A Ball of a Good Time

 
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Published in the September 2013 issue of Qatar Happening Magazine. Download a PDF of the article. An extended version of the article appears below.

By Christina Maria Paschyn

It’s a hard knock life for musical theater geeks in the Gulf. Forgive the terrible reference, but expats know it’s true. Good Western musical theater is hard to come by in the region.

Sure, travel shows may claim Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are the new cultural hubs of the Middle East, if not the world. To an extent they’re right. Both are home to impressive orchestras, extensive art museums and even opera houses.

But when was the last time a professional production of Les Miserables passed through our cosmopolitan oasis? How about The Phantom of the Opera or 42nd Street? Ok, we have the Doha Players, who do fine work, and I’m glad to be a part of the group. But let’s face it, we’re amateurs. And you can’t compare our community theater shows to the Broadway touring productions that frequently take Asia by storm. Japan gets professional musicals all the time, why can’t Qatar?

If you think our neighbors in the U.A.E. fare better, they don’t. I was only able to find one relevant article on Google about a community production of Cats. You would think at least Kismet would have been staged in either country since that musical is set in the time of the Arabian Nights! But sadly, it’s clear the Gulf is not a musical dreamland.

Well, at least it wasn’t until last month when something wonderful happened. Something so unexpected, fantastic and miraculous musical aficionados throughout the Peninsula undoubtedly fainted at the news: Michael Ball performed in Abu Dhabi.

Michael Ball Crooning at Abu Dhabi Summerfest

Michael Ball crooning at Abu Dhabi Summerfest


Yes, you read that right. MICHAEL BALL. The United Kingdom’s West End Adonis performed a two-night musical extravaganza at the du Forum in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island on August 16th and 17th.

If you don’t know who Michael Ball is then a) you must not be British, which is no excuse because I’m American and I still know who Michael Ball is. Or b) you must not like musicals, which means you have no taste. Either way, go smack yourself in the face because Michael Ball is a treasure unlike any other and you are seriously missing out if you don’t know who this exceptional talent is.

Here’s a clue: Michael Ball originated the role of Marius in Les Miserables. He also originated the role of Alex in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love. It was in that musical that he first sang a little ditty called “Love Changes Everything.”

That legendary song may have propelled Michael to international stardom, but he also proved his singing and acting chops starring as Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera, Giorgio in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and, most recently in 2012, the eponymous antihero of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. By the way, those last two roles both earned him Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Actor in a Musical.

Michael also rocked the Eurovision Song Contest back in 1992, coming in second place with “One Step Out of Time.” He’s also had his own TV variety show, has guest starred on numerous talk shows and now has his own program on BBC Radio 2, Sunday Night with Michael Ball. And finally, he frequently performs in the United Kingdom in epic concert tours, ones I’ve only dreamt of attending from afar. So when I heard he was coming to Abu Dhabi, I did what any sane person would do. I woke up at 4am to purchase tickets online and shelled out $430 for a roundtrip flight. (FYI, Qatar Airways: no 50-minute flight from Doha should cost that much.)

At this point you’ve probably taken the time to google “Michael Ball” and you’re wondering, “Christina, what is wrong with you? He’s 51 years old and you’re 28. Why aren’t you queuing up to see Robbie Williams instead?!” To which I say, quiet fools! Michael does not age; he simply matures like fine wine. Besides, no one can compete with Michael Ball. His voice is like velvet butter. He is, hands down, the best singer to ever grace this planet. When he belts out those high notes in his masculine baritone vibrato you cannot help but swoon. Don’t believe me? YouTube him singing “Red and Black,” “Love Changes Everything,” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Or best of all, his version of “Gethsemane.” You’ll curse yourself for not finding him sooner.

