Barnum the musical conjures up the magic in the West End
Barnum the musical currently enjoying a hit season at the Chichester Festival is coming to London’s West End. The Cameron Mackintosh production is heading to the Gielgud theatre in the heart of theatreland.
The original Broadway show ran for over two years from 1980 starring Jim Dale. This was followed by a West End debut in 1981 at the London Palladium where similarly ran for over two years, starring Michael Crawford as P.T. Barnum.
Barnum the musical coming to London
Barnum is a musical with a book by Mark Bramble, lyrics by Michael Stewart, and music by Cy Coleman. It is based on the life of showman P. T. Barnum. The show encompasses traditional musical theatre with the spectacle of the circus. The characters include jugglers, trapeze artists, acrobats and clowns, as well as such real-life personalities such as and General Tom Thumb.
It was Cameron Mackintosh’s desire to tell the true story of Phineas Taylor Barnum that inspired the renown theatre impresario to buy the rights to the musical Barnum, but as Cameron said only on the condition that he could reconstruct it for the stage.
Cameron Mackintosh the producer of Barnum the musical
Cameron sated: “The original version, which I saw with Jim Dale in New York and Michael Crawford in London, was wonderful but it was a succession of circus acts and I didn’t think it would work now.”
The composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Michael Stewart were sadly both dead but Mark Bramble who wrote the book was still alive and he and Mackintosh set to work on the great narrative restructuring of Barnum. Cameron added: “We found some of Michael Stewart’s cut lyrics, which was wonderful, and reinstated them. I moved songs and reprises around, rearranged them so they are quite different to how they sounded when it was first done and I re-dramatised a lot of it.”
Cameron then made a new recording and hoped that Cy Coleman’s widow Shelby would give it her seal of approval. “She loved it and told me that her only sadness was that Cy was not alive to hear it,” Cameron declares.
Cameron goes on to explain: “Although best known for the Barnum and Bailey Circus, he did not go into circuses until his sixties, before that he had entered politics in his native Connecticut and fought for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights, set up newspapers, founded hospitals, improved the water supply and was the first person to bring opera to the masses in the shape of Jenny Lind, the ‘Swedish Nightingale’, more than 100 years before Pavarotti.”
And well before Ripleys’s Believe It Or Not, Barnum was famous for Barnum’s American Museum of oddities such as ‘a mammoth fat infant’, ‘Feejeee’, a creature with the head of a monkey and tail of a fish, and General Tom Thumb, ‘the smallest person that ever walked alone.’
“He could have done none of these things without his wife Chairy,” says Mackintosh. Played in the original musical by a young Glenn Close, “Chairy was the architect of his dreams and that relationship is a strong focus of this Barnum which tended to be glossed over in the first. All the numbers are now anchored in their rather odd-ball relationship. They were opposites. He had the big ideas, he was the gambler. She was down to earth and had the wherewithal.”
Rising actor and singer Christopher Fitzgerald, stars as Barnum in Cameron’s latest production. Cameron says: “He is a very talented actor, singer and performer and has been imbued with circus since he was five years old, he may not be well known here but I feel that his career is at exactly the same place that Jim Dale’s was when he did Barnum and that made him a huge star. Chris has all the qualities the part requires.”
Cameron goes on to reveal: “And when I asked the great Bill Brohn, whose theatrical career started all those years ago with Miss Saigon, to re-orchestrate and completely reinvent the score of Barnum, he said: ‘Did I tell you I started off writing music for circus?’”