Major stars of the British stage have lately been popping up in New York City Opera's musicals and operettas. Jeremy Irons and Juliet Stevenson recently headlined Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, and Elaine Paige wielded a mighty rolling pin as Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. For New York audiences, it's a chance to see performers whose Broadway appearances have been all too rare. The latest is Michael Ball, who stars as the pretentious Reginald Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience this fall.
Reached by telephone in London, the day after the July 8 terrorist bombings, he was feeling enormously buoyed by the resiliency of his fellow British citizens. "I've never been so proud to be British, and to be a Londoner. I'm right in the center of the city right now, and there's an extraordinary sense of calm‹people are going back to work, the theatres are back open, and everyone's getting right on with their lives. Our emergency services were so well prepared, and reacted so quickly. And you know, it's been very comforting having Mayor Giuliani here, who let us know that during 9/11, his thoughts turned to Londoners during the Blitz, and how they persevered. The two cities you don't pick on are New York and London. You want tough, we'll give you tough!"
Patience will mark Michael Ball's first major New York appearance since his Broadway debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love in 1988. That show was not warmly received in this city, which may account for Ball's long absence. In England he is a superstar‹the kind who gets mobbed by fans when he walks down the block. And with good reason: In an age in which musical comedy leading men have become a scarce commodity, he is the real thing. His full throated, wide-ranging voice and appealing personality have made him a beloved performer for nearly 20 years. In 1999, in fact, he received an award from the Theatergoers' Club of Great Britain as the Most Popular Musical Actor of the preceding 21 years. Not only did Ball create Marius in Les Miserables and Alex in Aspects of Love, he also starred as Giorgio in the London production of Sondheim's Passion. Recently he has broadened his range by taking on character roles, including the seedy Count Fosco in Andrew Lloyd Webber's recent West End hit The Woman in White, and now, Bunthorne.
For a change, he's not getting the girl. "Yes," he laughs, "In Patience, Bunthorne is the only one who doesn't get anyone at the end. Just deserts, you might say! That's part of the appeal of it for me. Throughout my career, I've usually been the romantic hero, the juvenile lead, the guy who gets the girl. So now, to do in quick succession these two challenging and funny character roles‹maybe it will mark a sea-change in what I do on stage."
Bunthorne feels like a good fit to Ball, whose voice has always had a semi-operatic tinge to it. "Bunthorne's a high baritone, which is what I am. And I already come with the British accent, so that won't be a problem. You know, the designers came over and showed me the costumes. And they're wonderful‹outrageous, campy, over-the-top. So maybe that's the new market I'm going to be cornering: campy, over-the-top characters who have a nasty side. Hmmm. What are they trying to tell me?"
Although Ball is considered a pop singer, he's not a total stranger to Gilbert and Sullivan, having played Frederick in the West End mounting of Joe Papp's memorable production of The Pirates of Penzance. But Patience is a different kind of work‹much of its humor is highly topical, poking fun at the short-lived Aesthetic movement that flourished among British dilettantes 125 years ago. Will that humor translate to a New York audience in the year 2005? "I think there's absolutely no difference to how we regarded things then and how we regard things now," Ball insists. "There are still those performers and artists who strike on a new art form or mode that attracts their fans, while the majority of us may be saying, 'I'm sorry, but isn't that The Emperor's New Clothes?' There will always be charlatans who do things just to get acclaim and adulation. So I think it'll speak to an audience as clearly today as it did then."
Ball is one of the few musical comedy artists to have distinguished himself equally as an interpreter of both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim, who would seem to be polar opposites as songwriters. "I'm very lucky that I've gotten to work with both of them," says Ball. "I was in Andrew Lloyd Webber's 50th party concert at the Albert Hall. That same year I was in a special show called Hey, Mr. Producer, a celebration of Cameron Mackintosh's work. There was a Sondheim section, and Cameron asked if I'd be part of it. I'd already recorded 'Losing My Mind' from Follies, which is one of my favorite songs of Steve's. But I hadn't yet done a particularly traditional treatment of it. Steve said he wanted me to do it absolutely straight, the way it was heard in the original show, which I was delighted about. And he worked with me on it‹just him, and me, and a pianist in a tiny room, for an hour-and-a-half master class on this song. I came away knowing every nuance; why he wrote everything that he did; why every note was in its place; why the phrasing was like this‹can you imagine how thrilling that was? And he is so articulate in explaining his work; you can be under no illusion why something is there. When you have that understanding, that is when his work opens up to you. Of course, they put me between Judi Dench singing 'Send in the Clowns' and Bernadette Peters doing 'Being Alive.' You try holding your own in that company!"
Stage musicals, two television series, eleven solo albums‹all of which went gold or platinum‹and his own weekly BBC radio show Ball Over Broadway (which can be heard on the internet at www.bbc.co.uk./radio2 ) have all contributed toward Ball's U.K. celebrity status. A huge part of his fan base is women, many of whom are 35 and up, which has given him a unique opportunity to give back and do some good. When he lost a close friend to ovarian cancer several years ago, he began throwing his efforts into helping make women aware of this silent killer. "A very simple screening test, involving a blood sample and an ultrasound scan, has now been devised," he explains, "so it can be detected in the very early stages. Lives are actually being saved. If you can spot ovarian cancer in the early stages, it's the most treatable cancer there is. The trouble is, there are no symptoms of ovarian cancer until it's spread outside the ovaries. We started the charity twelve years ago, and since then, enormous leaps have been made. Over 200,000 women have now been part of the screening program. It's fantastic. Our focus with ROC [Research into Ovarian Cancer] is very much toward prevention, and toward the understanding of why people develop it in the first place. It did strike a chord with a lot of my women fans, and I think it was kind of nice for them to have a bloke getting up and talking about it. It's one of the things I'm most proud of, to be honest."
Although Ball has every reason to be proud, he's still a humble fellow. Right now, he can't wait to get to New York to begin Patience rehearsals. Here's a man who could probably sing Pelléas but has never had a formal vocal lesson in his life, and he's about to star at New York City Opera. "The offer came completely out of left field!" he says. "And the prestige for me to be part of the New York City Opera, playing on that stage at Lincoln Center‹what a joy. I couldn't say no. I think I'm really going to be enjoying myself. Of course, I'll be working with people who are used to this medium, which is not normally my kind of show. It will be a challenge, all right‹but I can't wait."
Eric Myers has authored three books. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York, Opera News, and The New York Times.