An Interview with Michael Ball
Michael Ball's journey with The Woman in White began in the most unlikely of ways, when he was called in to 'save the day' replacing a then-ailing Michael Crawford, who originated the role Count Fosco, in the show's London production. "It was really bizarre! I'd been to see the show, just after Christmas on December 29th I believe it was, just as a 'punter' (audience member) because I wanted to see Maria (Friedman), and because I know everyone involved in it basically. So I just went there as a punter and really enjoyed the show I saw it with the understudy, and at that point, I think that Michael Crawford had just been out for a day or two. Cut to the beginning of February, and I was actually on the beach walking my dog when I got a call from Maria saying 'I don't know how mad you think this sounds, and they've asked me to call because we're friends, so there'll be no hard feelings, but we've got this situation where Michael's out of the show, and it looks like he's not coming back for a significant amount of time, if at all, and we're kind of up shit's creek without a paddle, do you think that you could come and help?' I had so much in my diary, at the moment, of upcoming work that I said 'darling, let me talk to some people, let me think about it, and I'll call you back. I literally thought for about 10 minutes, talked to my other half, and said - you know what, it would just be so much fun, and so out of left field for me to do it, that of course I wanted to do it."
With that, Ball was on board. "Of course, I'd only seen the understudy do it, but I knew that I could do something with the part. I'd not heard Michael sing it (and still haven't - less intimidating!), so I don't know quite what he did with the part, but I went 'absolutely I'll do this!'" The star's next problem was then one of scheduling - Michael having a concert tour scheduled to begin at the end of May, an album to record, new episodes of his BBC Radio show 'Ball Over Broadway' with interviews in New York, and he was set to guest host 'This Morning' for a week. So, how'd he do it all? "'This Morning' is similar to Regis and Kelly, but it's two and a half hours of live television. It's the prime daytime program, and I'd never done anything like it before. Previously, I'd done it for one day, and I guess that I got away with it so they asked me back for a week. I couldn't wait that long to go into The Woman in White, because they needed me as soon as possible, so I said that I'd need 10 days to go on, and worked it out so I could get 4 shows under my belt (Thursday, Friday, and a two-show Saturday), and then I'd do the morning show and Fosco at night the next week. It's a pretty intense schedule, but that's exactly what happened, and it required an equally intense rehearsal period as well. I wouldn't go and see the show, because I felt that it was better that I came at it fresh, and since Maria and I had worked together so much, and are such good mates, it was like shorthand. Trevor (Nunn) was directing another show, so I just had an hour or so's conversation with him around a piano, and he came to the dress rehearsal to give me some last minute tips. I said 'I need to know where to make my entrance, where to make my exit, where's my quick changes, and just put me in and let me free. I won't say that it was easy, but it really came together, and I was ready to go on."
Ball's fresh approach to the character involved tweaking the role, and the make-up to fit his vision of how Count Fosco should look and act. "I feel like I've got the character; I've found the humor, and I always wanted to find more of the dark side of the man. I don't think that when I saw it, that his sinister side, his complete manipulation, and his brilliance really came out. He appears at first to just be this 'boll weevil,' but underneath the cogs are working, and he is absolutely working everyone and everything out. The comedy is almost inherent because he's this big guy, who's very precise and very delicate, with these great numbers, and of course with the rat. I didn't want the audience to like me. He's one of those characters that when he walks in the room he takes over the room, and you want to say 'I wish I knew someone like that, but I wouldn't want to meet them in a dark alley.' In a salon full of people at a cocktail party, he'd be a lot of fun, but on a one to one basis , when things are a bit dodgy - you wouldn't want to know him."
Along with making the role darker as well, he changed the look of the prosthetics, and wig. "The one thing that I thought when I saw pictures, was that the face was not real, and one acts with one's face, and with one's eyes, to try and get across what you're saying. I wanted to design the prosthetics a bit differently, because of course he's got to have this double chin, and I've got these dimples, so I thought if we literally take the line along the jawline, and include it with the dimples, that they'd turn into this chin, then it's all my face. Of course you have the mustache and the beard, but I didn't want stick-on eyebrows so I could use my own expressions. Then came the hair, and I thought that it almost looked a bit like Marge Simpson, and I thought 'no, this man has a voracious appetite.' Of course he's a fat man, but look at the clothes, he's immaculately dressed - he would be slick! So, it's all kind of swept back because he thinks he's a romantic hero. He's kind of like some of those tenors in operas that are much too fat to play the romantic lead, but they still play the romantic lead. He's also a bit like Ron Jeremy. That's the other kind of look that I wanted. It's exactly that kind of 'eww,' but he thinks that he's absolutely gorgeous. Also, by having the hair back, the face and the eyes become more present I think, so that was my idea behind the look for him."
