Aspects of Michael Ball
Friday, September 29, 2023
Michael Ball talks to Edward Seckerson about his remarkable career trajectory to date – and how ‘Love Changes Everything’ might not have left his repertoire for good
There’s a priceless video clip currently circulating on social media of a very young, svelte, fresh-faced, dimpled Michael Ball flying solo in the big Act One duet ‘Seeing is Believing’ from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love. The irony of the song title will not be lost on Ball when he watches that video again. Nor will the passion of the melody writ so large in this most intimate of chamber musicals. Back in 1989 it could hardly have sat more comfortably for his silky baritone but what is equally apparent watching this clip is the effortless musicality, the rapt phrasing, the gorgeous tone. His has always been a virile voice, for sure, but the flutter, the breathiness, in the sound made it sexy, too. Small wonder he was the go-to romantic lead of his generation.
Thirty-four years on from the opening of that show, Ball’s popularity is undimmed. From his seamless graduation from juvenile leads through a succession of progressively more interesting character roles, solo concerts, albums, to a shrewd partnership with the other ‘B’ (Boe), we may no longer witness Ball sporting the top B he whacked out twice nightly and four times on matinee days in Aspect’s hit number ‘Love Changes Everything’ but the actor-singer in him has continued to evolve. There was a lot of dosh in that top B. The pre-show-released single reached number two in the UK charts, it established Ball as a household name, and it sold countless tickets for the production before it had even opened.
I think Aspects of Love is a deeply underrated work in the Lloyd Webber canon – an enduring example of his enviable lyric gifts resonating all the more meaningfully for the intimate nature of the show itself. And it was only a matter of time before Ball brought his journey with it full circle, left Alex Dillingham to the memory of all who saw him play it and assumed the role of Alex’s uncle George Dillingham. But in this new incarnation, opening in May, will he still get to sing ‘Love Changes Everything’?
Look, ‘Love Changes Everything’ is the big song and in the original production it was given away straight at the top of the show. And it doesn’t need to be
We are meeting in a private room in Olympic Studios, Barnes, where most of Ball’s solo albums have originated. He is recalling the very first tryout of Aspects at Lloyd Webber’s country estate, Sydmonton. He was, I believe, the only member of that workshop cast to make it into the West End production. His Radio 2 colleague Elaine Paige reckons it’s an unwritten law that if you do the workshop you never get the part. Ball knows the feeling. He tried out Sunset Boulevard there and Kevin Anderson was cast. It still smarts. But look who’s still here.
There is a sense, though, that Aspects of Love is where many of Ball’s fans came in. Before it there was Les Misérables, of course – and some of us will remember catching it at the Barbican when it was closer to four hours than three, and the half-hour call for the evening show was going out when the cast were barely offstage from the matinee. And, yes, Marius grew up to be Javert in the Ball canon. But Aspects and that hit single was where most people joined the journey and where I (because I had friends in the show) really took note of him. I could see why he’d opted for the acting rather than the Musical Theatre course at drama school and I could hear the unschooled musicality when it was song that carried the narrative forward.
Shortly after Aspects came his stint (with Jason Carr) in the series Divas at the Donmar following luminaries like Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Audra McDonald, Barbara Cook and Kristin Chenoweth. Not only was Ball the only male in this august company but he did something that none of the others did – he and his director Jonathan Butterell [Everybody’s Talking About Jamie] fashioned a show without spoken word, a show driven entirely by the song narratives. A celebration of the power of songs to tell a story. At the opening of the second act there was a medley comprising close to 30 different numbers (check out the album) and it was in that moment that Ball, the actor-singer, took on a whole new dimension. Those of us (like yours truly) who had been around a bit by then began to take him a lot more seriously.
At Radio 2 with new co-star Jamie Bogyo (photography: BBC Radio 2)
But back to Aspects. Ball makes the point that after Phantom of the Opera the expectation for this new show, visually, was not to hold back. To that end the designer of Phantom, Maria Björnson, came through with a design that, though mightily impressive with its cracked sky/French Alps backdrop, somewhat dwarfed the piece. Expectations were for big and glossy at the time and Aspects was small and perfectly formed. I remember sitting next to Claude-Michel Schönberg at a fringe revival of the show a couple of years back and he cited the little faux French folksong that runs through the show as being the number that really dictated its flavour. Like ’Edelweiss’ in The Sound of Music, it sounded authentic but was in fact the purest pastiche.
