There aren’t many singers who’ve had more sustained solo success in recent years than Michael Ball and Alfie Boe. Michael is arguably the country’s biggest West End singing star, with almost 30 hit albums to his name and a popular Radio 2 show. Alfie bestrides the popular opera market like a gym-honed, square-jawed colossus, as though ‘Pavarotti’s voice found its way into Tom Hiddleston’s body’, as someone astutely observed.
However, neither of them was prepared for the explosion of popularity they’re enjoying as a double act. Their just-released new album, Together Again, was one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of the year. And the duo, recently returned from a sold-out tour of Australia, set off on a series of huge UK arena gigs at the end of this month, starting in Cardiff and ending with four nights at London’s 02. Together Again is already a firm favourite to top the album chart over Christmas after the previous album, Together, grabbed the 2016 seasonal number one, shifting more than 600,000 copies.
‘The past 12 months have been incredible,’ says Michael, 55. ‘This tour is almost sold out and there’s a great vibe about the new album. That moment last year when Together was announced as festive number one was very, very special. I’d opened my presents and got stuck into the cooking, when I suddenly thought, “Bloody hell. We did it”.’
Was there a Christmas-themed photoshoot to go with the chart-topping accolade? Ball and Boe in cuddly elf outfits? Michael belts out a 100dB hoot of laughter. ‘If there was, it would be only for my wife and very close friends.’
While Michael lives in London with his partner Cath [the former Ready Steady Go presenter, Cathy McGowan], Blackpool-born Boe and his family have moved to the States. ‘Our homes are nowhere near each other, but we sort of lived together for a lot of this year,’ says Michael. ‘The live shows, travelling, recording the album, interviews. Life’s better when you’ve got your mate with you.’
Alfie, 44, who has also had several hit solo albums and famously played Jean Valjean in an internationally acclaimed 25th-anniversary production of Les Misérables, admits that ‘Bally’ is the duo’s frontman, both on stage and in interviews. It’s not that Alfie doesn’t like bantering with the audience or answering questions… he just never gets the chance.
‘He can talk for England,’ reckons Alfie.
‘I don’t mind that at all. He’s a brilliant communicator and naturally funny. Sometimes, when I’m on stage, watching him “chat” to 30,000 people, it’s like seeing somebody do stand-up.
‘We’re different people, different characters and we come from very different backgrounds, but I think that’s what makes the partnership work. If you’ve got two artists who are the same, you don’t get that crackle of energy on stage.’
‘He’s working class and northern; I’m a southern posh boy,’ adds Michael with another ear-splitting guffaw. ‘Ironically, he’s the one who’s classically trained. Alfie’s got one of those magnificent, lyrical voices [Boe is a tenor; Ball a baritone] that comes with immense control and power. Listen to that note he sang at the end of Bring Him Home in Les Misérables. There’s absolutely no chance of me doing that.’
Michael and Alfie became mates while in the London production of Kismet ten years ago. The recent joint triumphs have only strengthened their brotherly bond.
‘The friendship we’ve built up over the past decade or so has actually made this year easier to relish,’ says Michael. ‘Yes, you’ve got family and friends and the record company jumping up and down for you, but they don’t quite know what it’s like to be in the middle of it all. Alfie’s there with me… sharing that incredible moment when you get a standing ovation and you feel so happy you’re going to explode.
‘I’ve had those moments as a solo performer, but I remember hearing The Beatles talk about that “gang” thing; being with your mates on this incredible journey. It’s a bit like that, but me and Alfie only have to split things two ways!’
Cue more Ball laughter.
‘When you’re sharing a stage with someone,’ Alfie continues the theme, ‘you immediately up your game because you don’t want to let that other person down.
‘As Michael says, the flip side is you get to share the good bits, too. Like when we played at Hampton Court or Greenwich in the summer. Outdoor music, man.
A beautiful summer’s night… just magical!’
‘We won’t forget Greenwich in a hurry,’ smiles Michael. ‘It was about 33 or 34 degrees; the audience was so chilled. Then you get that gorgeous, purple twilight and the anticipation of the gig. Because it was so humid, it was brilliant for the voice, too. All the pieces fell into place.
‘There’s been a lot of talk about music moving to these fabulous outdoor venues recently, but it’s been happening for years. Glyndebourne, Glastonbury… Led Zeppelin at Knebworth. Listening to music outdoors adds a real sense of spirituality; a hint of what used to happen hundreds of years ago. Gathering underneath the stars to listen to some great tunes.’
