“I have a long history with the show,” Brent Barrett told me. The extremely busy musical theatre actor, with an impressive (and international) resumé, begins previews next week playing Georges in La Cage aux Folles at Signature Theatre.
“It’s something that’s always been on my radar. I was visiting Paris when I was in college and my friend took me to see the original French film, and he was translating through the whole film. Then I was up for the son in the original Broadway production, and it came down to two of us, and the other actor (who’s no longer in the business) got the job.
“It’s been a show that I’ve always wanted to do because of the subject; because I’m a big Jerry Herman fan. I actually did the show a couple of years ago in summer stock at Sacramento [California Musical Theatre.] I played Georges. And, you know, with summer stock, you have no time — basically learn lines, learn the blocking, and go out and do it. So when this opportunity came along to work at Signature, which I’d never been able to do before but I have a lot of friends who have worked here and had wonderful experiences, I jumped at the opportunity to do it again in a more relaxed atmosphere, where we can actually rehearse the show, and so here we are.”
“And I wanted to work with Matt,” continued Barrett, referring to his director Matthew Gardiner. At Monday’s Helen Hayes Awards, winning one for Sally Bowles in Gardiner’s Cabaret at Signature, Barrett Wilbert Weed proclaimed Gardiner the most superb director she has ever worked with.
“We found out that we were both graduates of Carnegie Mellon University,” Barrett said of Gardiner, before adding, with a chuckle, “Of course, I was there many years before he was. And I’d heard about him, through my friends who have worked down here, and I’d seen the reviews for West Side Story, and we’ve spoken on the phone before this all happened, so I was excited to come down and play with him.”
I asked Barrett what will be special about this production. “Well, I think the wonderful thing about doing the show here at Signature is going to be the intimacy of it. The original production was big and lavish, because that’s what they had to do back in 1983 in order to even get the show on, with the story-line, at the time. And then the subsequent revival wasn’t as successful. The most recent revival, I would say, was more successful in respect to giving it the feel of what this club would actually have been. But what we’re focussing on, besides just the entertaining element of the show, we’re really trying to focus on the family aspect, and the family unit of Albin and Georges and Jean-Michel, and trying to create a believable relationship between the three of them and explore that more than might have been developed in the past.”
Composer/Lyricist Herman, accepting his Tony when the show premiered, proclaimed that the “hummable” score was alive and well, following a decade and a half of, in his eyes, less accessible music, compared to the era when show tunes routinely populated the Billboard charts. I asked Barrett to talk about that aspect of the show.
“I certainly think audiences at Signature will appreciate this score. In a perfect world, all musicals have their place. It was up against Sunday in the Park [with George] that year, when it won Best Musical, and I love Sunday in the Park. I think it’s apples and oranges. I think you can love Sweeney Todd and you can love La Cage at the same time. Yes, it has the feel of a kind of throwback to another time, but this musical is also set in 1973, in a transvestite club in the south of France. What does that mean? I don’t think this is a show Stephen Sondheim would have written.”
When Harvey Fierstein wrote the book for the show, the concept of a happy and functional gay family seemed unfamiliar and atypical. Traditionalists viewed it as implausible or impossible; some in the gay community saw it as constricting and hetero-normative. Looking back, now that marriage is legal and gay families are common, does the show seem prescient?
“It does, although, as I said, it was 1983, so it was a long time ago. I think that, as the subsequent revivals have come along and social attitudes have changed over the years — I love that it’s just a normal family. That’s the aspect of the show that I think everyone can relate to, that it is a family. It may not be your family, but I think the relationships between the two partners and their son — they’re going through the same things any family goes through, dealing with incorporating another family, when the son decides to get married to the daughter of a conservative radical. [Chuckle.] I’m not going to talk about our current politics, but this show could totally take place in 2016. We’ve come a long way, and yet, in some areas of our country, we’re still back in 1983.”
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
May 31 – July 10, 2016
Details and tickets
Barrett “can’t say enough” about the show. “It’s a fantastic score. There’s so much dancing. It’s so moving. It has everything. And it’s so funny. It’s just such a great show, and I think the audiences will have a great time. So please come see it!”
