Michael Ball and Alfie Boe talk career highlights and the future of musical theatre
Michael Ball and Alfie Boe are both legends of the musical theatre and opera stage, known to us all for the roles they have originated or played to critical and audience acclaim. Separately, the two men are born entertainers with long and accomplished (often intersecting) careers in the U.K. – together, they are an unstoppable musical theatre force, topping charts and selling out international concert halls.
Speaking to Ball and Boe ahead of their Australian tour in October, it’s clear to see why the duo is so loved by audiences. We have come to expect their sublime voices and showmanship, but Ball and Boe’s friendship offers more, a relaxed one-two punch of comedy and humility, of laughter and contemplation. Passion for music and theatre create the foundation of this working relationship, and it’s obvious that the two men can’t wait to bring their unique aptitude for charm and wonderful performance work down under. Keep reading to discover how they found their voices, for Les Miserables stories, and to hear their thoughts about innovative new musical theatre.
Back when you decided to pursue theatre and music as a career, did you ever think you might be successful enough to be selling thousands of seats across theatres in a place like Australia? If not, what were your loftiest expectations out of a performance career?
Ball: Oh, no! When you start out, you just want a job. You feel privileged to be doing anything.
Boe: I was just earning beer money at the time!
Ball: But he was earning a lot of money because he drinks a lot of beer.
Boe: You can’t see the future, but I mean, when I broke into the industry and got my opportunity to perform I just wanted to take my singing as far as I possibly could. I wanted to do the best I could. My philosophy behind that was whenever I got the opportunity to sing to anybody, I didn’t hesitate to do it. You never knew who was listening or what would come of it, and something always led me to another avenue, another direction, or another door opened which gave me an opportunity for something else. I know we joke about just doing it for a living, but there were intentions there from the start. I wanted to take the singing as far as I possibly could and be good at what I do.
Ball: For me, I was buggered, because I couldn’t do anything else! I had to make a go of it. I didn’t go in to be a singer though, I went in to be an actor, I studied acting. I didn’t take voice lessons or anything, so I was just going to be an actor. The majority of my career has been based around my voice and music (which is my first love), but it’s not something I thought I would be making a career out of. That’s what makes me so happy and why I love doing what I do so much, because if no-one paid me I’d still be singing everywhere, it’s just in my DNA, I love it.
Alfie, there’s a moment on the recording of the 25th Anniversary Les Mis where the standing ovation you receive for ‘Bring Him Home’ lasts so long that you have to break character and acknowledge the audience reaction. Can you describe your response to that moment, and to audience gratitude?
Ball: Imagine the best sex ever, and then double it! It’s so difficult to actually explain it. You just want to own that moment, bottle it and remember it. And it doesn’t happen that often in your life, where you’re in the right place, the right time and the right moment, the voice is working, the musicians are playing their heart out, the material is right and the audience are totally into it… It’s a feeling of complete oneness. Everyone has a role in creating this moment that you’ll never forget.
Boe: For me, being in that moment was something very spiritual. [Ball agrees.] When I was offered the job, I knew that the moment in the show I had to wait for was singing ‘Bring Him Home’, on stage at the O2 Arena in front of 22,000 people. That was the moment that I really had to make sure was right. I went through weeks and weeks of agonising anguish about how I was going to do this.
When it got to the moment in the show, just before ‘Bring Him Home’, the guys are singing ‘Drink With Me’, and I’m at the back of the stage behind a little barricade, and I’m on my knees (I was on my knees so nobody could see me), and I was praying. I was seriously praying. I asked my father as well, because my father passed away twenty years ago now, I asked him something I used to ask him all the time, “Dad, will you give me a hand?” And he never let me down. That was the last thing I said before I walked out to sing ‘Bring Him Home’. I walked out, stood at the front of the stage, the intro started, and I felt protected. It was an immense feeling, because everything happened naturally, everything just worked, everything was in the right place. I felt like I was in a bubble… And at the end of the song, I didn’t hear the reaction from the audience. I didn’t hear the response or the ovation because I was so engrossed in the spirituality of that song and that moment. It was a life changing time. It was almost like somebody had a volume switch and turned the audience up, and that’s when I realised what I’d done, and the reaction they were giving me made me think, “Oh, okay, that went down alright…” But it didn’t stop. It carried on and kept going and then it lowered and then it went up again, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I didn’t know if I should just stand there, and then I thought that I needed to just enjoy it, to take in this moment, and that was when I had to break character and say thank you. Even though it was just a subtle little gesture, it had every ounce of gratitude that I could possibly expel at that moment. It was probably the highlight of my career.
Musical theatre has supposedly been dying since the Golden Age of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but you’ve just had incredible success with an album of musical theatre classics. Does it surprise you that voices like yours can go mainstream in terms of album sales?
Ball: You just need to look at the statistics. More people go to the theatre, buy tickets to the theatre, than they do for premier league football in the U.K. You look at the musicals that are being made and taking over the world, Hamilton, Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, School of Rock, which are not just rehashed shows, they are innovative, clever, bright, witty, special pieces of work. The talent it there, the vibrancy is there, and you look at the money that is generated by these shows, the audiences that go to see them… People have always been saying, “Oh, the musical is dying.” It will die if it doesn’t evolve, but at the moment it’s constantly evolving. Musical theatre attracts the most extraordinary, passionate talent into its ranks, from designers to directors to writers to artists to producers, and as long as those people are galvanised and fired up and love it like we do, this music and this genre will never die because there will always be an audience for it. I sound like I’m running for parliament! Theatre is doing amazingly well – we’re alright kid, don’t worry about it.
Michael Ball and Alfie Boe begin their national tour in Queensland on 5 October, with details and tickets for all venues available at this link.