I’m happy to say that is exactly what the Abu Dhabi concert was like. In “Michael Ball Sings the Musicals,” he dazzled us all with his renditions of show tunes from nearly every production imaginable, including Evita, Company, Chess, Kismet (of course) and even Tim Rice’s still-in-rehearsals new show, From Here to Eternity. He cracked jokes about the heat, coyly flirted with audience members while he danced on stage, and left us begging for more as we said goodbye to him with a standing ovation. The smallish theater, with its intimate ambience, only enhanced the experience. I got to mingle with the other attendees and learned two things: 1) Some of Michael’s fans are way more devoted than I am. And 2) Michael is the nicest guy ever.

Devoted fans Barbara Voight and Joan Johnson at the concert.

Super fans Barbara Voight and Joan Johnson at the concert.


Just ask 72-year-old Barbara Voight, who sat next to me at the concert. The Arizona resident first discovered Michael in 2000 when she saw him on the local public access channel (think constant tell-a-thons) and has been following him around the world ever since. And she buys him gifts! Like jars of spice called Spike she claims he likes. In fact, Barbara says she’s gotten to know Michael so well through their stage-door interactions she’s even met his dad. She says she once gave Ball Sr. a thick album full of photos she had taken of him and Michael at his many performances. “You should have seen the look on his face when I handed the album to him. He looked like someone had just given him a million dollars! “ Voight told me. “Michael gets his voice from his mother and his charisma from his dad,” she explained.

Briton Joan Johnson, 66, is also a big fan. She saw him in Hairspray 389 times and more than 100 times in Sweeney Todd. “Everything he does is fantastic. The first time I saw Michael was in Les Mis when he was Marius. Bearing in mind, we didn’t know who Michael Ball was at the time because he wasn’t famous yet. And you look at this guy on the stage and you think ‘Ah, he’s worth following.’ That was really the start of it,” Johnson explained. “He’s my hobby. My huge, expensive hobby!”

As if I’m not proof enough, Johnson insisted I mention that Michael has his fair share of “young” fans, too (she’s always looking out for him!). At the concert, a row of 30-year-old women behind me squealed like schoolgirls when he started singing songs from Les Mis, as did my 25-year-old friend and makeshift photographer, Katrina Quirolgico.

Not one to let his fans down, Michael apparently reciprocates the love. “He is so caring, considerate. I mean, with his fans he knows so many of us by name and always sort of finds time to talk to us. Just a really nice guy and nothing sort of stuck up about him,” Johnson said. “I have a niece in a wheelchair and if Michael hasn’t seen her in a while, he even asks ‘is Nadine alright?’ And I’m not the only one.”

Voight added Michael was even kind enough to invite her to sit with him when she saw him at a restaurant in Australia while he was there on tour (and yes, she had flown to Oz just to see him).

I can confirm Michael is as humble, gracious and good-natured as these fans say he is because that is exactly what he was like in our phone interview a few days before the concert. I now present to you the greatest celebrity interview I have ever had the pleasure of conducting. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, Michael Ball:

Here he is, folks! And he's got a voice like velvet butter.

Here he is, folks! And he’s got a voice like velvet butter.


QH: Hi Michael! You’ve just recently finished a tour in the U.K., and I’m curious to know, how do you pump yourself up for a performance? Do you have any pre-show rituals?

MB: Ah, you know what, I listen to the audience. It’s always an audience that gives you the excitement. I love doing what I do. I know that we run a good show. I also hang out with the band and with the backing singers, and with the backing singers we all sort of wind ourselves up to get ourselves pumped. Before going on we have a sort of special moment together and that pumps me up. I’m nervous and excited before every gig.

QH: So you still get nervous after all your experience?

MB: Yeah, excited is probably the best way of looking at it.

QH: You perform so much, how do you keep your voice from getting hoarse?

MB: The voice is like any muscle, you have to look after it. The more you exercise it, the better it is. By making sure you keep it lubricated, you get plenty of water down you, you try to avoid getting colds and you try to avoid air conditioning – but that’s not going to happen while I’m over in Abu Dhabi, obviously!

