Why Michael Ball won’t be wearing white for Live by the Lake
- Credit: Archant
West End great appearing at Kenwood’s Gershwin fest reveals to Bridget Galton a history of eating pesky insects at twilight
To paraphrase Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing – nobody puts Michael Ball in a corner.
In the last five years he’s blown a metaphorical raspberry at those who wrote him off as a dimple-cheeked musical theatre-moppet with pleading “love-me” eyes.
Two Olivier Awards have staked his claim to versatility, and perhaps even edginess, forever banishing cheesier images like the video for ’80s chart topper Love Changes Everything.
To win the first, he dragged up in outrageous style for the musical Hairspray, and for the second he sported a saturnine beard and brawn demeanour as Sondheim’s murderous Sweeney Todd.
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But even during the Lloyd Webber years there was always that voice, which could raise the hair on the back of your neck, and the professional ease he brought to the deceptively tricky skill of acting through song.
In a profession notorious for divas, at least some of his success must be due to his likeability, both on and off stage.
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“I’m not that precious about my voice,” says the man who has never had a singing lesson.
So you’re allowed a glass of wine? “Of course I am, are you mad!”
“I used to smoke like a chimney and the best thing I ever did was stop. If you know how to use your voice it will last and mine is pretty robust. I’m not going to stop the pleasures in life and a glass of wine is way up there, although I never have anything before going on stage.”
He’s appearing at this year’s Kenwood concerts on September 1, a Gershwin fest with West End talent like Kerry Ellis performing hits Summertime, Shall We Dance and I Got Rhythm.
“The American songbook is in our DNA now – even though we are British, you can keep going to the fountain of Gershwin and be inspired. It always staggers me the amount of work he did – he was the guy who took black music and made it accessible to white people. He invented the jazz crossover.”
Ball’s tip for playing outdoor concerts? – Never wear white.
“Because every flying creature on earth comes to you when the spotlight hits you at twilight. I once made the mistake at a concert at Glamis Castle of wearing a long white coat and ended up eating about 24 flies and midges.”
Happily, that unsavoury experience hasn’t put him off alfresco gigs. “What’s brilliant about the open air is the ambience, the relaxed nature of people having things to eat, being out in the elements, there’s a frisson to that magical twilight time when the lights on the stage go on and the sound quality is totally different, there’s nothing to reverberate from so the sound disappears into the ether. It’s really special.”
After a long association with Lloyd Webber shows like Aspects of Love and Phantom of the Opera, and a successful stint in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the 51-year-old must have been wondering about his future career when the role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray came along.
After he scored the 2008 Olivier for best actor in a musical, Jonathan Kent took a chance on casting the usually sunny star as a serial killer. With slicked down hair and hollowed out eyes he stunned sceptical critics with the power of his performance.
“Sweeney was the best thing ever,” Ball enthuses.
“I relished that transformation, that whole thing of the last time I was in the West End I was in a dress, and the physicality of playing this man, who’s a seething rage machine, all bottled up until it comes out in an explosion of violent murder. He’s a big man, an imposing presence but when he acts he moves incredibly quickly.”
He’s generous about co-star Imelda Staunton who played the pie-baking Mrs Lovett.
“I credit her with my performance because when you play opposite someone as magnificent, clever and generous you can’t help but produce your best possible game.”
He adds: “I try to do things that aren’t expected, but you have to keep doing that, make things happen. I know I would never have been cast by someone else as Sweeney, I wouldn’t have been first choice at the National Theatre and that irks me. Those opportunities that are almost life altering are few and far between.”
One life changing role involved creating the part of barricade revolutionary, Marius, the love interest of Cosette and Eponine in Les Miserables.
When it was remade recently into a film starring Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Ball like many others, was crying his eyes out in the cinema stalls.
“It was the point where Jean Valjean dies and Fantine and the Bishop come back and he was played by Colm Wilson who was my Valjean. It was a mixture of the story, the brilliance of the music and my own memories of a magical time – it was absolutely beautiful and I was a pathetic mess.”
Only his second major role, Les Miserables, he says, was “the best learning experience. To be part of this juggernaut that no-one expected to be a hit because it was totally ground-breaking.
“The critics disliked it, but it became the people’s musical through word of mouth. They came to see it, took a risk and spent their money.”
He laughs now that when he asked his agent if he could audition he was told: “No darling, there’s nothing for you in it.”
But then the show’s producer Cameron Mackintosh came to see him in Pirates of Penzance – his first big break – and invited him to meet director Trevor Nunn.
As a teenager, Ball’s trips to see Nunn’s productions at the RSC had inspired him to want to perform so he was understandably excited to meet his idol.
“I thought he was God. I had two ambitions, to be in Coronation Street and to work for the RSC.
“I had the audition on the stage at the New London where CATS was on and he asked me to sing the café song which became Empty Chairs and Empty Tables. It was unfinished with a half French lyric but was an amazing piece of music.”
After winning the part, Ball embarked on 12 weeks of rehearsals on £250 a week.
“Only half of it had been written so we were doing those trust games, workshops improvising barricades for two weeks because there was nothing else to do. In preview it was four-and- a-half hours long and needed cutting. They wanted to cut Empty Tables, but it was the only point that Marius gets to be anything other than a wet blanket.”
Even people who hate musicals tend to make an exception for Les Mis – the very opposite of glossy trite sentiment – and Ball says the show is an example of how songs can make it possible to explore deep emotions.
“Music facilitates emotion, describes what a character is feeling. You can say things with music you simply can’t if you are speaking or say more with a couple of chords than a hundred words. When someone understands how to put the right characters on stage with the right words it’s the most powerful way of moving an audience.”
Ultimately, he believes there’s space in the genre for both escapist and challenging work.
“Sondheim is challenging, he makes an audience work, but sometimes they want to sit there and be seduced.
“I am happy to do that as well. I love what I do and you can’t over analyse it, but as long as people have me I will be doing it.”