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60 seconds with Michael Ball

The musical star, 55, on the politics of Chess, magic with Alfie Boe — and why starring in the worst musical ever turned into a mighty laugh

Tell us about Chess, which you’re starring in…

It’s a musical by Benny and Björn from Abba and Tim Rice. It’s set in the 1980s during the Cold War and it’s about a Russian and an American falling in love. Alexandra Burke plays my Russian wife, who I leave to defect to the US.

Is Chess considered an ‘unlucky’ show? It isn’t performed much…

It’s considered troubled. It had a difficult time getting on to the stage here and on Broadway, and it’s been reworked several times. The music is fantastic — but it will always split audiences. This time it’s being done with a full orchestra and it’s going to sound incredible.

Why does Chess divide audiences so much?

The story. Can people get into it and find the idea of chess sexy? And it will be interesting to see if the current situation between the West and Russia will inform the audience. I hope it will tickle people’s interest — it’s a useful reminder of how things used to be. It’s a historical document, as it’s set during the Cold War, but it has a relevance to the world of today.

Favourite things: The Sound Of Music

What’s your favourite musical?

Hairspray — it’s a brilliantly constructed, joyous, moving and entertaining show. The one that made a big impact on me was Jesus Christ Superstar, which I went to see when I was 12. I was overwhelmed — it was music of the time, a story that was told in a believable way and made human. It had a profound effect on me. Like all kids of my generation I loved musical films such as The Sound Of Music and Bedknobs And Broomsticks. I was never worried about people breaking into song, it was an art form I understood.

If people don’t like musicals where should they start?

Les Mis — it’s full of songs people know, it’s full of characters people can relate to, it’s an epic, it looks and sounds glorious, it makes sense and it isn’t trite. And it’s sung like opera. People don’t suddenly burst into song, which people who don’t like musicals complain about. Personally, I’ve never understood that, as people bursting into song is what happens in musicals.

What’s the worst musical you’ve ever seen?

I was in one of them — Kismet at the ENO. It was a shocker. It’s set in Baghdad and we were bombing Baghdad at the time. Rather than ignore that, it started with the sound of machine gunfire, Alfie Boe dressed as a soldier shouting, ‘It’s hell here!’ and the narrator saying, ‘The history of Baghdad is one of turmoil…’ We were told the man who wrote it had passed away and there’d be a new writer modernising it but he hadn’t died. He was 92 and came over from LA and said, ‘You aren’t changing a thing about my show.’ The director sacked the choreographer three days before we opened so we had no dances. It was a car crash.

Was it a bit dated?

You have no idea. I had the time of my life. In those situations you can either throw a wobbly and flounce out or try to have fun. We’d wink to the audience and let them know we knew it was awful but it made the ENO a lot of money.

Why has your partnership with Alfie Boe proved so popular?

When we started doing it there were a lot of elections and referendums and a lot of disharmony — but this was just two friends getting together and doing music we loved, and it resonated with people. It was a nice thing to be part of and we’ll certainly work together again.

A great partnership: Singer Alfie Boe

You came second in Eurovision in 1992 . Can we place as highly again and should we just leave?

I think it’s unlikely unless they change the structure but we shouldn’t leave — it’s a great night’s entertainment. We need big events to bring everyone together — we’re living increasingly isolated lives. But if we’re doing it, we need to go for it and find great artists with great songs.

Any career regrets?

I wish I’d done Sunset Boulevard in the West End but I turned it down. I’d done all the workshops for it but they cast an American. I was miffed. A year later they closed the show for two weeks, made changes and asked if I’d do it but I said no. That was because I was busy but also my nose was out of joint. I should have done it.

What lessons has your career in showbiz taught you?

The harder you work, the luckier you become. And that musicals are all about the show and not about the individual.

Chess previews from April 26 at the London Coliseum, chessthemusical.com