Michael Ball is recognised all over the globe thanks to his distinguished career as an actor, singer and presenter. Best known in the musical theatre world roles such as Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera, Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (for which he won the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical), Ball is treading the boards once more as Sweeney Todd in new West End production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Here, Ball discusses how he became interested in the theatre, the importance of the West End, and performing opposite renowned actress Imelda Staunton in Sweeney Todd.
Could you tell us about your route into the theatre industry?
I’ve always loved music and theatre. I remember going to see Jesus Christ Superstar when I was about 12 and thought, “this is what I want to do!” Then, when I was just out of my teens, I was lucky enough to be spotted by Cameron Mackintosh when I was in a production of Pirates of Penzance [at the Manchester Opera House]. Cameron subsequently invited me to join the cast of Les Misérables when it opened in London in 1986. And I’ve never looked back!
What do you remember about the first time you ever performed on stage?
When I left the Guildford School of Acting in 1984, my first part was in Godspell at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. I played John the Baptist/Judas and literally my first line was from the incredible, show-stopping, enormous song ‘Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord’ (written by Stephen Schwartz). It was absolutely terrifying, but thrilling at the same time – I thought, “everyone’s looking at me!” But I quickly realised how much I loved being onstage, singing this powerful score and performing for an audience. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted!
Are there any moments from your career that stand out in your memory?
When Les Mis transferred from the Barbican to the Palace Theatre, it meant I was stepping out onto the same stage where I had seen Jesus Christ Superstar – it was pure synergy! And the irony of stepping onto the stage where I’d seen my first musical was not lost on me. Even though the theatre isn’t that huge, it felt like an arena to me. It was so exciting, I could hardly believe it was actually happening: a dream come true. The Palace is a beautiful building and, at the time, it was a bit run down, but Andrew Lloyd Webber had just bought it. [He] was in the process of doing it up and turning it into the magnificent theatre it is today. I also did [The] Woman In White there, so I’ve had a great association with the Palace.
Do you have different methods of preparation for a show, depending on the individual character that you are playing, or have you got a particular routine that you apply to all performances?
There are some regular routines like onstage warm-ups with the cast to get the body going – particularly important in this cold weather – then Imelda and I do vocal warm-ups [for Sweeney Todd], usually backstage or even in our dressing rooms. I keep a good supply of throat pastilles to hand and I prefer to eat a couple of hours before going onstage, something like chicken and pasta, the classic slow-release carb meal that keeps me going for the whole show. I’m also partial to a back massage three or four times a week; the role of Sweeney is physically demanding and I want to make sure I keep fit and healthy.
Why, in your opinion, is the West End so fundamental to British heritage and culture?
There’s nothing on earth like the West End and nothing that connects visitors to London – and Londoners – more than the incredible range of theatre on offer. I love that in the West End you can see an original, dramatic production such as War Horse; or a cracking musical like Matilda; or Lenny Henry in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors at the National; or Imelda Staunton and me in Sweeney Todd! You can see American film stars treading the boards; you can stumble on terrific performances by up and coming actors in small productions; you can be the first to experience exciting new writers and you can also enjoy visiting some of the loveliest buildings in London. The West End is uniquely British and is often the main reason for people to visit London; plus it’s every actor’s dream to be onstage in the mighty West End. Long may it live!
You’ve had a hugely varied career and experienced regional touring as well as West End runs. Do you think it’s important for actors (and audiences) to experience a variety of different styles of production?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I love being on the road, whether it’s for one of my concert tours or in a touring production such as Hairspray. I love the camaraderie on the road; we have such a laugh! It’s also great experience because you learn how each venue works: the team [spirit] of putting on a show with the crew, the musicians [and] the cast. And it’s great travelling around this beautiful country.
You are currently starring in Sweeney Todd with Imelda Staunton, which will transfer to the West End in March. You’re also responsible for organising the production. How did this come about?
