MICHAEL Ball laughs as he admits that his West End debut as Marius in Les Miserables seems like a lifetime ago.
In many ways it is; he did originate the dashing male lead in the smash hit musical back in 1985 after all.
Today, 30 years later, he is arguably the biggest name in British musical theatre with his pick of projects, which is how he comes to be starring in Mack And Mabel, at the Playhouse next month.
Their story has long fascinated the 53-year-old, who says that despite the musical’s chequered history, he had little hesitation when asked by Chichester Festival Theatre which show he would like to collaborate on next.
“Having always known about this show, I had never understood why, with the score that it has and the book that I read, it hadn’t worked in the past,” he says candidly.
“So I got into its whole tortured journey; how it has been rewritten many times being given happy endings and changed here and there.
“Then I went right back to the original 1974 production.”
With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, best known for La Cage Aux Folles, and a book by Michael Stewart, whose other works include Barnum and 42nd Street, initial reaction to that production, however, was mixed. Nevertheless, it won eight Tony Award nominations on its Broadway debut.
Based on the real-life romance between Hollywood producer Mack Sennett and his starlet Mabel Normand, the musical tells the story of a group of pioneering filmmakers who changed the world.
Movies really were movies when Sennett’s silent flickering images dominated silver screens the world over.
Heroes in capes, girls tied to the tracks, glamorous bathing beauties and the chaos of the Keystone Kops filled cinemas everywhere. With his comedic Midas touch, Sennett could do little wrong.
If Sennett was the King of Slapstick, only one actress could truly be considered his queen, and that was silent movie legend Normand.
Together, they were unstoppable; sadly, the path of love is seldom smooth and Mack And Mabel, while funny and uplifting, is a tragic tale.
“When it opened on Broadway, people going to a Jerry Herman production couldn’t handle a sad show. Now, I think we can,” says Ball.
“I felt the time was right and that what the show needed was to be given a big, proper, production with inventive choreography and design using the technology we have now and... I love it.
“Finding a great musical theatre role is hard. It’s as simple as that.”
Stories don’t come stronger than that of Mack and Mabel, and Ball is in no doubt that their love story is one that enthrals audiences.
“His and Mabel’s is an extraordinary story at a time that fascinates everybody; the creation of the most important art form of the 20th century, cinema.
“He was right there with all of the pitfalls that involved. And you can’t do that unless you are driven and wholly involved in the process at the expense of everything else.
“That is Sennett’s strength and his tragedy; that he sacrifices everything because he loves this art form.
“It’s made all the more poignant because at the end, he knows his life could have been so different.”
With an exceptionally strong book, Mack And Mabel could easily be described as a play with music, and in Broadway newcomer Rebecca LaChance, Ball has found a star of the future to play the leading lady.
“We had been auditioning in the UK and felt we had to look further afield to find the right person,” recalls Ball. “So it went to a casting director who looked at a lot of people in New York. They then sent us about eight filmed auditions. When I saw Rebecca’s I knew that something would have to go really wrong when we met for it not to be her.”
Ball adds, “She is a lovely actress. It’s a huge journey for her and she will break your heart. She has a brilliant future ahead of her.”
So has be found a musical theatre star of the future?
“I’m taking all credit for everything,” he laughs, “although she is a star already.”
Ball can’t hide his delight at the reception the piece has received, “I am really proud of the way this whole company has given it their best work,” he says.
“All you can ever hope to do is give the audience a brilliant night in the theatre and I truly think we do that.”
Mack And Mabel, The Playhouse, Greenside Place, 10-21 November, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm) , £17-£72.50, 0844 871 3014