Musical Director: Callum McLeod
With a million subscribers, The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel is proof that our desire for musical theatre has not been winded by the pandemic. Sharing clips and updates, the channel has now uploaded Michael Ball’s 25th anniversary concert, filmed at the Royal Albert Hall.
Ball’s strength is that he is a clearly identifiable brand. His 25th anniversary show, for the most part, is exactly what you would expect. Bright and bubbly with a voice that never seems to flag, all the component parts are assembled. But in viewing this show from 2009, we cannot only see where Michael was in his career to this point, but beyond.
In 2012, it was announced that Ball had been cast in the lead role of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Imagining Ball as the Demon-Barber was a stretch. Ball physically transformed for the role and defied the critics. He won an Olivier Award, and it was a point proved. In this show, we not only see Michael in celebration mode, but glimpses of a performer not satisfied with resting on former glories, and itching for change.
In Past and Present, we take a tour through the hits of Michael’s career. Crowd pleasers such as Love Changes Everything of course do well. This may be bringing coals to Newcastle, but the pace never lets up. Ball clearly believes in giving value for money. The set list is surprisingly diverse too, ranging from The Andrews Sisters to The Killers – no one could accuse Ball of being a musical snob.
Some of the best numbers are when Ball is joined by his backing singers. Including now West-End star Louise Dearman, the group (also featuring Louise Claire Marshall, Adrian Hansel, Ben James-Ellis and Emma Williams) give Ball the opportunity to explore his fondness for close-harmony work. Their cover of Seasons of Love is excellent. Ball also gives the group their time on the stage, understanding what it means to stand in front of a Royal Albert Hall audience.
This is a show that leans heavily into Ball’s biography for inspiration. A clutch of songs from Jesus Christ Superstar take a central place, as Michael tells us, seeing the musical aged 12 was a “pivotal moment”. A performance from Les Miserables, with Ball reprising his star-making role as Marius, is another easy win. Despite his fondness for contemporary material, it is when exploring his musical theatre roots that Ball’s voice becomes rich and vibrant.
It is the personal connections that make up the most powerful moments. If Everyone Was Listening, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables and The Impossible Dream clearly resonate with Michael, as he taps into a melancholy, contemplative vein, and it’s fascinating to watch. Ball steps away, just for a few minutes, from his cuddly persona and becomes the performer who was always capable of taking on the complexities of Sondheim. Technically, there’s no doubting Ball’s ability to sell a song. But emotionally? This show demonstrates that the casting of Ball as Sweeney Todd was not a gamble. From this vantage point, it reads like a natural progression. If there’s a 50th anniversary show, songs from Michael Ball’s past – songs that take him out of himself – would be a great place to start.
With Michael announcing a return to Hairspray in April 2021, this show illustrates why Ball’s career is by no means predictable. The brand may be familiar, but as a performer, Ball is versatile and resilient, making him the perfect choice in a time of uncertainty. Even at a point where the fate of musical theatre feels like it’s hanging in the balance, there is a strength and optimism in Ball’s voice that reassures us that anything, still, is possible.
Available here until 4 October 2020