Michael Ashley Ball (born 27 June 1962, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire) is a British actor, singer, and radio and TV presenter who is best known for the song "Love Changes Everything" and musical theatre roles such as Marius in Les Misérables, Alex in Aspects of Love, Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Edna Turnblad in Hairspray for which he won the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for best actor in a musical.
Ball was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, England, of a Welsh mother, and an English father. Ball's father trained as an Austin apprentice at the Longbridge plant and went on to become a successful business man, although he had originally wanted to be an actor. Ball's maternal grandfather was a coal miner. His maternal grandmother was protective of the family. Ball has a sister about nine years younger than himself. He moved to Dartmoor with his parents when he was three years old. He has never had singing lessons, but as a boy he learned to sing by singing along to music: for example, songs by Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, and Frank Sinatra. When he was 11 years old he went to Plymouth College, an independent boarding school, because his parents thought this would give him a good education, but he did not fit into the academic and sporting environment at the school at that time, and he was unhappy there.
Ball was interested in the theatre and his father took him to see shows in the school holidays, including a Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon of King Lear, which impressed him as a youngster of about 14 years old. He joined a youth theatre, which led to his studying drama at Guildford School of Acting, where he found an environment that suited him. As a student he went busking on Saturdays in Guildford town with a female student friend to earn a little extra money. He graduated in 1984.
After his graduation, Ball's singing career rapidly got off the ground. His maternal grandmother, having a musical ear, was proud of Ball's early singing achievements; she died suddenly, however, of a heart attack about one week before his debut in The Pirates of Penzance. His parents were also proud of him and were relieved that his singing had brought a sense of direction to his life.
In 1984, after he had left drama school, Ball's first part was in Godspell at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, after which he worked for a few months in rep in Basingstoke, but his first major break was a star part in the production of The Pirates of Penzance at Manchester Opera House; at an open audition he was selected from about 600 applicants who formed a queue to do singing, acting, and dancing interviews, which were held in three separate rooms. His next important role came when Cameron Mackintosh cast him as Marius in the original London cast of Les Misérables, but he caught glandular fever and he took 6 or 7 weeks off sick to recover from the associated tonsillitis and post-viral fatigue. When he returned to work he was still suffering from fatigue, and began to get on-stage panic attacks — overwhelming anxiety, a rapid heartbeat, sweating, and problems with vision. These also started happening at other times, such as when he was going to work. For most of the next nine months he lived alone in his flat feeling depressed; he did not seek therapy and left Les Misérables.
Thames Television invited Ball to sing during the Miss England contest, a live televised event, and he sang well enough despite suffering from anxiety. When he viewed a recording later, he realised that no one would have noticed how nervous he was, and he became less worried about his anxiety problem. At about that time, Cameron Mackintosh asked Ball to play Raoul in the second casting of The Phantom of the Opera in London, which was necessary after Michael Crawford (who played the Phantom) and Steve Barton (who played Raoul) left the London show to appear in the Broadway staging in New York City. Mackintosh thought that Ball would not be under too much pressure as Raoul, and that the part was right for him.
Ball also played Alex in Aspects of Love, both in London and New York, and Giorgio in the London production of Stephen Sondheim's Passion. Alone Together was his one-man show first performed at The Donmar Warehouse (which was reprised in 2004 for the Singular Sensations season at the Haymarket). In 2002 he took on the role of Caractacus Potts in the Sherman Brothers musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was largely considered his comeback role. In 2005, with 10 days' notice, he replaced Michael Crawford as Count Fosco in The Woman in White after poor health forced Crawford to give up the role.
Other performances include singing at the BBC's St David's Day concert, in the role of Marius at the Les Misérables: The Dream Cast in Concert, the tenth anniversary concert of Les Misérables in 1995, and the fiftieth birthday party of Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Royal Albert Hall in 1998. At Webber's 50th birthday party he sang the song "Gethsemane", which is sung by Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, though he is not well-known for that role. A lyric baritone, Ball also sang the role of Valjean at a special concert performance of Les Misérables for the Queen and her guests at Windsor Castle.
In 2004, he co-starred with Petula Clark in a production of Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard at the Cork Opera House in the Republic of Ireland, which was later broadcast by the BBC. Ball sang three tracks from his album, Since You've Been Gone: "Home" and "One Voice", as well as two duets with Clark.
In November 2005, Ball returned to Broadway as Count Fosco in The Woman in White, which transferred from London's West End. He was, however, forced to leave the show because of a viral infection supposedly caused by the fat suit required for the role; this reportedly raised Ball's body temperature by several degrees during the show. (The suit is also thought to have been the cause of Michael Crawford's premature departure from the show in London.) The show closed early, in part as a result of the health problems of Ball and leading lady Maria Friedman.
In September 2005, Ball made his New York City Opera debut as Reginald Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. He spent the first quarter of 2006 on complete vocal rest, following the illness that caused him to leave The Woman in White on Broadway. By the middle of July, Ball had taken part in the Royals Court's celebratory performance of The Rocky Horror Show. He took a leading role in Kismet in June and July 2007 for the ENO, and appeared on Channel 4's Richard & Judy on 22 June 2007 to promote this production. He then appeared as the solo artist in a controversial 'Musical Theatre' Prom on 27 August 2007 for the BBC at London's Royal Albert Hall. Ball performed a wide range of musical theatre numbers, including several by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show was broadcast live on BBC Four, as well as on BBC Radio 3.
From October 2007 – July 2009, Ball made his West End return starring as Edna Turnblad in the hit musical Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. In March 2008, he was awarded the 2007 Best Actor in a Musical Olivier Award for his portrayal.
Ball is a concert artist: he tours frequently around the United Kingdom and has also performed concerts in Australia and the United States. He has also had success in the charts with his recording work. Since reaching Number 2 in the UK Singles Chart with "Love Changes Everything" from Aspects of Love, Ball had lesser success with follow up singles, but in the main has concentrated on releasing albums, all of which achieved gold status within weeks, and in the case of The Movies album in 1998, platinum in seven weeks (released 26 October, confirmed platinum status on 12 December).
Ball represented the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest 1992 held in Malmö, Sweden, singing the song "One Step Out of Time", which finished second. The single reached number 20 in the UK, while an eponymous album released in the same year reached number 1. This began a run of top 20 albums released over the next two decades.
In July 2006, Ball was a guest artist on Julian Lloyd Webber's album Unexpected Songs and in November of that year released a DVD containing all the best songs from his Live in Concert DVDs. This is split into five sections: Musicals, Love Songs, Personal Favourites, Party Time, and Unplugged. The DVD also included a brand new "Unplugged" session which Ball recorded especially with four other musicians in the studio. It was released on 20 November 2006. Ball took part in many promotional activities at the end of the 2006 to coincide with the release of his album One Voice. This involved singing the song "Home" on ITV's GMTV, This Morning, and the BBC One programme The Heaven and Earth Show hosted by Gloria Hunniford.
A new compilation album entitled Michael Ball: The Silver Collection was released in July 2007, along with the DVD version of his 1995 film England My England. Towards the end of 2007, Ball recorded his 15th solo album for release on 15 October of that year. The album features songs all written by Burt Bacharach and is entitled Back to Bacharach. It was released along with a performance DVD of his 2007 tour, One Voice Live, filmed at London's Hammersmith Apollo. Promotional activities took place throughout October and November 2007 for these releases including appearances on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and Loose Women.