Who best to star in a new London production of the world’s longest-running musical, The Fantasticks? Why, original Les Misérables cast member David Burt of course. Caroline Bishop talks to the musical veteran about the long and short of his career.
“I would encourage any actor to have children,” says David Burt. It is an unusual piece of advice for his fellow professionals. “You never know until you have children just what effect they have on your life,” he explains. “In many ways it’s good for an actor because actors are always so self-obsessed, and I was when I was young, struggling to get on. Suddenly your family comes along and it forces you to think of other things besides theatre and work.”
We are sitting in a café in Southwark close to the building where Burt is rehearsing the new production of musical The Fantasticks, to which the conversation about having children is entirely relevant.
Burt plays a father who is secretly trying to get his daughter to fall in love with the son of his friend, who lives next door. In order to do so, the pair of devious patriarchs pretend to feud, banning their children from seeing each other whilst hoping this will push them to do the opposite.
Obviously the experience of being a parent – Burt has a 15-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son – comes in handy when enacting this reverse psychology. There are occasions within the show, he says, that “I don’t have to act it, it’s just there, the emotion, it pings my heart and I have to control myself a little bit.”
“Where do these children get their confidence from? I don’t remember being like that”
Based on Edmond Rostand’s The Romancers, Harvey Schmidt’s allegorical musical is a “wonderful box of tricks”, says Burt, incorporating comedy, magic and Shakespearean themes into a story of “loss and atonement and learning to love better through maturity”.
The actor seemed destined for The Fantasticks; he remembers his actress mother, West End star and Crackerjack presenter Pip Hinton, singing one of its songs to him as a child. Burt later chose that song, Soon It’s Going To Rain, as his audition piece. So the musical “was at the back of my mind and I was intrigued by the possibility of one day doing it”.
The show obviously resonates with Burt in more ways than one, but will it strike a chord with British audiences? The New York production ran off-Broadway for 42 years between 1960 and 2002, but the original London production managed just a month at the Apollo theatre in 1961. It was last seen in London in 1990 at the Open Air theatre in Regent’s Park.
Burt puts its American success down to the fact that the whimsical story taps into themes of freedom, love and hope that rumbled in post-McCarthy, early 60s America. Perhaps those themes weren’t so prevalent this side of the Atlantic. Or perhaps the inclusion of a song entitled the Rape Ballet – now less controversially named the Abduction Ballet – didn’t go down too well over here.
Nevertheless, the universality of the story should resonate with audiences regardless of nationality, feels Burt. “It’s a story about individuals who make the wrong decisions and literally go through hoops of fire and their various dark nights of the soul and come out the other end having been burnt, but having learnt about themselves,” he says. “Whatever audience we play to we know everybody will have been through a sense of loss: somebody dying, or having lost a son or daughter – they’ve gone off and never come back – or lost lovers through being foolish, or made the wrong decisions like I do frequently as a father.”
The universality of the story has something in common with another musical that has broken records – this time in the UK – Les Misérables. Burt played Enjolras in the original cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Barbican. Despite “vitriolic” reviews and the feeling among the cast that “the knives were out”, Les Misérables caught the mood of the public and is now, in its 25th anniversary year, London’s longest-running musical. “It’s universal themes again,” he says. “There’s struggle everywhere in the world and people respond to it, trying to get a better life, and that’s what Les Misérables is all about. This [The Fantasticks] is all about trying to learn to love well, and both are hard journeys to follow.”
“I was sent away to boarding school and that was my particular dark night of the soul”
For all Burt’s natural bonhomie – he chats so easily that I find it hard to get a question in – talking about the themes of the show sparks a certain sad wistfulness. “It’s very childlike in its way, and every time I watch rehearsals I think this is very much what it must be like to go back to one’s childhood, when things were very simple and straightforward.
“They were halcyon days, no question,” he says on the subject of his own childhood. His father was a twin and the two brothers lived with both families in one big house in Surrey. All of them were actors and musicians; the twins were professional piano players who worked the variety circuit. The set-up “was bliss for me”, says Burt, until divorce and family acrimony burst the bubble. “I was sent away to boarding school and that was my particular dark night of the soul, and that’s where I went through the rings of fire. I came out the other end and I thought I often wish I could go back to that state [before boarding school]. Maybe it’s naïve. It would be lovely to go back.”
There is a similar wistfulness about his career: “All these musicals I’ve done, I often look back and think… perhaps I’d have taken a different route. But it’s been fine, it’s been absolutely fine.”
I am surprised to hear this tinge of regret from a man whose CV reads like an A-Z of famous musicals; Chess, Miss Saigon, Evita, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Woman In White, Taboo and, of course, Les Misérables, are just some of the major West End shows he has starred in. But being a classically trained actor – he studied at RADA and spent two seasons at the RSC – a career dominated by large-scale musicals was not his intention. He is enjoying The Fantasticks, he says, precisely because it is a chamber piece performed in a small theatre, the antithesis of what he calls ‘pageant’ musicals. “I left college and this huge wave of new style of musical came in and they took me up and I did seven in a row in the West End, big shows. It set me up with a home and all the rest of it, but recently, I would say over the past 10 years or so, I have made concerted efforts to steer myself away from the pageant musicals. I had a very formal training as an actor, it was very classical, and that’s what I’ve tried to harp back to a little bit.”
In 1999/2000 he managed to combine his musical and dramatic experience by joining Trevor Nunn’s ensemble at the National Theatre for a repertory season. In a company that included his Fantasticks co-star Clive Rowe, Burt performed in productions including Troilus And Cressida, Candide, The Merchant Of Venice and The Villain’s Opera. “When you get to the stage where you are in rep and you’re doing five shows and it’s a different thing every night, it’s very exciting to go on and think hang on, is it a Shakespeare or a musical tonight?”
Now that repertory is a rare occurrence, Burt’s plan these days is to “do a musical every two years in the West End and that bankrolls me doing fringe, which is where all the wonderful new writing is.”
“All these musicals I’ve done, I often look back and think… perhaps I’d have taken a different route”
It sounds like a pretty good position to be in to me. He has the experience and contacts to be called upon by directors like Nunn – as he was to play Count Fosco in The Woman In White in 2006 – which gives him the freedom to experiment with fringe productions as diverse as Days Of Hope at the King’s Head in 2007 and the recent Porn The Musical at Theatre503.
“I’m very lucky,” he agrees. “A lot of young people talk to me and they say ‘I feel like I’m being pigeonholed into musicals, I’m not even being considered for dramatic roles’, and I think it happens more now than it did in my day. But I think there comes a point where you have to be brave, put your foot on the brakes and say ‘no I’m not going to do that next huge musical with all the money’. Be brave and take another route.”
Though he is playing the father of 22-year-old actress Lorna Want in The Fantasticks, he has found any paternal advice to be unnecessary. “Lorna has done two or three big jobs and she has enormous confidence. She’s on her way, she knows exactly what she’s doing,” he says, adding later: “Where do these children get their confidence from? I don’t remember being like that.”
He could have the chance to revisit his own early career if he joins the 25th birthday celebrations for Les Misérables this year, though as yet he doesn’t know if he will be asked to take part. “My voice has changed and I would find it scary to sing Enjolras,” he says. “So maybe if they invite me to sort of sit at the back and throw peanuts I’ll do it and say hello to old friends and have a blast with everybody. I’m not going to perform in that show again, that would be embarrassing. Les Mis is quasi opera isn’t it? I can’t sing that stuff any more. I’m too old!” His loud laughter rocks the air in the café as he reaches this self-deprecating conclusion. “There are easier ways to make money each day, surely? Fringe and chamber theatre, I adore it.” For all his wistfulness, with The Fantasticks Burt is exactly where he wants to be.