Stephen Sondheim is really the uncrowned king, the genius of musical theatre and Sweeney Todd is his greatest opus. I’ve been wanting to perform it for years and when Imelda Staunton came on my BBC Radio 2 show [Michael Ball’s Sunday Brunch] a couple of years ago, I asked her on air if she’d be Mrs. Lovett to my Sweeney Todd. She said something like, “alright then”, and I quickly played the next record before she could change her mind! I had always had Imelda in mind as Mrs. Lovett; I knew she’d be perfect and I wouldn’t have considered doing the show without her. So that was the start of it.
What attracted you to Sweeney Todd?
Stephen Sondheim has been a big influence on my career; I’m probably just about his biggest fan. I think he’s a genius and one of the most intelligent, clever writers I’ve ever had the privilege to work with: I did [Sondheim’s musical adaptation of] Passion in the West End in 1997 and now Sweeney Todd. I think Stephen’s inspired adaptation of the original melodrama [of the 1973 stage play] makes Sweeney Todd work; his music and lyrics are simply brilliant and he’s reinvented Sweeney as a tragic character with a very human story, who’s driven more by revenge rather than selfish greed. Sweeney Todd’s a clever mix of drama, pathos, humour, tragedy and the human condition, all driven by an absolutely amazing score. Oh, and I love the bloodthirsty aspect to it as well – I just love playing a serial killer!
This, as you said, is your second Sondheim musical: what do you think young people can learn from his style of musical theatre that the current ‘pop’ musicals can’t teach?
One thing I know from studying and performing Stephen’s lyrics is that you’ve got to have your wits about you. They’re the most tongue-twisting lyrics I’ve ever sung. There’s so much going on with every line that if you miss a word, or you get the timing wrong, the whole song can take a nosedive – and it’ll be all your fault! Young people can learn from pop musicals, opera, [and] musical theatre – anything that informs them how it’s done. Whichever discipline you’re performing in, you’ve got to be able to sing, dance, act; to understand the music, lyrics, the characterisation; work with the company and deliver a performance because, if you don’t, your audience won’t believe in you.
Does all the fake blood and the fact that you look so different in your costume help you get into character?
I really wanted to change myself physically – with my curly hair and dimples I’m not the obvious Sweeney Todd type – it was important to me to give Sweeney a very defined look, a sharpness and an edge; I even toyed with the idea of shaving my head at one stage but decided that was too extreme. So I grew a goatee beard and I wear a dark, straight hairpiece that Sweeney can flick to hide his face. My eyebrows are darkened too so that Sweeney glowers from the outside as well as the inside. It’s as much about an internal change as well as external.
What is next for you after Sweeney Todd?
From 21 February, I’m presenting a new six-part series on BBC Radio 2 called ‘Songwriting Partnerships’. Each week, we take an in-depth look at a different songwriting duo: exploring the songs they wrote, the artists they wrote for and the skill that goes into writing a popular song that stands the test of time. We’ll be talking about partnerships such as Lieber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Cook and Greenaway, Gamble and Huff, and more. I’m also co-presenting the Oliviers for BBC TV and Radio with Imelda Staunton on 15 April – we did it last year and we’re both really honoured to be asked to do it again.
What tips and advice would you offer aspiring actors, musical theatre performers and young people who want to succeed in show business?
Just keep on trying – there is work out there and although there’s fierce competition, I truly believe that talent will rise to the surface. You’ve got to work extremely hard and be aware of what’s going on; learn from everything you see, keep a lookout for auditions and make sure you keep your CV up to date with a great photo. It’s also good to go and see as many shows as possible – there’s a theatre in every town – so you can make sure you’re up to date with what’s showing locally, and come to the West End if you can to check out what’s happening and learn what producers are looking for.
Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton can be seen in The Chichester Festival Theatre production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Adelphi Theatre from 10 March to 22 September. For more information and tickets, visit the show’s website here.
Image credit: Chichester Festival Theatre