Interview – Michael Ball chats about his new album and musical theatre challenges

Michael Ball (2) 2014 photo by Joel Anderson

Michael Ball’s new album If Everyone Was Listening… is released on 17 November and news has just broken that the actor/singer will be starring in Mack and Mabel at Chichester Festival Theatre in summer 2015. Picture: Joel Anderson

MICHAEL BALL’s new solo album If Everyone Was Listening… is released on Monday 17 November. Lisa Martland has a story to tell…

I have a confession to make, and don’t worry, it’s nothing scandalous about double Olivier Award-winner Michael Ball. It is more to do with what happened just a few days after I had the pleasure of meeting Ball for the first time and chatting to him about his career in musical theatre and his latest album, If Everyone Was Listening…

While out shopping, my mobile phone was taken from my pocket, and anger at the inconvenience caused soon turned to panic as I realised that the recording of my interview with Ball had been stolen with it.

So apologies to Michael Ball fans that the feature below does not include as many direct quotes from the actor, recording artist and radio/TV presenter as I had hoped. I do hope you can still enjoy what follows, and it gives you a decent update on the album and what a talented, charming and down-to-earth character Ball remains.

And if that doesn’t cheer you up, Musical Theatre Review might be able to raise your spirits with a signed copy of the album – we are going to give FIVE away via Twitter on the day the recording is released. So be prepared!

Since making his West End debut 25 years ago as Marius in the original production of Les Misérables, Ball has created a string of leading characters in the West End and on Broadway in shows such as Aspects of Love, Passion, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Phantom of the Opera, The Woman in White and Hairspray.

His performance as Edna Turnblad in the West End production of Hairspray earned him an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 2008, as did his portrayal of the title role in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Sweeney Todd opposite Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett (2011, and then transferred to the West End in spring 2012). The news has also just broken that Ball will be back at Chichester in summer 2015, starring in Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel. He swore me to secrecy when we met, but I suppose it’s okay to mention it now!

Ball also regularly tours the UK as a concert artist and has performed in Australia, China, USA, Singapore and in 2007 made his BBC Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall, marking the first time a musical theatre star had been given a solo concert at the Proms. Plus there’s the successful radio broadcasting career, including his own show, Sunday Night With Michael Ball on Radio 2.

But that of course is not all. Over the years Ball has become a multi-platinum recording artist and If Everyone Was Listening… is incredibly his 19th solo record (in fact, Ball jokes on the album sleeve that he was going to call it ‘Now That’s What I Call Michael, 19’). The 15 tracks that the actor and singer has chosen to record are a mix of individual classics, award-winners and contemporary songs spanning the years 1960 to 2013.

Michael Ball relaxes at video shoot

Michael Ball relaxes at video shoot for his new solo recording. Picture: Meji Alabi

In both the recording studio and theatre, Ball has always chosen his projects carefully, often surprising people along the way, but at the heart of all his work is the importance of telling a story. Indeed, he candidly tells me how disappointing it is to see what he call ‘middle-distance’ musical theatre – when performers stare out into an auditorium, singing a song but not paying any attention to the lyrics, and therefore failing to make a connection with the audience.

He feels that every song on the latest album features beautiful lyrics: “I love singing songs whose lyrics mean something to me and that I know other people will relate to. A number of the songs on If Everyone Was Listening… are by singer/songwriters such as Sarah McLachlan, Jason Mraz, John Martyn or great interpreters of lyrics such as Alison Krauss and Anne Murray.

“In fact when I was deciding which tracks to record for this album, I was delving back into my own music collection and was inspired by listeners of my radio show who seem to share similar music tastes That encouraged me to make this my most personal album yet. People who know me know how hands on I am with any project I undertake, so it won’t come as any surprise to anyone that I took a very active role in the producing and arranging of all these songs.”

The tracks include four classic songs from Ball’s teenage years: ‘Still The Same’ (the classic soft rock hit from Bob Seger); ‘You Needed Me’, the Grammy Award-winning song sung by Anne Murray in 1978; ‘May You Never’, which was written and recorded by legendary folk/jazz/blues singer John Martyn; and the 1974 track ‘If Everyone Was Listening’ by Supertramp. An extra treat is a version of the Everly Brothers song ‘Let It Be Me’ on which he duets with The Overtones.