Although the outdoor gigs often mean much bigger crowds, Michael insists that they feel more intimate than a West End theatre show. ‘In a theatre, you’ve got all the spotlights trained directly at the stage and you cannot see a bloody thing! Outside, it’s not so intense and you’ve got lights on the crowd, too. You can literally see the whites of their eyes. You see people coming and going… waving at you. You can even see the queue for the toilets.’
‘Touring with Alfie made me realise just how unfit I was. He’s as fit as a butcher’s dog’
Are the bigger outdoor and arena shows more nerve-racking?
‘Nerves?’ asks Michael. ‘Ha ha! Oh, yes! There are times when you walk out on stage and you suddenly get a real sense of how many people have come to see
you. That’s when you realise the colour of adrenaline is brown!’
After the UK tour, there are Japanese shows planned for early next year. They obviously enjoy touring, but as two happily married grown-ups, they’ve presumably toned down the after-show shenanigans?
‘Do we go from the gig to the hotel room and jump into bed with a mug of Horlicks?’ Michael can’t resist another joke. ‘Well, Alfie does. He gets straight into his onesie. Me, I’m up all night. Throwing TVs out the window, smashing up the hotel room.’
He finally gets serious. ‘C’mon, we’re not some teenage rock band. Think about the music we play… think about what we do. Go crazy for the night and the next day’s gig is ruined because your voice is knackered. What’s the point?
‘I haven’t touched alcohol for more than six months now. Mainly because touring with Alfie made me realise just how unfit I was. He’s as fit as a butcher’s dog. Every time he took his shirt off, I would look down at my, er, six-pack and get really p****d off.’
Michael and Cath have been together for more than 25 years. Not only has she got used to him being away on tour, but he also secretly wonders if she’s glad to see the back of him. ‘She stands there happily waving me off, telling me not to hurry back,’ he says with mock horror.
‘I do find being away from home difficult,’ says Alfie, who has two young children and a wife, Sarah. ‘As far as your family life is concerned, you have to make sacrifices.
I don’t see my wife and kids as much as I’d like to. If I think about it too much when I’m touring, I find it hard to concentrate…
I can’t quite get my brain into gear. ‘Once I am back at home, that is my time with them and I try to make it extra special. I like to focus 100% on being with my family.’
Before we move on from the subject of live shows, Michael wants to get one gripe off his chest. ‘Those sneaky bloody add-ons to a ticket price,’ he groans. ‘You look at a concert and think, “OK, it costs XX-pounds”. Then you suddenly find there’s a booking fee, a such-and-such fee. Let’s be honest with the pricing.’
So, has the cost of classical music and West End tickets made them purely middle-class entertainments?
‘I’m pretty sure that our audience is right across the board,’ argues Michael. ‘And I think you’ll find that in a lot of theatres, too. Wicked is almost exclusively teenage girls! Did you know that there are more theatre tickets sold every year than there are Premier League tickets? Personally, I think musical theatre is more popular with more people than it’s ever been.’
Their new album sticks to its predecessor’s winning formula, packed with classics such as New York New York, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Bring Me Sunshine. Yes, that Bring Me Sunshine from The Morecambe & Wise Show!
In this high-tech, app-driven era, it’s tempting to suggest that musicals seem a tad old-fashioned and naïve, but Alfie is having none of it.
‘Look, if someone doesn’t like musicals, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. But there’s no denying that you’ve got a lot of wonderful stories and brilliant songs out there. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim? C’mon, man… that’s quality.’
‘I’d say the reason people still enjoy musicals and the reason they’re still putting bums on seats is precisely because they act as a counterpoint to this high-tech world,’ adds Michael. ‘All this technology means that we’re living increasingly isolated lives. We don’t commune with each other like we used to. Musicals are a reminder of an age when we would go out together… we would sing songs and have a good time. And that will never go out of fashion. Never!’
6 things you might not know about Ball & Boe
Reputedly, he has never had a singing lesson. After school, he trained as an
actor – singing was a hobby.
His debut TV appearance was as Malcolm Nuttall, a tennis coach, in Coronation Street in 1985.
He grew up in the unfortunately named village of Crapstone.
Appeared as music-hall singer Richard Chapman in the second series of ITV
drama Mr Selfridge.
He’s the youngest of nine children.
Pre-fame, he worked as a dressing-room security guard, assisting the likes of Tom Jones and The Pet Shop Boys.
Together Again is out now. The UK tour runs from 30 Nov to 14 Dec
Grooming by Nadira V Persaud using Stoer Skincare for Men stoerskincare.com. Assisted by Hannah Paul