"I like Being Me On Stage!"

The Menier Chocolate Factory- 31/07/06

So we had survived Dyffryn Gardens, the wettest place in universe. Our clothes sat in the car, folded out so they could dry while we were heading for London for the first time in those three recent trips to England. We last saw London in 2005 and only briefly for the Hammersmith concert of the tour. And as you may know, when you are somewhere for a concert you don't see much of the place apart from the stage door and the place you chose to change into posh concert gear. So the last time we had seen our beloved London properly was even longer ago. In March 2005 for Woman in White. You can imagine how happy we felt to be back at last! Coming home after all this time. We parked the car and took the tube to London Bridge Station near the Choccy Factory. It's what you do when facing a new venue. You get there at noon and check out the stage door, box office and entrance.

We rarely find ourselves on that side of the river so it was whole new territory. We had hoped to find some shops and our preferred fast food chains nearby but no such luck. It was a bit of a not-so-nice area to be perfectly honest. But that is not important when you are a Ballette on a mission, right? As usual we were not the first fans there. We saw familiar faces in the Factory's café. The yellow brick building is situated near the viaducts for the trains to and from town. We went around the whole block and knew the stage door was at the left side of the building but no one stood there yet and it was merely 1 pm. So we decided to have at least SOME sightseeing (and food) and headed back into the city centre to find London as busy and colourful as always but a little brighter and tidier. All the scaffolding we had seen at Piccadilly was gone and the buildings shone in pristine white. We were in awe, as we are always in awe when we are back in Theatreland. Mind you, after having had some pizza we already had to rush back to London Bridge. Not much time to explore London. As usual.

When we arrived at the venue the queue had started to form. Not at the stage door though but at the entrance instead. After briefly pondering to stay at the real stage door we quickly decided it would look too odd waving at them and disappearing around the corner, so we joined the crowd and said our hellos. Glorious sunshine that day by the way. No rain, just wind. We decided that we wouldn't see him arrive anyways. He didn't need to rehearse anything and would be ushered in when people were already seated, we figured. So we chatted happily to darling Rose-Marie and our role-model Pam and waited until they would unlock the gate to the Factory. Mid-waiting came out a charming man working there explaining to us they wouldn't open till 6 pm when people would be let in to have their pre-show dinner. They were not used to a Michael Ball fan crowed apparently. When we looked around we realised the queue by now had reached the end of the street. The place would be packed. At six the gates opened and we all walked in. The people who had ordered the meal-deal were allocated at tables and the rest of us was allowed to walk through that first room, via narrow corridors and unlit steps to another room where they handed out the tickets and we found ourselves standing in front of the next closed door. This time the door to the auditorium. Someone said she heard they'd open at 7:30, when people finished their meals. Yay, another 90 minutes wait, standing, but this time in an over-heated room. The place was atmospheric, mind you. You could almost taste the chocolate once made there…okay, so that was wishful thinking. But it had a certain charm. And after half an hour or so, Kerstin who stood in front of me and faced the back door (where we had thought the stage door would be) suddenly said “Here he is!”, I turned and there he indeed was! Just walked in, waved at us all and grinned. “You all will get your money back!” Thumbs up. He looked stunning in a cream linen jacket, light blue striped shirt, jeans and black shoes. And so close! We almost felt like calling out to our friends having dinner next door while he chatted to a few fans who begged for autographs. We were more than delighted to have seen him for we had a bit of business talk to do. So we waited till the other fans had what they wanted and had our chat with him. We were so grateful for that unexpected encounter for we had feared we'd have had to wait until the tour next year. We were also quite shaky afterwards, it is tough to concentrate on a different language when he looks at you with those blue eyes all serious.

