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Michael Ball on overcoming the crippling stage fright which threatened his career

The musical theatre star, TV and radio presenter brings his own theatre experience into his debut novel. By Hannah Stephenson.

Musical theatre star Michael Ball is recalling when he took to the stage in Les Miserables in the West End – and literally froze.

He had been performing the role of Marius Pontmercy for months, when crippling stage fright caused him to walk out of the production.

“The first couple of times, it came from nowhere. You’re doing what you know, you’ve rehearsed, you’re well into the run, full of confidence, and then something happens in your head. It’s almost like another voice going, ‘You don’t know the next line, you don’t know what’s going on’,” he explains.

“You have a physical reaction. Your heart starts pounding, you start getting tunnel vision, sweating, you can’t breathe. Your mind goes into a panic and it’s fight or flight. Then you have to deliver the next line and the next line and the words to a song, and all your body is saying is: ‘Get out of here’. It’s overwhelming and so public.”

Today, the award-winning singer and broadcaster – famed for roles in Hairspray, Sweeney Todd and The Phantom Of The Opera, as well as hit solo albums and collaborations with singing and touring partner Alfie Boe, plus his Sunday morning BBC Radio 2 show – seems warm and confident, exclamations peppering his genial conversation, laughing loudly, talking relatably and entertainingly.

Yet he vividly recalls drying up on stage during that dark time. “I was singing Empty Chairs At Empty Tables, which I’ve sung a hundred times, and I couldn’t remember it. Then the panic started and I don’t know how I got to the end of the show. I just thought, I can’t face feeling like this again.”

Those stage fright feelings began to happen when he was on his way to the theatre.

“I’d get on a Tube and think, ‘I can’t do this’. I lost my confidence, my nerve and the ability to deal with it. It spiralled into a breakdown and I stayed in my flat for nine months, didn’t tell anyone and didn’t get any help. But I found a way of getting out of it myself.

“It’s only because [theatre producer] Cameron Mackintosh had faith in me and after a period of time said, ‘You need to get back on the horse, or you’ll never know’ – and I did and I managed to control the anxiety and the panics.”

Finally, his agent persuaded him to take on a job singing one song on live TV on Miss England, while the votes were being counted.

“It was awful but I got through it and it put it all into perspective. It also coincided with Cameron turning up and saying, ‘We’re recasting after the first year of The Phantom Of The Opera – you need to see if you can do this’. And I got on top of it.”

This all happened in the Eighties, but Ball has explored the subject in his debut novel, The Empire, set in the 1920s – about the on and off-stage dramas among a cast of characters, whose world revolves around the eponymous fictional theatre in the north of England. There’s the glamour and the greasepaint as well as treachery and rivalry, in an industry Ball has made his career.

To deal with his own panic attacks, Ball learned to breathe properly, to ride the wave of stage fright, to distract his mind. “It still happens now when I’m stressed or get very tired or not on top of my game.”

Despite the triggers of overworking, his schedule seems massive – there are stage projects, albums, broadcasting, more tours in the pipeline. He agrees he finds it difficult to turn down work.

“Every actor or performer, when they do their last show, says, ‘Will anyone ever employ me again?’ You’re always worried about the next gig. And I love a challenge. It doesn’t feel like work. I love the Radio 2 show. I feel like I’m connecting with mates, I’m having a chat and I’m playing nice music. I don’t find that a pressure. And I have a good home balance,” he reasons.

He lives in London with his partner of 30 years, journalist and broadcaster Cathy McGowan.

“She’s my rock,” he says earnestly. “She’s been there for all the ups and the downs. We have a wonderful family and are private about it. She’s not remotely interested in fame. She’s immensely proud of what I do and is great at giving advice, she has no ambition herself, only for me. We have a real life. I do the shopping and the cooking.

“If you’ve got people in your life who are intuitive, sensitive and understand what makes you tick, and who you are able to talk to, that’s what I need. Cath sees the warning signs in me. She’ll say, ‘Right, we’re backing off now’.”

He’s immensely proud of his family (he is stepfather to Cathy’s daughter, Emma, godfather to Emma’s son and step-grandfather to her daughter), and says he finds it easy to switch off after work, enveloping himself in family life.

He turned 60 in June, which he says “sort of sucks”.

Ball adds: “When I got my Freedom Pass, I went, what? And prescriptions are free now – and my God do we need more prescriptions! Everything hurts! But it [turning 60] emboldens you. You think, let’s have a go. If you don’t, you’ll never know.”

He has a knack of being able to make things happen – like the book. “I had plot ideas, I knew what I wanted to write and, like so much in my career, you make the right phone calls and then just knuckle down and see if anything will come of it.”

He says the pandemic enabled him to expand creatively, writing songs and an album, Together In Vegas, with Alfie Boe, whom he hopes to tour with again in 2024. He’ll be back in the West End next year (though he won’t reveal what for) and has a second novel to write to fulfil his two-book deal.

He and Boe remain firm friends outside of work. “We’re not Ant and Dec,” Ball says wryly. “We don’t live next door to each other, and we are very different in so many ways, but we just get each other.”

Unlike his singing pal, however, he wouldn’t appear on reality shows like Freeze The Fear With Wim Hof, he says with a laugh.

“I love them [reality shows] to bits and there have been approaches made, but I’m too competitive and it’s not for me. I would love to do them but I’d need to edit them. And the old stage fright might come back. Can you imagine putting me in the jungle with someone who’s an absolute a*** and you might see a different side of me?”

In any case, it doesn’t seem he’d have time for reality TV in his jam-packed schedule.

“I’ve never just sat around and waited for something to happen,” Ball observes. “I’ve been given the opportunity to diversify, to write songs, to present, to be able to motivate opportunities for myself, to be pro-active and think outside the box.”

The Empire by Michael Ball is published by Zaffre, priced £20. Available now.

Michael Ball and Alfie Boe release their new album Together In Vegas on October 28 on Decca.


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