The experience in London was so great that there was no hesitation when the offer came to reprise the part, traveling alongside fellow import Maria Friedman to open the show on Broadway. "I was already scheduled over here doing Patience at the New York City Opera, and they'd been saying that it's off and on, as to whether or not we could do the show in the timeframe that they wanted to. Finally everything fell into place, and they asked me if I'd come, and of course I'm going to say yes - of course I am, because it's a great honor. It's an honor for me, because I think that there was probably an element of gimmick casting in England, because I'm far better known there than I am here in the United States.
No one knows, unless you're aficionados, who I am here, but in England it's a different story. Over there, the idea of the Michael Ball who we all know is the romantic lead, and the guy who gets the girl at the end, and sings the big songs, and is the hero. For him to be playing this extraordinary character and disguising himself was a coup d'etat, but not necessarily did they know that I was going to pull it off like I was able to. I think that it was a leap of faith for them, and I think that we did a good job over there. To be asked to do it here, I kind of felt very proud, because it was entirely on the merit of the performance, and what I can bring to the piece - as opposed to 'let's get a name in' - so I was incredibly honored. I don't know how I feel about my return to Broadway 15 years after playing Alex as a fat, evil bastard though!"
It was a full fifteen years ago that Michael Ball first hit the international stage, creating the role of 'Alex' in Aspects of Love, first in the West End and then on Broadway. So, what's taken him so long to get back to our shores? "There's nothing that had fit in with my time schedule, with what I was doing over there - the shows in the UK, concert tours, and the records and TV stuff, nothing had ever worked, but here I am - and absolutely thrilled about it, and I really hope that the show's a success. I do this series 'Ball Over Broadway,' (for the BBC Radio 2) and you kind of see what's out there, and what people are wanting to see, and there's a definite leaning these towards comedy, towards pastiche, but I hope that there is a place for something like this, which is romantic and witty, and requires you to think, which it does - you have to be pulled into this story for this to work. I don't think that there are people that are going to be ambivalent. From what I'm hearing from people, they're either going to be loving the whole experience, and getting into the journey with the characters, and being surprised, and not seeing the twist comings - or they're going to go 'Give me Spamalot!'"
To help lead people through that experience, Ball undergoes a complete physical transformation, complete with fat suit and makeup, which isn't always the most pleasant of experiences. "The makeup process - it's really, really tedious. I've got to say though that we're getting it down in time. Vinny, who does the make-up here is great, but the process that we do, getting all the hair put away, and preparing the skin, and then the prosthetic double chin goes on which has to be blended amazingly, which he does with the face. The problem is that I'm getting these breakouts from the glue for the beard and the mustache, so I'm getting a bright red chin, and I'm getting scratches from the rat so I'm falling apart! I need danger money! It's long and tedious, but you get used to it. The fat suit, with all these clothes layered on top is hot and it's uncomfortable, produces an unbelievable amount of sweat, but it really does give you the character. I stay in it for the whole show, because it takes too long to get out of it. Between shows, I take it off, but I can't get out of the makeup, so I'm in here wearing a double chin, and sweat pants. I look a little weird, and I don't think that I could go out to a sushi bar dressed like that! There's no time for me to get out of it though, or they'd immediately have to put it back on. Michael (Crawford) had a pouch in the chest with ice packs, but all that did was to give me a cold chest. He's sweaty, but you're supposed to be when you're in a fat suit, so you just put up with it."
Traveling with the show from London to Broadway gives Michael a unique perspective as well, of the tweaks that have, and continued to be made to sharpen the show for its Broadway opening. "I think that the show has gotten tighter, and clearer, I think that it looks great as well from the bits that I've been able to see. It's not like there have been significant changes, or scenes taken out or put in, but you're in that position now where you don't do out of town tryouts. The Broadway out of town tryout is a year in the West End. They didn't have the chance to do anything else, so they're tweaking things on an ongoing basis here to tighten things up."
If audience reactions so far are any indication, the changes have been successful, and American audiences are beginning to break the spell. "The audience reaction has been really good, really, really good. I've noticed as an audience member when I've been coming to shows that audiences sometimes don't always know theatre etiquette. They talk a lot during shows in some of my experiences. In this show, you can literally hear a pin drop, and you know that they're listening. When stuff happens though, they are vocal, so like when I make Marian drink the poison, pretending that I'm going to poison it in front of her, but I've already poisoned it - the double bluff - they go "oh no!" and when other secrets are revealed they go "oh my god it was " all of those things, and that's when you know that it's worked, and you've got them. I love the reaction to the rat when it comes out - it's just hideous. You see people squirming, and I have no problems with the rats, I love them."
One other thing making the Broadway company of The Woman in White unique was that they lost their star, Maria Friedman for a handful of preview performances for breast cancer treatment. The fact that it was only a few performances is a testament to her work ethic. "It was a very special night to have Maria back last Thursday, and she's doing amazing. She had a really serious, nasty op, plus having to deal with having cancer, and waiting for test results. Just the physical thing of having that operation is not nice, and a week later she's in a corset with her doctor strapping her in- it's just amazing. She's old school - the show must go on. The whole experience has definitely brought the company together, first of all, rallying around Lisa who went on for Maria when she couldn't be here. If something like this is going to happen, you can't be in a better job, or with better people because it makes companies families. Everybody got brought together, and everybody rallied round, and that kind of positive energy just makes you feel ok. It's lovely."