WInner of Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Sweeney Todd. Production pictures: Roy Tan

Michael Ball won his second Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Sweeney Todd in Chichester and in the West End. Picture: Roy Tan

Listeners to Ball’s Radio 2 show will know that he’s a big fan of country music which has inspired some of the choices on the album such as Jace Everett’s ‘Bad Things’ (the theme from the hit TV series True Blood) and Jake Owen’s ‘What We Ain’t Got’, while he turns multi-Grammy winners Lady Antebellum’s ‘Need You Now’ into a stunning solo. “It’s by no means a country album,” says Ball. “I just feel that the genre continually produces great songs which can be interpreted in many ways.”

During my interview with Ball, it was clear that he relishes an opportunity to challenge people’s perceptions of him, particularly in relation to the musical theatre roles he has played. He tells me how he wanted to win the role of Edna Turnblad on merit, and that the show is “one of the proudest things I’ve done”.

He also reveals that he knew no one would ever consider him a potential Sweeney Todd, and that he had to make that project happen himself: “That was a big success for me personally. I knew when the news got out about me playing Sweeney that the media would go on about how I was horribly miscast. But I just knew I was going to love doing the piece, and then the second Olivier Award came along. I never thought I’d ever get one.”

However, Ball does admit that he cannot help but read what the critics have said on the morning after an opening night. He told me how the first review he saw after Sweeney Todd opened at Chichester was Charlie Spencer’s copy in The Telegraph, which said: “Michael Ball tries hard, and certainly dispels the cosy image of his Radio 2 programme but he never quite penetrates the dark rancorous heart of Sweeney.” His heart sank, but he was soon to discover that Spencer had been in a minority.

Michael Ball 'If Everyone Was Listening' artworkBritish audiences don’t always warm to personalities who manage to multi-task and juggle careers in different genres, but Ball’s audience has stayed dedicated and loyal, some of them for nearly 30 years.

Part of the secret to that success has been Ball’s affection and respect for his fans. He is particularly grateful for the way they have “loved the experiments, they don’t want to pigeonhole me professionally”.

It’s those followers that will already have their orders in for If Everyone Was Listening… and their tickets booked for Ball’s next tour (which could be his 68th?!) that kicks off on 7 April 2015 in Bournemouth.

Ball has also recently completed shooting the Victoria Wood TV film That Day We Sang with his Sweeney co-star Imelda Staunton which is due to air over Christmas on BBC2.

As for now, here’s my personal picks from Ball’s 19th solo album and his thoughts on why he chose them:

‘Jessie’ – My stepdaughter Emma has been asking me to record this for years. I sat down at the piano and worked out the arrangement; I wanted to concentrate on the words rather than bring in guitar and drums too early.

‘Stuck Like Glue’ – I loved this song by Sugarland from the moment I heard it – it became my getting ready song for both Hairspray and Sweeney Todd and everyone would come into the dressing room to have a dance!

‘What We Ain’t Got’– This is an interesting one. It was actually suggested by the artist Kim Sears. I hadn’t heard of the singer – country artist Jake Owen – and I listened to this and thought what a perfect song. It sums up the era we live in: we all want what we ain’t got and we’re always looking at what everyone else has.

‘Angel’ – Written and performed by the sublime Sarah McLachlan who’s got the most beautiful, pure voice. It’s so powerful and has a spiritual feel to it. I think it’s one of those songs that inspires the listener and encourages us to read whatever we want into it.

‘Falling Slowly’ – I first heard this song from the film Once when I saw the movie, which I loved. I subsequently saw the stage show in London – twice – and have heard it done a few times as a duet. In studying the structure of the song, I realised you could be so busy listening to the voices, that you miss the importance of the words, so I decided to strip it down and record it as a solo. It’s got such an extraordinary message that I wanted to concentrate on that and do it as one person’s consciousness.


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