Ball is guarded about saying too much of what he and the creative team for the revival have in store for us, but with new orchestrations and the emphasis very much on the intricacies (the ‘aspects’) of the human drama, he is confident that they will fashion something closer to the spirit of Lloyd Webber’s original conception, where the scale of the show will entirely be in keeping with the intimate nature of the material. The director is Jonathan Kent, who made something truly Orwellian of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (more on that anon) and playing Alex will be Jamie Bogyo, who made quite a splash at the 2019 Stephen Sondheim Student Performer of the Year and recently starred as Christian in Moulin Rouge. He and Ball have already duetted in ‘Love Changes Everything’ – it’s out there on YouTube – but how it will manifest itself in the revival is yet to be seen. All Ball will say is: ‘Look, it’s the big song and in the original it was given away straight at the top of the show. And it doesn’t need to be. Because “Love Changes Everything”, the way I think of it, is that it’s something sung by someone who has wisdom and experience and has had a number of intense relationships throughout their life. Which character in the show does that fit? Just putting it out there…’
The really big song in the show, though, is Rose Vibert’s 11 o’clock number ‘Anything But Lonely’ – an absolute corker of a number – and Ball and I spend a good few minutes extolling its virtues and wondering why it is still barely known outside of the show. Perhaps, like love, this revival is going to change everything for it.
Michael Bal with duo partner Alfie Boe (photography: Chelsea Dufresne)
Before setting Aspects aside I did briefly want to reflect on Roger Moore’s departure from the original production. It seemed to all of us that his was an extraordinary piece of casting. Ball remembers well the turning point in that saga. ‘Well, the thing that finished it for him was the sitzprobe. We’d grown very close during rehearsals. In the rehearsal room he was magnificent, effortless. The characterisation was all there, he had a lovely voice. Absolutely effortless. But you know, having just the pianist in the room, it feels safe. Here was a man in his early sixties who had never been on stage, let alone done a musical.
‘And now he’s being required to do not just a character number, but a really difficult, intricate, musically challenging role. And you could see him getting more and more unsettled as we got get nearer and nearer to the reality of it happening. We got to the sitzprobe which, by tradition, is the greatest moment in the rehearsal process. We all live for it. It’s that fusion of everything – the first time with the orchestra, the only time you get to see the orchestra. It’s just fabulous – for those of us who were used to it. For Roger, though, not having the safety of just the pianist there banging it out, he’s suddenly distracted by lines coming from the clarinet or whatever – and then comes the difficult quartet at the end of Act Two. Really tricky music. And I could just see him going in on himself, and panicking. Afterwards he went back to his hotel and wrote me the most beautiful letter saying he’d decided to withdraw. He just couldn’t bring himself to talk on the phone. Kevin Colson had been there from the start as his walking cover, so as it happened it was a natural transition. I totally understood why he’d done what he did, and in the long run it was probably better for the show. He signed off the letter saying, “Anyway, dear boy, the show should be yours.” How generous. But I still wish we could have seen that performance.’
As Sweeney Todd, with Maria Friedman (photography: Danny Kaan)
There are two things about Michael Ball that I have always admired outside of his self-evident talent: his work ethic (you won’t catch him going off with a broken fingernail) and his proactive sense that a career needs managing. To that end his trajectory, though seemingly effortless, has been clearly thought through. Let it not be assumed that roles like Edna Turnblatt in Hairspray and the title role in Sweeney Todd simply fell into his lap. Quite the contrary. He instinctively knew that roles like these were unlikely to be offered to him. There were far too many preconceptions about who Michael Ball, the Musical Theatre star, was. He would need to go after them. So he auditioned – yes, auditioned – for Edna.
‘I did the queuing up outside with everybody, waiting to go in and do your thing at the table of death. And I haven’t done that for a very, very long time now. But I’d seen the show, five years earlier, with Harvey [Fierstein]. Great part, great musical. I was too young then but I thought if there is ever a chance… Anyway, it comes up, five years later, I’m right for it – I’ve put on weight’ – he laughs – ‘and I’d grown a beard. So I asked to audition, and I went in, and you know when the stars align? And I nailed the bejesus out of that audition. I just knew that I’d got it. And, of course, I got a lot of flack from people saying, “What a terrible idea.” But I knew!’