When we spoke, Barrett told me that, “I’ve been here a week. It’s going great. I love Shirlington. It’s kind of like Disneyland here with all the little shops and the restaurants. And the best part is I’m only a five-minute walk from the theater. So the rehearsals are going very well. And we had a little first preview for all the donors the other night, in a rehearsal space, and I think they’re all very excited about it. They met the director, the scenic designer, the costume designer spoke about their ideas for the show, and we sang three songs. Just a little show-and-tell, basically. It’s a big show for Signature. There’s probably more costumes in this show than any other show that they’ve had, and I think the audiences are going to have a great time.”
Barrett will be playing opposite Signature favorite Bobby Smith as Albin. “My leading man! Bobby, I love him. He’s fantastic. He did his first make-up preview yesterday, so I got a chance to see what he’s going to look like as a redhead.”
I asked if Barrett has played DC before. “I’ve toured through. I’ve never done anything at Ford’s or the Shakespeare, but I’ve toured through with several shows over the years, at The Kennedy Center and at The National. The first show I did here at The Kennedy Center was the 1980 revival of West Side Story. We were here for a month before we went to Broadway. The next thing I did was Grand Hotel, also at The Kennedy Center. Then I was here at the National with Annie Get Your Gun with Cathy Rigby. And then I’ve done a few concerts down here.”
For that West Side Story revival, Barrett had been cast by its legendary original Director/Choreographer Jerome Robbins, who had a reputation for being extremely exacting. “Lee Theodore, who was one of the original Anybody’s, and Tommy Abbott, who was also one of the original dancers in the show, put the show together with Gerald Freedman [who had co-director credit with Robbins, while Theodore and Abbott were credited as assisting the choreography reproduction.] So we didn’t see much of Jerry until the last rehearsals before we came into New York. I think time had softened him somewhat. I didn’t find him as frightening as the stories we’d heard.”
Which character has Barrett played more frequently, Billy Flynn in Chicago or the title role in The Phantom of the Opera? “Oh, definitely Billy Flynn.” And how many times has he played Billy? “I have no idea. You know, I’ve been in and out of that show since two thousand and — no! — like, 1999.” So his total performance count is definitely four figures? “Oh, yeah. Yeah.”
As far as Phantom goes, “I did it in Las Vegas for two years and I just got back from Germany, I was doing it for six months in German. That was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, was to learn it in German.”
Did Barrett speak German previously? “Nein! No. My partner is fluent in German, but I had never spoken German, so it was a daily process. We had a phonetics coach over there that was cracking…oh, yeah, oh, my God, it was painful. [Slight pause.] But by the end I was having a good time.”
I asked if the run was in Berlin. “No, it was actually a little town called Oberhausen, which is about twenty minutes from Düsseldorf. You know, they build theaters out in the middle of nowhere. I guess they look at the geographic regions and say, ‘Okay, if we build a theater here, it will attract people from a large radius to come in,’ and that’s how they built this theatre, originally.”
Barrett concurred with my memory of German’s being friendly and happy to speak English, but merciless to any who speak German badly. “They’re just, oh, don’t waste our time. Let’s just move on. I can speak English, so let’s speak English. And that’s the problem. I was just so concentrated on learning the show and being able to sing it correctly, I didn’t have time to learn to speak German. Had I stayed for the rest of the year, then I would have come back with a little more facility, but with the time element, I was just focused on learning the show.”
Barrett has had immense success in revivals and (particularly) replacement casts. Is it fair to say that he’s had bad luck with original shows? “Yes, the original shows I did didn’t last very long. Dance a Little Closer was Alan Jay Lerner’s last show.” A musical version of Robert Sherwood’s play Idiot’s Delight, it closed on Broadway after a single performance in 1983 (and also featured George Rose, subject of a Signature show earlier this season). “It was also one of the first gay characters in musicals. They were a little nervous about that whole aspect of it. So we did a love duet on ice skates, so we didn’t really touch much. [Laugh.] They were a little uncomfortable with us touching too much, so, well, if we were out there, you know, dancing on the ice, and holding and spinning, then it’s a whole different thing than actually sitting on a bench and touching.”