QH: In my opinion, you’re pretty much the biggest musical star in the UK. And I’d like to know, what’s been your favorite role thus far?

MB: Oh gosh, there’s something to be said for all of them. And you know, bearing in mind when I first started playing Marius that was an amazing role to create. It’s always exciting when you create something. But I have to say Sweeney Todd and Edna in Hairspray have to be two of the best roles for men that were ever written, even though Edna is a woman. The most challenging has to be Sweeney Todd. That is musically and psychologically the most difficult role – I think probably it’s kind of like the King Lear of musical theater – and I just loved playing it. It was hard – it was a big challenge. But it’s like anything – if you overcome those challenges and actually do something that you can feel proud of then those are the best parts.

QH: Congratulations on your Olivier Award for that part!

MB: Thank you very much indeed. That was amazing. One is a blessing; two is an embarrassment of riches! (Michael previously won the award in 2008 for his portrayal of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray).

QH: The TV show Glee is huge now in the US and the UK. What do you think of it? And do you identify with any of the characters?

MB: I love Glee – it’s such a sad thing that’s happened to Cory Monteith, it really is – someone taken so young. What I love about it and what it’s done is it’s another way for the younger generation to understand about musicals and about the power of musicals in telling stories, and the fact that they can take songs from other genres and kind of turn them into musical theater songs. I think it’s really exciting. As to whom I identify with, it will probably be Matthew Morrison’s character, the teacher. And he’s such a nice guy! I’ve known him for a while and he’s as talented as you would imagine.

QH: Do you do any sort of teaching with children in musical theater?

MB: Yes, I have done. I’ve done master classes and I try to do that – not as much time as I would like. But I believe being a leading man in a theater role, part of your job is to pass on to the next generation the disciplines and the ethics of what we do in this business. It’s a hard business. It’s not just about having the talent. It’s having the discipline. You have to understand how to behave in rehearsals, the etiquette of being in a theater. I think that’s equally important to pass those lessons on, exactly what I was taught.

QH: That’s inspiring that you do that today. So I guess you weren’t very cutthroat when you were growing up, like Rachel Berry?

MB: No, I wasn’t. [He laughs] No, I wasn’t! I mean I didn’t really study music and musicals. I loved going to see them but there were no musical productions done in my schools. When I went to drama school, I learned about acting and the theater, but not about musical theater. And it was just luck that the first thing I went forward to audition for was a musical. That sort of led to another one and then to me being in Les Mis. So I didn’t plan a career in musical theater, it all kind of found me.

QH: I know you never really took voice lessons when you were growing up.

MB: No, I haven’t. I still can’t read music and I still don’t do voice lessons. I kind of do everything pretty instinctually.

QH: Going back to your early career, you’ve spoken openly about how you used to suffer from anxiety when you were playing Marius and low self-confidence as Alex in Aspects of Love. What do you think triggered that and how did you eventually overcome that anxiety?

MB: Initially, it was actually being physically unwell and very tired. They think that I had ME, the post-viral syndrome. That sort of physical debilitation and the lack of energy led to a sort of crisis in confidence psychologically. Once you think you have a weakness and it preys on you and you don’t get any help, it spirals and it just gets more complicated. The way I dealt with it is by…I don’t really [know]…I just rode it out. I rode it through. I found techniques for myself to try and combat and control the anxiety and the nerves. I realized that everybody went through it, everyone feels nervous before doing certain things. We all suffer the same feelings, it’s just whether you can control them – whether you can then center yourself and focus yourself so that you can have control over your own body. And that’s what you have to do: it’s to almost embrace the fear, knowing it’s going to be there and then make it work for you.

QH: Well said. Is there a particular focusing technique you do today?

MB: If I get really nervous I do this tapping before a show. Basically what it does is it stops your mind from focusing on the panic and makes you think about a routine of tapping parts of your body on different chakras. It’s a technique of distraction so your mind can then free yourself a bit and you find some semblance of stability and calm. It’s anything like that – listening to music, breathing techniques – little psychological triggers you can find. I also find running up and down screaming “AAAA!” helps. [Chuckles] If everything else doesn’t, just go mad!

