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The day I made Eartha Kitt snore: Michael Ball spills secrets of off-stage dramas in a glittering career

MEMOIR

DIFFERENT ASPECTS

by Michael Ball, (Blink Publishing £25, 336 pp)

Jovial baritone Michael Ball, who with scant false modesty calls himself ‘virtually a household name,’ has had his fair share of demons and disasters.

When he was in Phantom Of The Opera, the phantom got his cufflink caught and yanked Christine’s wig off. The gondola stuck fast, requiring ad-libbed singing into the wings. 

A co-star during Aspects Of Love trapped her leg in the scenery and emitted ‘a terrible, bloodcurdling scream,’ which stopped the show.  Eartha Kitt fell asleep in the front row of the stalls and started snoring loudly, again stopping the show.

During his 40-year career, Ball has endured many a hitch with revolving stages, mislaid props and ‘actors not making it back on stage because of costume changes’.

The earliest performances at the Barbican of Les Misérables (which I saw — and enjoyed) lasted nearly five hours. Matinees hadn’t finished before the evening shows were due to begin. 

Michael Ball performs live on stage at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London on Septemberv 27 2004 Michael Ball performs live on stage at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London on Septemberv 27 2004

Michael Ball performs live on stage at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London on Septemberv 27 2004

The earliest performances at the Barbican of Les Misérables (pictured) (which I saw ¿ and enjoyed) lasted nearly five hours. Matinees hadn't finished before the evening shows were due to begin The earliest performances at the Barbican of Les Misérables (pictured) (which I saw ¿ and enjoyed) lasted nearly five hours. Matinees hadn't finished before the evening shows were due to begin

The earliest performances at the Barbican of Les Misérables (pictured) (which I saw — and enjoyed) lasted nearly five hours. Matinees hadn’t finished before the evening shows were due to begin

Ball’s worst experience, however, was back in 1985, when he was beginning to be praised for his ‘cheeky sense of fun’ and ‘commanding stage presence’. Basically, he had a nervous breakdown and felt ‘the devastating effects of depression’.

Misdiagnosed as glandular fever, the symptoms of panic attacks, sleeplessness and a racing heartbeat plunged Ball into ‘a spiral of doubt, self-hatred and despair’. He was prescribed beta-blockers.

Ball says it was a ‘very, very dark time and not one I intend to go into here,’ which is a shame as this is what I believe is called an autobiography. ‘It hit me extraordinarily hard,’ he adds. But then, Different Aspects is rather circumspect. Nothing much is divulged about his private life. Nevertheless, despite the reticence, there is much to enjoy about Different Aspects, as Ball is such an unaffected, enthusiastic ambassador for musical theatre. All his born days he has been drawn to ‘being in another world, being someone else. That thing of taking on a character, or a song, and inhabiting it’. If Stephen Fry could sing, he’d be Michael Ball.

READ MORE: The chips have been down for both of us, but now we’ve hit the JACKPOT: With a new Vegas-inspired album, Michael Ball and Alfie Boe reveal the desperately dark times behind their success 

He grew up in South Africa, where he saw ‘Cilla Black in concert, supported by Lionel Blair’. (Mandela must’ve thankedhis lucky stars he was behind bars.) Ball’s father, who’d wanted to be an actor but instead was a car salesman, brought the family back to Surrey, where he marketed Morris Minors.

Ball lapped up musicals on the telly. ‘Oklahoma! on a Sunday afternoon? I was there. My Fair Lady? Carousel? Reserve me a spot on the sofa.’

Ball was a member of the Surrey Youth Theatre, and his career began in repertory in Basingstoke. He was soon recruited to the West End, beating 600 other hopefuls for a role in Pirates Of Penzance.

Trevor Nunn and Cameron Mackintosh always came through for him (‘I was lucky to have someone fighting my corner’), and Ball has been in all the smash hits: Godspell, Hairspray, Phantom, Pirates Of Penzance, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sweeney Todd.

As Marius in Les Mis, he received £1,500 a week, which he says was ‘not stratospheric’, suggesting what he now makes is stratospheric. ‘Everybody wanted a little of me,’ he says.

He even had his own stalker. Eventually Ball would sell out Hammersmith Apollo. He was, he admits, ‘the musical star who was not Elaine Paige’.

Different Aspects is first rate on the pungent realities — the backstage graft, rehearsal room exertions, clashes with other cast members, preview confusions for works-inprogress: ‘That juggling act of not knowing which was the old version and which was the new. Scenes would come out and then be put back in.’

Younger performers today, says Ball, don’t seem to match his commitment — they send understudies on if they feel a little tired. They lack backbone.

There’s a hilarious tale of a drunken Diana Rigg berating Joan Collins in the dressing room after Private Lives — ‘You were screeching, darling, absolutely screeching’ — and a few scary accounts of Andrew Lloyd Webber in shrill tantrum mode, storming off in a ‘state of authorial dissatisfaction’. As Ball has it, ‘there were toys hurled out of prams’.

Best of all are the recollections of Roger Moore, who though ‘the epitome of the attractive older man’, walked out of Aspects Of Love rehearsals realising he could neither sing nor dance. ‘I’m James f****** Bond,’ reasoned Roger, shocked he’d be expected to turn up and give eight performances a week. 

Best of all are the recollections of Roger Moore, who though 'the epitome of the attractive older man', walked out of Aspects Of Love (pictured) rehearsals realising he could neither sing nor dance Best of all are the recollections of Roger Moore, who though 'the epitome of the attractive older man', walked out of Aspects Of Love (pictured) rehearsals realising he could neither sing nor dance

Best of all are the recollections of Roger Moore, who though ‘the epitome of the attractive older man’, walked out of Aspects Of Love (pictured) rehearsals realising he could neither sing nor dance

Handed detailed directions by Trevor Nunn, Moore said: ‘I think you’ll be requiring both eyebrows.’ Earlier this year, Ball was in a revival of Aspects Of Love, which flopped. There were painful reviews, thinnish houses and the show closed early. This was a crying shame.

It is Lloyd Webber’s best score, with nothing brassy or bombastic — no chandeliers crashing to the ground; no Argentine dictators, crucifixions or prancing cats. Aspects Of Love is about erotic games in provincial France;’the fickleness and frailty of love’; tangled bedsheets and destructive emotional betrayal. ‘I was now returning to the show that had made my name,’ when, personifying the ‘devilishly handsome and charming’ juvenile lead, Alex, Ball had had a chart hit with the song Love Changes Everything. This time Ball was to be George, the ex-Roger Moore role.

According to Ball, the new production fell foul of today’s sensitivity awareness police, because the plot concerns girls in their teens or early twenties having crushes on chaps in their 30s and beyond — ‘discarding their water-wings and playing in the deep end of the pool’, as Ball hilariously puts it.

‘The conversation around consent and sexual power dynamics has become louder, more complex.’ The problem was not Aspects Of Love’s stance on relationships. It’s the prohibitive price of tickets. I can no longer afford theatre trips. Trains to London, seats in the Upper Circle, dinner — this runs to hundreds of pounds I don’t have, who does?

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