Finally the doors opened and a bit of a rush started. Sadly inside the heat was even more unbearable. It was a tiny place, black walls, a small stage and some eight rows of raised benches. We positioned ourselves in fourth row centre. Ideal view on the two chairs and small table in the middle of the stage. It was a bit like the Donmar minus the Upper Circle. Very intimate (or small). When everyone had found a seat and we had chatted a while to fellow fans around us, the producer of the show stepped onto the stage to explain to us what was to come. He greeted us all saying he had never seen such an enthusiastic fan crowd before. We sold the place out in one and a half hours (!) and if that were the case with all Michael Ball events it's no wonder Mr. Ball is such a happy man! Laughter from the crowd and nods of approval. Also he explained they would be playing about 10 songs of Michael and would we be so kind to applaud and cheer as if he'd performed them live, so that it gives the whole thing a nicer atmosphere. We agreed. (Not too big a favour to ask an enthusiastic fan crowd!) The only thing we feared would be that they'd play the ten songs one after the other. That would have been a bit odd, but thankfully they didn't. On came Michael and his interviewer Edward Seckerson to tumultuous applause. They took a seat and what followed was a really interesting interview session with different stories than those we have heard a dozen times before for promotional interviews. It was clear Mr Seckerson was not only well-informed but also very enthusiastic about Michael's career and so he asked not only the obvious odd question to every musical Michael was ever in but developed a proper dialogue with pause only to listen to selected songs to highlight the point of the discussion.

For us it was great to just sit and watch Michael listen to himself, see his reaction, smiling at certain lines, clearly lost in memories, sometimes mouthing the words as they came back to him or just sitting there, concentrating. Mind you, he had said in earlier interviews how much he hates listening to his own recordings, so for him this cannot have been the most enjoyable experience, especially when he was watched be 150 people while doing so!

They really covered everything from Les Misérables to Woman in White.

The song choices were great, we were played the obvious Empty Chairs of course, but also Seeing is Believing from Aspects (not Love Changes!), No One Ever Loved Me and Loving You from Passion, Broadway Baby from the Sondheim Gala, The Medley from Hell (not the whole thing, we joined in from roughly song 10 we were informed LOL) from Alone Together, Hushaby Mountain from Chitty, even a bit of You Can Get Away With Anything from Woman in White that Sonia Friedman had supplied for the occasion and last but not least we got a preview (pre-listen?) to One Voice from the new album. This last track was the only one where Michael scanned the audience row by row. He didn't look at us looking at him while listening to his recordings apart from this one time. You could tell he was curious (of not worried) what we made of it. Since this was the last song of the evening and afterwards was to be a little question and answer session by the fans, Michael begged if he could ask us a question first. Did we like the song?? Yes, we sure did! He seemed pleased with the very positive response and leaned back all relaxed to answer whatever question we might want to ask.

It was great to get a bit of a different Michael here. As he didn't have to sell some CD, concert, DVD or such, they actually only talked about how he saw his career and musical theatre as a whole. We got a few insights into Michael Ball the business man. But of course this wasn't all serious all the time. He laughed so much at times, he seemed to be sliding off the chair!

Seeing this will be aired eventually and so not wanting to rob everyone of the pleasure of hearing those new insights, I will retrain myself and just roughly summarise some highlights:

