Michael Ball: ‘There’s no lonelier place than an empty theatre’

Michael Ball
Michael Ball
The cast of Snow White which can now be seen at the Kings Theatre, Southsea

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Considering he’s one of his generation’s best-known musical theatre actors, it’s strange to hear that Michael Ball was once so crippled by stage fright it cost him his first major role.

And even now, he admits to struggling with it, even though he has learned successful strategies to deal with it.

‘During the time of Les Mis was the worst,’ he explains. ‘It took me out of Les Mis, but the more I talked about it and was more open about it, I found more people who suffered it.

‘I know people who no longer appear on stage, well-known people, and I won’t name names, they’ll do film work but going on stage cripples them.

‘It does lurk. Panic attacks and stage fright can spring for any reason at any time.

‘You don’t allow that to take over, that adrenaline to take over and cripple you. It’s a horrible thing.

‘It can happen in any circumstances, even going into a room at a party, it doesn’t have to be a big situation.

‘The mind’s a strange little organism.’

While it may have proved a hurdle early in his career, the Les Miserables he refers to was the original West End production, where he was Marius.

Since then has starred in West End productions of The Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and on Broadway, in the London production of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion.

That’s not to mention his regular broadcasting stints on TV and national radio.

But this month he is touring the UK to promote his new album, his 19th, If Everyone Was Listening, and he’ll be at Portsmouth Guildhall tomorrow night.

The album sees Michael pick 15 of his favourite songs – and it’s an eclectic bunch – from opener Bad Things, the slice of southern gothic that is the theme song to vampire drama True Blood, to the closing Falling Slowly, the Oscar- winning song from Once, via The Everly Brothers, Miley Cyrus and Sarah McLachlan.

Describing how the album came together, Michael says, that he tried out Bad Things and it went from there: ‘I thought why not? The whole album, all I did was follow my heart. I had a blank piece of paper and carte blanche to make whatever album I wanted.

‘I just started putting songs together and ideas, and I hope it appeals to people.

‘I think if people give it a listen they’ll enjoy it.

‘I think they’re good songs and I like to think I’ve got a good ear for a song. That was my only remit, to follow my heart and how it all sounded.’

As to Falling Slowly, Michael, perhaps not surprisingly, is a big fan of the stage musical version of the movie Once, from which it sprang.

‘It’s an amazing song,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen the show three times. I think it’s a brilliant piece of theatre that’s not like anything else, it just works.

‘You take a punt with anything you do, you never know if it’s going to work, but it’s a beautiful show with exquisite songs.’

When The Guide spoke with Michael, he was just about to fly off to America in a bid to find his leading lady for the upcoming version of Mack and Mabel at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

It has since been announced that Rebecca LaChance will be Mabel to Ball’s Mack. And it will mark a happy return to the CFT for Michael. Last time he was here was in 2011’s Sweeney Todd, it saw him and co-star Imelda Staunton win Olivier Awards after the show transferred to the West End.

At Christmas he reunited with Staunton for a rare bit of straight acting in the hit That Day We Sang.

Did it give him a taste for more straight acting?

‘It absolutely did, but it’s funny, I don’t delineate between the two.

‘Being a character is being a character, acting is acting. Sometimes there’s a strange snobbery. Some people think musical acting is less credible than straight acting.

‘Ask Imelda, one of our most talented actresses, Oscar-nominated, Bafta-nominated, Bafta-winning, and she’ll say there’s no difference, it’s just acting.

‘It’s the people who are casting, what their take on it is.

‘There’s a difference between stage acting and screen acting, but there’s no harder gig than musical theatre. It’s a killer.’

Besides heading to New York he was in the early stages of putting the tour together.

‘You can’t just do song after song, there has to be a through line, thematically and emotionally, there has to be a reason for it, a goal.

‘You want the audience going out saying they got more than they expected, and they want to see it again.’

He also admits his fans will want to see his biggest hits – like Love Changes Everything from Aspects of Love.

‘I would be lynched if I didn’t play them,’ he says.

‘I think it’s wrong not to do them.

‘Have you ever been to gigs where they say ‘‘we’re only doing the new album’’ and you’re like ‘‘what?’’

‘I think that’s wrong, I think that’s doing a disservice to an audience, it’s for them and you can never lose sight of that.

‘Without them you’d be in an empty theatre, and there’s no lonelier place.’

And he casually adds: ‘And of course I’m still doing the radio shows.’

Does he ever think he’s bitten off more than he can chew?

With a hearty laugh, he says: ‘It’s pure greed – it’s just showing off.

‘I’m really lucky, people say ‘‘what do you prefer?’’

‘And I love all the different elements, and I suppose that’s why I work so hard at what I do.’

Michael Ball’s If Everyone Was Listening tour is at Portsmouth Guildhall on Saturday, May 2. Doors open 7pm. Tickets cost £44. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk or call the box office on 0844 847 2362.