Michael Ball discusses his exciting new theatre show, Chess at the London ColiseumOn April 15, 2018 by Margot
Mr Ball is very excited to star in Chess
Lesser mortals would be aghast at the prospect but you can almost feel his pleasure at being so busy.
On Sundays he’ll be hosting his Radio 2 show; the rest of the week he’ll be starring in the revival of the musical Chess at the London Coliseum.
With music by Abba masterminds Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and lyrics by Sir Tim Rice, the show is a love story set against the political machinations of the Cold war.
It reveals how American and Russian chess players became pawns (ho ho) of their governments during a world championship.
Being in this musical is a very big deal for Abba anorak Michael, who plays Russian Grand Master Anatoly and admits to liking Abba even when it wasn’t fashionable.
“I was obsessed,” he confesses.
“Benny has been over to see us about the show and the first time I met him, I was a complete fanboy. We were sat in the rehearsal room and he’s there on the piano, just noodling out the hits. Incredible.”
Michael, 54, may be a veteran of the musical theatre (and a multi-platinum-selling recording artist with his sidekick Alfie Boe), but his enthusiasm is a joy to behold, particularly for Chess – which was a big hit when it was released on an album but not so much in the theatre when it launched in 1986.
“I approached the producers to be in it at the beginning of the year – I knew it was going to be on and I wondered why they hadn’t asked me.
“I had pencilled in making a solo album but I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with Chess, so I threw my hat into the ring and sort of got my hand bitten off!
“I’ve never actually seen the show on stage before. I had the record and played it to death, though.
Mr Ball performed at Lord Andrew Lloyd webber’s 70th birthday celebration at Drury Lane
“They’re hard songs to sing but once you start rehearsing, you go, ‘Ah, yes, that’s Abba’. Once you’ve got those harmonies, they’re locked into you.
“And they’re the biggest songs. I’m back in Aspects of Love days (the Andrew Lloyd webber musical in which he starred), hitting those B-flats; and it’s been a while.
“I’ve been taking vocal coaching because I’ve never done a role that has required such a stretch; not just in vocal range but in vocal style.
“One minute I’m rocking out with Tim Howar (his co-star who also sings with Mike And the Mechanics) and it’s…” (he breaks into a thundering rock vocal) “then it’s all the legitimate B- flats with the chorus…
“I get a note-perfect operatic performance. And then straight down into something soft and controlled,” he says, turning all dreamy pop star.
And it’s all perfect, damn him.
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Once you’ve got those harmonies, they’re locked into you
Michael’s versatility has been a big reason that he’s had such an interesting and varied career.
As well as musical theatre and presenting his own TV and radio series, he’s also been a pop star and Eurovision entrant – and one of his earliest roles was as tennis coach Malcolm Nuttall in two episodes of Coronation Street in 1985: “I remember, when I left drama school, my dad tony saying that I’d have made it when I got into the Royal Shakespeare Company and my grandma saying, ‘oh, if you ever got on to Coronation Street…’
“So in my first year, I got into the RSC with Les Misérables, and then I got into Corrie.
It was like, ‘whoah!’,” he laughs.
Michael is very close to his father, who used to harbour dreams of an acting career himself but instead found himself as a major figure in the British motor industry and a leading events producer.
Mr Ball will perform alongside Alexandra Burke
“He wanted to act, and was involved in amateur dramatics, but got drawn into industry instead, yet still took the family to the theatre a lot,” he says.
“At 83, he’s still a brilliant motivational and after-dinner speaker. He used to be in a couple of bands, the Five Schmos and the Gambols, and a few years ago, I tracked down a demo record he’d made and played it on my radio show. It was great to be able to do that.”
Performing live in theatre shows like Chess and to huge arena audiences, as he does when touring with Alfie Boe, is hugely important to Michael: “It’s the only thing that brings us together, as everyone’s stuck into social media or their phones these days,” he says.
“There are fewer water-cooler moments than ever, but the next thing that will bring everyone together is the Royal wedding.
“Have you seen that gorgeous picture of Megan’s dad reading that book about the history of Britain? God love him! It will be great to have a beautiful, classy woman as part of the Royal Family – and I love Suits.
“I think the nation will just love watching Harry being happy with Megan, just as Kate makes Prince William happy.”
Michael met the princes’ mother, Diana, several times and remembers her fondly.
“She was jaw-droppingly beautiful and there was something incandescent about her. She was so funny and a bit saucy. She knew that people were excited to meet her, and she had that knack of making you feel that you were the only person she wanted to talk to.”
Michael’s versatility has been a big reason that he’s had such an interesting and varied career
Mr Ball performed at Lord Andrew Lloyd webber’s 70th birthday celebration at Drury Lane.
“I came on, very po-faced, with Tim Minchin playing the piano accompaniment to Love Changes Everything and singing very sincerely.
“Soon after that, the kids from Andrew’s musical School of Rock came on, shouting ‘THIS IS BORING!’, and we then went into a really punky version of Love Changes Everything.”
As I said, very versatile.
Chess runs at the London Coliseum from April 26 to June 2. Tickets from £12; details: chessthemusical.com/020 7845 9300