He told us of his first memorable concert experience when he was nine and shocked a crowd of parents with a more than questionable song rendition at school that embarrassed his parents deeply and had us all in stitches. He talked about Aspects working much better as a chamber piece than a big musical and he felt it was over-staged back then which is why it didn't do as well as it could have. We found out that Stephen Sondheim saw his younger self as Fosca, he had been there and experienced that kind of obsessed, vulnerable love and he also obliged when Michael told him the play wouldn't work without a song that explains why Giorgio suddenly falls for that bizarre creature. So Sondheim came up with a song he had not included in the production before, expanded it and there it was. The perfect explanation and the whole thing worked. He told us about Les Mis being 4.5 hours long and how fantastic scenes had to be cut, amongst those a chase of Javert and Valjean which ended in the barricades actually forming a tower (!!) and Valjean climbing up there with Cosette on his back. Also he told the usual tale about Empty Chairs being threatened to be cut away. So he talked to Trevor Nunn and co and persuaded them that Marius needed this number or he'd be a weak character. The new bit of info was that he actually (and that is Michael Ball being 23 years old and on his third proper job, sitting in front of Trevor Nunn, Cameron Macintosh, Boublil and Schönberg!) said if they cut that song this would no longer be the part he signed for and he'd quit! He chuckled and said he feared this was not what eventually made them to keep it in the show though…(annotation of the reviewer: Today a threat like that definitely would be!). When talking about the Donmar Edward remarked on it being the best thing Michael ever did he felt, we agreed (several of us anyways) and Michael explained how he knew they expected him to do cabaret when they asked him to join the Divas season. But he sat down with Sam Mendes and said that there is little sense in taking what he does at the Royal Albert Hall and bringing it into the Donmar. So he wanted to try something new and everyone loved the idea but he was so scared. Seeing the thing was sold out way before it got made public he feared whether the fans would like it, but luckily they did and everyone understood the concept at once. When he was asked whether he wasn't terrified of going wrong in the Medley From Hell he said yes he was, but it was all down to muscle memory. But while speaking he seemed to be thinking of what would have happened HAD he gone wrong in there and shuddered.

He also talked about his freedom to enjoy a variety of jobs. He knew some people thought he should exclusively be in musical theatre. But the roles are simply not there as it is always also a commercial decision to join a musical. And putting a new one up costs mad amounts of money. So you had to be really sure about it. It also means sacrificing your whole social life. You can do nothing else when you have eight shows a week. He just does not want to solely do musicals, jumping from role to role. He liked being himself on stage.

When asked on how he put a new album together he said he saw himself as an interpreter rather than a singer-songwriter. So he wants to interpret songs people know and love in a new way that he hopes they will like and also chose songs you'd think “Michael Ball can't sing THAT” and then get away with it.

He also surprised us all by announcing he would be back on the West End stage next year in June for a limited season doing Kismet at the Coliseum!!

On mentioning the new DVD he said he really liked it for he originally wanted to do 3 or 4 unplugged tracks, but they ended up doing 7 for he enjoyed it so much!

When it was time for questions from the audience we feared the worst. Usually we get questions like what is your favourite musical/song etc. But not this time! Some great questions were being asked. Among them whether he didn't get all emotional on stage sometimes singing. Oh he does! And that is a real problem sometimes because you cannot sing and cry at the same time, so you have to find a way to control that. But when he sees someone in the audience being deeply moved by what he was singing, it gets him. Or when he sang The Rose as a tribute to Angela and for ROC, knowing John and her daughters were in the audience…he so wished he didn't have to sing this song. So yes, there were those moments. And would he be touring next year? Indeed he will be, sometimes in March/April. He said he wants to be back in Australia and means it. He know he is always saying that but he really, really tries to. Someone asked him to stop doing open air concerts and he insisted he loved them and Wales was fun! W-e-l-l we thought, thinking of our wetter than wet clothes back in the car….. He claimed he got drenched, but that somehow didn't seem true for we have been sitting in the pouring rain for six solid hours without rain gear! So don't moan about being drenched to us Michael…LOL

When it was finally time to go we had been sitting up close and personal for roughly 100 minutes. 20 more than anticipated.

I can tell you there was quite a buzz going on outside afterwards. Everyone was overwhelmed by all those good news and by having been so close to him for so long. He has this effect on us…When he said his good-byes and walked down the street we walked back to the tube with Rose-Marie and Pam. Gushing, planning, laughing.

It was a perfect evening that more than made up for this wet, beyond wet, Wales concert.

We rushed back into town for a quick look around and visiting all those “homes from the past” i.e. stage doors of the Palladium, Palace etc but then headed back to the hotel quickly for we still had to dry our shoes and clothes and pack for our flight back home the next day. Still floating we eventually succeeded and finally waved goodbye to England for a whole month. It feels like an eternity after having seen him for three weekends in a row but we survived 13 months, we can cope with merely one!

See you all there!

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