I have never worked so hard in my life. But I discovered that the real power of Sweeney is that everything is internalised
Again, an actor’s instinct. And the will – and talent – to amuse and to surprise. Edna has been one of Ball’s greatest accomplishments in my view. It was something so much more than a star turn in drag. Like all the best performances he and she became inseparable. But where does a middle-aged leading man in a dress go from there? A black-hearted barber hell bent on revenge, where else?! Having bared all (literally) in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion and restored in the two-act London version the number ‘No One Has Ever Loved Me’ – which for this writer constitutes the five most glorious minutes Sondheim ever penned – Sweeney beckoned. And it was when Imelda Staunton was a guest on his radio show that he popped the question to her and set the project in motion. Jonathan Church at Chichester bit his hand off.
As Anatoly Sergievsky in Chess at the Coliseum in 2018 (photography: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)
Ball was almost unrecognisable in Sweeney, and fans were said to have been complaining at the interval that he wasn’t on. He took that as a huge compliment.
‘I’ve never worked so hard in my life. But I discovered that the real power of Sweeney is that everything is internalised. Everything until ‘Epiphany’ – where he is suddenly and visibly insane and driven. Jonathan Kent and I hit on the idea that Sweeney has to be a mystery and that the people around him just don’t know what’s going on. There’s something very, very unsettling about someone who is that still, someone who just sits and broods. And to have that contrasted with Imelda’s ducking and diving as Mrs Lovett made for a tremendous dynamic between us.’
Of course, I put it to him, most writers would have ended the first act of Sweeney Todd with ‘Epiphany’. Big melodramatic Grand Guignol climax. But not Sondheim. Because it is immediately after the climactic chord of that soul-bearing number that Sondheim pulls the rug from beneath us and throws in a side-splitting music hall number about the business potential of cannibalism (‘A Little Priest’). But right there is a moment that Ball singles out as a measure of his co-star Staunton’s artistry and generosity and it is the line immediately following Sweeney’s tirade. The line is ‘That’s all very well…’ and in every other manifestation of the show I’ve seen, it gets a huge belly laugh – instantly (and in Ball’s view prematurely) undercutting the mood of what has just passed. Staunton never played it like that. She waited – and waited – pointedly avoiding the cheap gag. Plenty of those to come. Sondheim loved it.
As Edna in Hairspray, also at the Coliseum (photography: Tristram Kenton)
Ball has had his fair share of Stephen Sondheim one-on-ones – including a treasured masterclass on ‘Losing My Mind’ (which I always think of as a nervous breakdown masquerading as a torch song) – and he was honoured to be able to have made such a big contribution to Old Friends, Cameron Mackintosh’s star-studded tribute show (now set for a 16-week West End run from September 2023). He sang ‘Loving You’ from Passion, which seemed only fitting. Ball acknowledges, as do I, that in the realm of book-song musicals the Sondheim shows stand apart. His shrewd choice of librettists makes it almost impossible to tell where the dialogue ends and the lyric begins. Apart from classic shows well known to all of us, the Achilles heel of Musical Theatre is so often the book. Which may well be why Lloyd Webber likes the music to drive the narrative and has, until Bad Cinderella, opted for the through-sung option.
Ball would still love to have a crack at Albin in Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux Folles; Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella has also been mentioned. I think he was joking about Mama Rose – but, as we know, he is full of surprises. His novel The Empire will be having a follow-up, and the radio and TV presenting shows no sign of slowing down. Is there anything he can’t do, I ask? ‘Well, the pizza delivery business is not doing so well at the moment.’
During lockdown, Ball and I enjoyed a 90-minute livestream from the venue that has been so much a part of his renaissance – the Chichester Festival Theatre. We couldn’t in the end welcome a live audience, but hopefully we can remedy that at some point.
I reminded him then of the evening he and I bumped into each other in the theatrical restaurant Joe Allen back in 2007 and I had dared to ask how rehearsals for Kismet were going at English National Opera. ‘Honestly Ed, Springtime for Hitler has got nothing on this!’
And he was right. In a career with so few bumps in the road this was the mother of all speed bumps. But it was also the show where Alfie Boe and he first met. Every cloud…
Aspects of Love begins performances on 12 May – buy tickets here: Aspects of love
Ball’s novel The Empire is now available in paperback – see our competition to win a copy
This interview originally appeared in the April/May 2023 issue of Musicals Magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today