Busker Alley was a highly-anticipated show that closed out-of-town after its star broke his leg. Earlier, Barrett had taken over, very early in the run, the lead in Grand Hotel — the Baron; the part played by John Barrymore in the Oscar-winning film that inspired the musical — when David Carroll became too ill to continue in the part. Knowing this, I had to ask about working with Tommy Tune.
“Tommy was the star of Busker Alley and he directed Grand Hotel. He’s a lovely man. Tommy has a great vision and he’s very visual and he casts people who are talented and capable and then creates an environment for them to work in.”
A visit to brentbarrett.com provoked a few questions about side projects. “The Broadway Tenors I started. I produced that. That started about 2000. We travel the country, wherever we can go. We’re actually going to be in Richmond in November [the 14th.]” Then, Barrett affected an advertising spokesman’s voice. “Go to the website BroadwayTenors.com!” Returning to his natural voice, he explained, “There are about fifteen guys, there are three tracks, so depending on who’s available for the event — it’s a little more flexible in that respect. We can book people in, and we have a couple of tenors who know a couple of tracks, and so [returning to spokesman’s voice] it’s a very flexible evening for your symphony, performing arts center, or corporate event!” [Laughs.]
“The Four Phantoms just started. Franc D’Ambrosio, who is the Phantom in San Francisco, and a producer here in DC are putting that together. We’re going to premiere that in Atlantic City the first weekend in August and then going down to Scottsdale the second weekend, so right after I leave here in July, we go into rehearsal for that. It’s a concert-y thing and I can’t tell you a thing about it because I still don’t know what I’m singing in it. [Chuckle.] Originally it was going to focus toward Andrew Lloyd Weber music, but now I think they’re opening that up and it’s going to be — I can’t tell you what it’s going to be yet.” (Davis Gaines and Marcus Lovett round out the Phantom contingent.)
I was surprised to learn that Barrett is now based in Las Vegas. “We moved out there in 2006 and I was there for three years and then we moved back to New York and lived there for four. I’d lived in New York for 35 years, and finally getting out from New York for a period of time and coming back to it, it felt like there were twice as many people in the city. It felt like the city was getting dirtier, and I think I reached my limit. And we love living in Vegas. The weather’s great, you have space, it’s quiet, and the international airport, I can fly directly to London. It has a lot of great things to offer. They have a beautiful new performing arts center there, called The Smith Center.” But, of course, “now that I live there, I’ve spent probably two months there, because I’ve been traveling.”
To close, I asked Barrett to reflect on favorite roles. “You know, I think Grand Hotel is one of my favorites, because it was a very important show for me, and I love the show. It’s not a perfect show, if you take the elements apart, but it’s a magical show where all of the elements just came together to create this wonderful piece of theatre. I also loved doing Kiss Me Kate in London.”
That Michael Blakemore revival played The Kennedy Center before Broadway, starring Brian Stokes Mitchell, who didn’t cross the pond when it went to the UK. Consequently, the lead fell to Barrett. “That was a wonderful time. We were going over there for six months, and they were going to recast, and then they couldn’t find people that they wanted to recast with, so we ended up staying there for a year — and then filming it for PBS, which was the icing on the cake!”
His next answer seemed to come more from the actor than from the singer, as it is a role famously introduced by someone more renowned for Shakespeare than for song. “I love King Arthur in Camelot. That is one of the great roles for a man in musical theatre, because it’s such a range, going from this boy to a man, and everything he deals with. That is, you know… [Long, thoughtful pause.] King Arthur is probably one of the greatest roles that I’ve done. There’s humor; the scope of that role is fantastic and better than any other role for a man, I think.”
For Brent Barrett, if “the best of times is now,” he also won’t “let it be forgot; that once there was a spot; for one brief, shining moment…”