And the moment she walked into the room, she had it.”
She wasn’t easy to find, though: “The pre-casting before the finals was epic. We saw masses of people in this country, and then we cast the net further afield. I wanted it to be perfect – the chemistry between us had to work, of course, but she also had to be the right age, have the comedic and acting ability, and to look absolutely right. She was a movie star, after all, and we have to believe she has the face of one. With due respect to the people I’ve seen do the show before, they’ve not had the quadruplet threat.”
One person who’d played the role before – but neither Ball nor I saw – was Imelda Staunton, Mrs. Lovett to his Sweeney, when she appeared in the show’s British premiere 34 years ago at Nottingham Playhouse, starring opposite the late, great Denis Quilley. Quilley himself was a notable Sweeney Todd in that show’s original British premiere in 1980 at Drury Lane.
Clearly there’s some kind of bridge and affinity between Sweeney and Mack, and Ball says: “You know me, I like a challenge – doing something that’s not expected of me. This is a completely different kind of musical theatre and role, a departure for me and a real challenge. I just want the right opportunity to try to get the show right, and give the production I’ve always felt it deserved. I think it’s one of the greatest shows ever written.”
That puts it in the same league as Sweeney Todd and Ball is unashamed of the comparison, or of the fact that this requires another double act partnership between him and his leading lady as that show did. He had cast Staunton personally himself on that occasion, too, first pitching the idea to her when she was a guest on his weekly BBC Radio 2 show Michael Ball’s Sunday Brunch. “She came on and in between records I asked her if she fancied playing Mrs. Lovett, and she said ‘All right then’. There was never anybody else considered or wanted.
He speaks admiringly of LaChance now: “Watching her work and develop has made this one of the most satisfying and scary things I’ve ever done.” As with Staunton, they have, he says, “an ego-free rapport, which is about serving the show and allowing each other to have our moments, making the relationship real and creating something real.”
But whereas Sweeney, he acknowledges freely, “is a faultless show and a known masterpiece”, this time there’s an even bigger challenge beyond the work: “We’re faced with a problem right of the bat. There are people, with respect like yourself, who maintain it has never worked and it can’t, and thee are others who don’t know the show at all but have just heard that it doesn’t work. So it has been our job to recreate and reimagine and rewrite it, with as much integrity as we can.
“I hope the audiences these days are more savvy, sophisticated and able to accept the story we are trying to tell. It’s hilarious in places but ultimately tragic story, too, and we have to present it as best we can and invite audiences to come on the journey with us.”
And they are going on a journey with it in every sense: After Chichester, it has already announced a tour to Plymouth, Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Cardiff. “I have no idea if this will go into the West End, but we just wanted to give it a bit of a longer life and give audiences around the country the opportunity to see it. It is special and deserves to be seen, so we took a punt to see if people around the country would be as interested as they were to see it down here in Chichester. It’s selling really well, so I’m thrilled to bits.”
He’s also excited at the prospect of visiting regional theatres again, as he did with Hairspray: “I really enjoyed it, having a new opening night every week and being part of a company.”
Ball is well known for leading a company from the front. “It’s a dying art,” he says. “You’re not just the lead actor, but it’s about galvanising a company and creating a sense of camaraderie, too – when to be tough and when to be kind. You must never ask or expect anyone to do anything that you would not be prepared to do yourself.”
We talk about the endless covers and understudies that routinely appear in West End shows instead of the paid principles, and he says: “I don’t know what they teach them nowadays. It sounds like such an old fart thing to say, but perhaps it’s due to the loss of rep theatre – there were no covers, so you just had to go on, and would be rehearsing one show by ay while performing another at night.”
He began his own career at the tail end of rep, doing a stint at Basingstoke, and he says now: “It taught me a helluva lot. When I was starting, I was working with actors who came up through the rep system, and they understood the discipline required: you were never late for rehearsals, you were never not ready to go on, you were always prepared; it was about showing respect to the rest of the company.”
Nowadays, things are sometimes regrettably different. “There was one person – I won’t say who – who had a minor lead role on the Hairspray tour, and she phoned in to say she was not coming in. I called her back to ask her, if she was okay, and she said. ‘I’m sorry, I’m just really really tired.’ I said “Why don’t you take the week off or even the whole contract off, or come in and push through it as we’re all doing. We’re all quite tired’. She came in.”
That’s exactly what he means by leadership. And he’s even leading me now – asking when I’m coming to see the show. He tells me: “Come with an open mind, Mark. I know no one’s more supportive than you, but please don’t have any preconceptions – let it run. I hope it works for you.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Busking in the underpass at Guildford while at drama school.
What was your first job after drama school?
Godspell at Aberystwyth Arts Centre.
What is your next job?
I’ll be working on my 20th studio album.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Get a good accountant.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
The history and traditions of theatre itself. It is now what it always was and always will be, and that’s to do with discipline and continuity and taking inspiration from everything that’s gone before. It’s also my duty to pass it on.
What is your best advice for auditions?
Really know it – backwards and forwards – and be prepared to do something different and surprise yourself.
If you hadn’t been a musical actor, what would you have done?
A cook or a chef would have been nice. But I can’t really do anything else – I wouldn’t be any good.
Do you have theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Hundreds of them – Nobody can whistle in a theatre or quote The Scottish Play, and I have to get dressed in the same order every night. I also have a ritual that every character I play has its own smell. I am still working on Mack’s, but for Sweeney it was traditional bay rum from Geof Trumper, who taught me how to shave people, too.