As the show prepares to open on Broadway, Ball is a sensation back home in the UK as well, with a new CD, 'Music,' which is currently working its way up the charts. The album is his 12th solo album, and all of his previous ones have achieved gold or platinum status. Music looks like it'll be an equally big hit. "I'm a chart sensation as I keep telling people! It's not out in the US yet, but it's out in the UK, and it's on the charts, but I'm over here so I can't promote it. I'm really delighted, and I'm hoping that we can get it over here and sell it. I'd love to replicate the career that I've had in the UK over here so I can do shows, but so I can also do concerts, and records. It's a much bigger place, and a much harder place to crack, but I'd love to be able to come here, and to do concerts, and I will."
Music contains some of Ball's favorite pop tunes, many of which he first took on in concert before recording them. "This is my 12th solo album, and you have to keep thinking of new, and clever ideas and I thought that there are these great songs, but they come from the rock and pop genre, but I think that there's something I can do with them. I just wanted to put my own spin on them, and that's all that you can do really. You record them, and you release them, and touch wood - you hope that people like them. This one is selling very well, the best that I've had for years actually. Some of the songs are songs that kind of have a theatricality to them. Queen is always very theatrical, David Bowie as well, but songs like Desperado that come from the Country genre are often not thought of as being theatrical. Country songs are theatrical songs, they tell stories, and wear the hearts on their sleeves and they have GREAT melodies. That idea that songs belong to certain genres, ok - I'm not going to be covering punk rock, but if they're good songs, that require a melody, and require a voice and a sensitivity, then I think that anyone can interpret them in their own way."
Ball is currently contracted in The Woman in White through March 2006, and then who knows? "I'll finish here in March, that's the plan at the moment. I've been hearing that the advance is really good, but you've got to get through the reviews, and word of mouth, you know - people on BroadwayWorld.com saying 'you've got to go see this show' because it's fantastic, and I hope that they will. I'd love to do more things here, because I've had a really, really nice time here, and people have been great to work with, and it's Broadway, which is fantastic! My home is England, and my family is there, but the idea that I can come over here and work is really appealing. I love the work ethic here."
The work ethic of Broadway performance is something that impressed Ball both 15 years ago in Aspects of Love, and again today. "Everyone's really, really focused here I think, and from the bottom up, there's a real sense that 'we have a really serious job to do and we're going to get it done,' and you work, work hard to get it right. It's kind of a little more laid back in the UK, so I think that it's nice for people like Maria and myself to inject a bit of fun into an American cast - to bring humor, and lighter moments, sending things up a bit - which is kind of our style to diffuse a situation. For us, it's nice to be surrounded by this focused energy. For example, I doubt that in the UK that Maria's understudy would have been as prepared as Lisa (Brescia) was to go on after the third preview, and to get on there and to do it. She's brilliant, and she was phenomenal in the part. She's doing her own show (in the ensemble), has her own track to follow, her own characters, costume changes, blah, blah, blah - to let alone have the time to think about learning the other track - never mind learning it - and was great."
Ball has a unique perspective of the theatre scene on both sides of the pond, because in addition to his successful career as a performer, he also hosts specials on BBC Radio 2 entitled "Ball Over Broadway" which cover the whole Broadway scene. I just did a special for the Country Music Awards, about their influence, and the link between Country and Broadway. The last one that I recorded was in May, but the next one I'll be doing, I'll be here, so I'll be interviewing myself! I haven't figured out how I'm going to get to see all these shows, because it's a very busy, very great looking season. If I end here in March, I'll go see them all in March, which is what I do - I come here for a week, and go to shows every night, and every matinee. I love going to the theatre, and I'm not doing it as a critic, that's not my job. I interview critics, stars, producers, writers, because I'm not qualified to be a critic. I can give an opinion just like everyone else, but I'm not there giving reasons, diagnosing the entire show, that's other people's jobs. I'm saying - this is what's on, and here's what different areas of the business feel about it. Nobody's going to come up to me in the street and yell at me 'how could you have said that about me?!?'"
One thing that's consistent on both Broadway, and the West End are Michael's fans, who are coming over in hordes to see the show - that is if they're not here already. "They're coming, and they all came over for Patience too, in I think organized fan trips. What's amazing is how many American fans there are, more than I realized, coming in from all over the country. Washington, Seattle, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago - I didn't really know how many were out there, and it's just brilliant, and they're kind of going 'We've got him now! We've got him!' and I'm happy to be here!"
Broadway is happy to have Michael Ball back as well The Woman in White opens on Thursday, November 17, 2005. For more information on the show, or to purchase tickets - click here. For more information on Michael Ball, click here to visit the star's official web site, or here to visit the star's official fan club site.
Woman in White Broadway Photos by Paul Kolnik