YOU hear Michael Ball before you see him, his big booming voice echoing down the hall. The leading man of British musical theatre is on a whistle-stop tour of Dublin, promoting his new production, a revival of doomed ’70s Broadway musical Mack and Mabel. It’s a passion project for the voluble 53- year -old, one he’s happy making a song and dance about.
“It debuted on Broadway in 1974 and just didn’t gel,” he says, relaxing in one of the bunker-like green rooms at Bord Gais Energy Theatre. “It was a troubled production. There were lots of internal battles. The producer wanted a happy ending — and, actually, there isn’t, but tastes and expectations have changed and we’re doing it again. I’ve always been obsessed with the music; it’s just wonderful.”
In an age when the jukebox musical reigns uncontested, Mack and Mabel is a curiosity. It harks back to those dim and distant days before Mama Mia, We Will Rock You et al. Reviving older works is increasingly a challenge, Ball acknowledges — promoters and theatres want a sure thing — and what could be surer than a musical celebrating the back catalogue of Elvis/The Beatles/Queen etc?
“On the other hand, look at something like Beautiful, the Carole King musical,” he says. “It’s bloody brilliant and, technically, that is a jukebox musical too. As is Jersey Boys. Again, it is musical theatre of the highest calibre. If you have an amazing story, like that of Carole King and Frankie Valli, you can’t not use the amazing music. The situation isn’t black and white.
“Then, if you go back to the golden era of Gershwin and Irving Berlin — they were kind of making jukebox musicals. It was a question of ‘How do we build around our catalogue of songs?’ It’s only as you get into the era of Rodgers and Hammerstein that it took a turn and became a different thing.”
Ball was born in a small town in the English midlands. He demonstrated talent as a vocalist from an early age, singing along to the music of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and others. His love of theatre flourished after attending a production of King Lear with his father, aged 14, and, upon finishing school, he enrolled at the Guilford School of Acting (paying his way by busking with friends).
His big break was a Manchester production of the Pirates of Penzance, for which Ball auditioned, X Factor style, by queuing up with 600 other hopefuls. From there, he transitioned to the West End, playing Marius in Les Miserables (overcoming a brief bout of stage fright). He went on to play Raoul in Phantom of the Opera and to represent Britain in the 1992 Eurovision Song Contest (his appearance in a 2004 production of Sunset Boulevard at Cork Opera House, meanwhile, was broadcast by the BBC).
On and off stage he remains hugely charismatic. That once familiar “ ‘mullet’ haircut is now cropped and his rosy complexion bears the shadow of middle age. Yet, his star power is nonetheless palpable. It was, he admits, through sheer force of personality that he got Mack and Mabel off the ground. Nobody dared tell him he was crazy to revive a relatively obscure musical set in the early Hollywood period, and recounting the ultimately doomed romance between director Mack Sennett (Ball) and silent pin-up Mabel Normand (Rebecca LaChance).
“I’m fascinated by that era,” he says. “I love the genre of early Hollywood. It gives you everything. Having grown up in musical theatre, I know what works and what doesn’t. This show delivers at every level. The bravery and pioneering of early Hollywood was absolutely incredible.
“These guys, in a just a few years, created the art form that would go on to dominate the 20th century. They went from having never seen a moving image in their lives to creating Hollywood.”
Mack and Mabel was written by Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Dolly!) and Jerry Herman (Ben Franklin in Paradise, Dear World). It opened in October 1974 and was harshly reviewed, with critics seemingly unable to accept a Broadway musical could have a downbeat conclusion. Audiences stayed away and the production shuttered in November.
But it has gone on to have a strange afterlife. Mack and Mabel received eight Tony Nominations (including for best musical) and became a cult success in the UK, where it ran in London and Nottingham. It was during the latter staging that it came to the attention of up and coming figure skaters Torvill and Dean, who incorporated the Mack and Mabel ‘overture’ into their Olympic gold-winning 1984 routine.
“Chris Torvill went to see it in Nottingham and loved it,” recounts Ball. “So they went to the library to get a copy of the record. And they were like, Oh wow — we can go with that. We’ll do the whole thing based on slapstick’. And that’s how their routine came about.
“The songs are well known — better known than the musical, in fact,” says Ball, citing numbers such as ‘I Wanna Make the World Laugh’ and ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’. Mack and Mabel remains under appreciated. It has seeped out through other avenues rather than people going to see it. There are some gorgeous showstoppers — real winners.”
He feels the musical was ahead of its time. In the early ’70s, a tragic Broadway blockbuster just didn’t suit the times. Now audiences are better able to process emotionally-complex entertainment.
Mack and Mabel is by no means downbeat — in places it is wildly funny, in fact. But there is darkness along with the light — a blend that arguably chimes perfectly with contemporary sensibilities.
The touring production of Mack and Mabel started begins a run in Dublin tomorrow. With so much singing and dancing, the performance is exceedingly energy sapping. On a rainy Tuesday does Ball ever stare out of his hotel room and wonder if, at his age, there might not be an easier way to make a living?
“I love it,” he says. “And also I’m a professional. That’s what distinguishes the pros from people involved in amateur theatre. You just go out and do it again and again. I believe in putting your shoulder to the wheel and just getting on with the job. When the curtain comes up and the audience starts cheering, you forget you’re tired. “