QH: Going on to a different aspect of your career, you very nearly won Eurovision back in ’92. A poll just came out that shows a lot of British people think the competition has become way too political and that countries only vote for their neighbors. What do you think?

MB: Of course they do! Of course it’s political! [Chuckles] But it’s still good fun. I do think people take it way too seriously and it’s a wonderful night of entertainment. It’s a wonderful night for us all to be horribly xenophobic about other countries and enjoy ourselves. I think we love the b**ching and the moaning about it! It’s part of the joy and there’s nothing that will ever be done to get away from people voting for their neighbors. That’s always what’s going to happen. I think we just have to accept it and treat it as a bit of fun that it is, and set ourselves realistic goals of waiting to come in the voting.

QH: Do you think the voting system hurt your chances of winning first place?

MB: Well, it was smaller then – the Eastern European countries hadn’t become part of it. So it was slightly fairer…not really, there was still an element of it going on. You have to have an absolutely blinding song – a brilliant song that will appeal to all ethnicities and all the countries in the EU and those that aren’t in the EU but those that are eligible to take part. And then you may not make your 12 points and your 10 points, but you might get your 8s and 6s, and therefore if you get all the countries giving you those points then you can win. It’s about having a great song.

QH: Well, I thought “One Step Out of Time” was pretty good that year.

MB: Aw, thank you, Lovely, I do too! [Chuckles]

QH: It’s too bad you didn’t win, but have you thought about trying to do it again?

MB: [With emphasis] I’d rather stick needles in my eyes! [Laughs heartily] That would be ‘no.’ That ship has sailed!

QH: Are you interested in reprising one of your famous roles, like Alex in Aspects of Love or Giorgio in Passion?

MB: I’m too old now. No, no, no, I’m too old now. I’ve been asked to do roles in shows that I’ve been in but in different roles. I’ve been approached to play the Phantom and Jean Valjean and, at the moment, that doesn’t appeal to me. I would never say ‘never,’ but I think it’s unlikely – certainly with Jean Valjean. Marius is my part and I think I’d find it a bit weird.

QH: Well, I saw a YouTube clip of you singing the Phantom part with Lesley Garrett and it was amazing! You should definitely do the Phantom!

MB: Aw, thank you. That’s really kind of you!

QH: What do you hope to do with your career moving forward? Do you think about going back to television, like doing a variety show again?

MB: I love the challenge of doing something different. I think the next thing I would like to do is some straight acting on television. I will always continue doing my records and my concerts and the radio and TV hosting that I do – I love doing all that. And I will go back into the theater to do musicals. But the one something that I haven’t really tried to do is straight acting on TV and on film. So I might try looking into that and seeing if anyone will give me a job.

QH: Best of luck! One last question, do you ever invite audience members to dance with you on stage? Because if you do, on the 16th I will be in the second row with a sparkly green top, ready to dance!

MB: [Laughs heartily] I shall seek you out and I shall blow you a kiss, I promise you that! I did once actually, years ago. I used to do, “I Want to Dance with Somebody” and I used to get someone out in the audience and dance with them. Maybe I should bring it back in future concerts.

QH: Oh, for sure! Well, I have short blonde hair and I’ll be wearing a sparkly green top in the second row. So be on the look out for me!

MB: I will look out for you! [Laughs]

QH: Thank you so much, Michael. Break a leg!

MB: Thank you, My Lovely! Hope you enjoy it!

Reporter’s note: True to his word, Michael spotted me in the second row. He didn’t blow me a kiss, but he did smile and wink at me, which I can attest was just as thrilling! So fingers crossed he returns to the Middle East, but next time for a performance in Qatar!

Buy Michael Ball’s latest album, Both Sides Now, at his website: http://www.michaelball.co.uk/.

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