Michael Ball and Alfie Boe
On a warm, cloudy October evening in Brisbane, a severely jetlagged Michael Ball is making a determined effort to appear bright of eye and bushy of tail.
‘It’s extraordinary, just extraordinary,’ says the singer, reflecting on the phenomenal success of Together – his collection of duets with Alfie Boe that outperformed the likes of Justin Bieber, David Bowie and Beyoncé to become the UK’s biggest-selling album of 2016. ‘I was shocked. But not as shocked as my accountant was.
‘I’m old enough and ugly enough to know how lucky I am to be doing it, to have an album back at the top of the charts, to be selling out arenas,’ he adds. ‘It’s incredible, it really is. It’s life-affirming to me.’
Beside him, Alfie Boe is less effusive – and possibly even more jetlagged – but no less surprised. ‘We were on tour last year, and kept getting updates every day on how well the album was doing,’ he recalls. ‘It was amazing.’
The pair met 11 years ago in a famously disastrous English National Opera production of Kismet. ‘They were trying to break into musicals, and they chose the worst one to try and do it with,’ chuckles Ball. ‘The show was doomed. And consequently it was really funny to be part of, watching this disaster unfurling around us. That’s when we teamed up. We thought, “the only way of getting through this is by laughing at it”.’
Despite their obvious mutual affection, they’re very different people. Ball, the 55-year-old double Olivier Award-winning musical theatre veteran who made his name in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love, is as perky and garrulous as you’d expect from someone with his own Radio 2 show, not to mention TV presenting stints on the likes of This Morning and Lorraine. Boe, the working class, heavy metal-loving Lancashire lad who went from apprentice car mechanic to Britain’s biggest-selling tenor, via a career-making turn in Les Misérables, is the less jazz-hands-showbiz of the pair. Ask the 44-year-old what he likes and dislikes most about Ball, and he says:
‘I can sum up those two things in one: Michael is always bubbly. He’s always happy. And sometimes I’m not.’
‘I’m not saying anything,’ deadpans Ball.
‘It’s wonderful to see,’ says Boe. ‘On the right day. But when you’re feeling tired and knackered, it can be annoying.
‘But no, everything’s good about Michael. I just enjoy being on stage with the guy.’
So Michael, does that mean Alfie is prone to being a bit… morose?
‘Morose isn’t the word, is it?’ This question is addressed to Boe. ‘Do you know what? I always feel it’s sort of my job. You don’t feel “on” all the time, no-one does. But if I’m doing something like this interview, I feel it is my job to engender some enthusiasm and lightness.’
‘Whereas I can’t be bothered,’ says Boe.
Well thanks. None taken.
One thing they both share a passion for is the music of stage and screen, as showcased on their new album – called, naturally, Together Again. Featuring songs from such Broadway and West End favourites as West Side Story, Sunset Boulevard, South Pacific and current theatrical sensation Hamilton, along with standards like New York, New York, The Rose and White Christmas, it’s another assured blend of music, moonlight, love and bromance.
‘On the last album there was an element of discovery,’ explains Ball, who has lived with the former TV presenter Cathy McGowan for 25 years. ‘We were figuring each other out. This time we went into the studio knowing how we both work, and that shows in the finished album. It’s so much stronger.’
The record also features the pair’s take on Bring Me Sunshine – immortalised as the signature song of Morecambe and Wise. Which feels appropriate, as Ball and Boe have developed a fine comic rapport – a shtick they demonstrated in last year’s Christmas TV special (a follow-up, featuring guests Imelda May and Jason Manford, is on ITV this week). So do they have designs on being the next Ant and Dec, or perhaps even the new Cannon and Ball (no relation)?
‘We’re the new Krankies,’ says Ball.
‘The comedy thing wasn’t intentional,’ insists Boe, who these days lives in Utah with his American wife Sarah and children Grace and Alfred. ‘Our show, we take it very seriously – it’s about the music. We do have a laugh at times, but we’re not a comedy act.’ In fact, he adds, they’re not really ‘an act’ at all. ‘The majority of our careers is as solo artists. Ball and Boe isn’t for the rest of our lives.’
‘This project will take us up to February, then we’ll both go off and do our own thing,’ says Ball. ‘And then we’ll probably never speak again.’
Don’t worry, he’s just messing with us. ‘Hopefully our paths will come together again,’ Boe assures Weekend. ‘Because doing this is just a joy.’
How rock and roll is life on the road with Ball and Boe?
‘I’m not feeling very rock and roll,’ admits Ball. ‘Not with a load of jetlag. I feel old. Neither of us drinking, either. We’re being grown-ups.’
‘I’ve used every towel in my bathroom,’ confesses Boe. ‘That’s about as rock and roll as it gets.’
‘Seriously, have you?’ asks Ball, appalled. ‘I’ve just used the face towel.’
‘I spilled a glass of water, too,’ says Boe. ‘But I mopped it up. With a towel.’
So come on guys, cards on the table: who’s the real talent in this partnership? Who’s carrying who?
‘Alfie is the talent,’ says Ball. ‘I’m just clinging on by my fingernails.’
But you get your name first, Michael. Does that wind Alfie up?
‘I don’t actually think he’d noticed until you mentioned it.’
‘I’m used to having my name second,’ shrugs Boe. ‘And getting the second dressing room. The final bow’s always Michael’s.’
‘Never. It was alphabetical,’ protests Ball. ‘And age. I’m a lot older.’
Joking aside, it’s clear they’re both loving experiencing such dizzying heights of success with a mate by their side.
‘For the first album, we went in just to have a bit of fun and enjoy ourselves,’ says Boe. ‘We didn’t expect the success. And to be able to share that with Michael is a joy.’
‘For me, it’s the first time I’ve known that the person next to me is really understanding how I feel,’ says Ball. ‘When you’re used to doing it on your own, you haven’t got someone you can utterly share the experience with. And sharing something is the best feeling.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, October 26, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend