John Barrowman has come a long way since presenting Saturday kids show Live and Kicking back in the 90s, working alongside TV great Andi Peters. These days he is one of the most travelled musical actors currently working. Matthew Amer tracked down the all-singing, all-dancing golden boy of musical theatre in a break from rehearsing his new show at the National Olivier, Anything Goes …
A cold winters day; an eerie mist descends on the South Bank, the wind bites at exposed faces chilling Londoner’s very souls. Outside the National Theatre it is bleak mid-winter and frosty winds are certainly making moans. Inside, the room is suddenly warmed by a presence. As a voice speaks, the deep American-via-Glaswegian accent breathes a new life into me. The cold exterior is melted away. This is the Barrowman effect. It is an effect that has been drawing audiences to the theatre and thrilling them since 1989 when a young lad, in London to study Shakespeare, attended an open audition of Anything Goes and began his remarkable career. “Elaine Paige said to me on the first night ‘Well kid, you’re either gonna fall flat on your face or you’re gonna swim. Sink or swim.’ I said ‘Well, I think I’m gonna swim Elaine. I’m gonna try and dog paddle my way through this.’” If he was dog paddling back in 1989, he is now a swimmer of Olympic proportions. His list of credits includes Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard, Company, Evita, Hair and Phantom of the Opera to name just a few.
Charades was the pastime of choice at the Anything Goes rehearsals
13 years on and Barrowman is back in London and back in Anything Goes. “My sister got on the phone to me and asked ‘are you playing the old man now?’ I’m still playing the same part [Billy Crocker] but there are things that I do now that have a little bit of a different edge to them because I’m older and I’m a little more experienced.” The show itself has also evolved since 1989. In this new incarnation the book has been updated by John Weidman and Timothy Crouse to make the musical flow faster. “The dance numbers are longer, but the dialogue he’s [Weidman] shortened up and tightened. He’s also added stuff in the dialogue to make more sense of why we’re saying certain things. He’s added more dialogue in order for the audience to understand, but refined it so they don’t get confused.”
Barrowman’s musical CV is an impressive document to behold. Since his stage debut he has appeared in almost every major musical of the last 30 years. Steadfastly refusing to choose favourites, “each of them has their own special thing for me”, there will always be some jobs more memorable than others: “I love Action Men and GI Joe, I played with them as kids. So I really loved doing Miss Saigon because I got to go on stage and pretend I was one every night. Difference is that my Action Men used to get Barbie pregnant and this guy was getting Lea Salonga [Kim] pregnant.”
Everything has come full circle. I’m back in Anything Goes and getting my chance to do Shakespeare.
The Barrowman effect does not stop at entrancing audiences. Composers, producers and directors alike are all prone to falling under the intoxicating spell. When Barrowman performed in Company (which led to his working relationship with Stephen Sondheim) Sondheim honoured Barrowman by saying that “I’ve known this musical for 30 years John. You’ve finally shown me what it’s really about”.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Barrowman will soon be trying something new, something that he has been waiting 13 years to attempt. “I initially came to London in 1989 to study Shakespeare and I never got a chance to because I went to an open call audition for Anything Goes. Everything has come full circle. I’m back in Anything Goes and getting my chance to do Shakespeare. What better chance to do Shakespeare than under the direction of Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre.” The Shakespeare in question is Love’s Labour’s Lost, Nunn’s farewell production at the National that will also star Joseph Fiennes. Barrowman will play Dumaine: “it’s the smaller of the four male parts, which is perfect for me because it gives me a chance to experience it and also watch others who are probably more qualified and have more training in Shakespeare than I do. So I’m going to learn an awful lot in this too.” Nunn shares Barrowman’s enthusiasm: “he said ‘You’re just going to be lovely in this. It’s going to open their eyes to a whole new aspect of you.’”
"American audiences, you could fart on stage and they’ll give you a standing ovation"
With homes in America and the UK and successful seasons in both the West End and on Broadway, surely there could be no-one better equipped to compare life in the two theatrelands. “Audiences are different in England. American audiences, you could fart on stage and they’ll give you a standing ovation because they’re so excited that you’ve just farted. In England you have to maybe do two farts instead of one. English audiences are appreciative of what you do on stage but they’re a little bit harder to get on their feet, which I think is great because then when they do get on their feet you know that they really, really mean it.”
At this festive time of year, what would the man who has starred in everything want for Christmas? “I really would love to do Les Misérables. I would love to play Marius. I know in Broadway they’re going to be closing Les Mis, so my thinking is I’d love to go on and do a star turn on Broadway and do Marius for about two or six months so I get a chance to do it. I know the way Cameron’s mind works. He puts people who are well known names into the roles in the last six months because it brings an audience in. It keeps the houses full and I know that’s what he’s going to start doing. I’m sure of it.” How long will it be before Barrowman is back on Broadway starring in Les Mis? We can’t tell, but his pedigree will certainly help him. “In America, if you’ve got the National Theatre, Trevor Nunn directing you in Shakespeare, you’re Olivier to them!”
Anything Goes opens at the National Olivier on December 18 with Love’s Labour’s Lost joining in repertoire on February 15. To find out more about John Barrowman visit www.johnbarrowman.com or www.barrowmanonline.com