For more than a year and a half, John Barrowman not only performed the demanding role of Joe Gillis in the London production of Sunset Boulevard, but he did so while filming two weekly TV shows for the BBC, "Live and Kicking" and "The Movie Game."
And, now, the accomplished actor and singer may put himself in that same position, as star of the upcoming Cameron Mackintosh musical The Fix and host of a new British television show based on the internet and the worldwide web. "I enjoy that kind of schedule," admits Barrowman, speaking by phone from his apartment in London. "I like putting myself in that position and working really hard. I find I get more stressed when I'm not under pressure than when I am."
Fame came quickly to the 28-year-old actor, who at the age of 20 was cast as Billy Crocker opposite the West End's leading musical theatre actress, Elaine Paige, in the revival of Anything Goes. Barrowman went to London to study Shakespeare for six months, and while there he heard about and attended an open-call audition in Glasgow for the role in the Cole Porter classic. Within 48 hours Barrowman landed the role and replaced Howard McGillin, who had opened the musical in New York and London.
"I was really scared," admits the Scottish-born performer with the All-American looks. "The people in London were all the cream of the crop, and here I was the new boy. No one knew who the hell I was."
His first night in the show remains etched in his memory: "It was basically sink or swim. I was just getting ready to [go onstage] and Elaine [Paige] came up to me, and she just said to me flat in my face, 'You're either gonna go out there and have fun, or you're gonna go out and fall flat on your face.' So I went out there, and I had fun. And the critics just went wild."
The critics often rave about Barrowman's performances, especially during his run opposite Betty Buckley in the revised production of Sunset Boulevard in London two years ago. Wrote Paul Taylor in London's Independent: "John Barrowman, who now takes the part in London, is easily the best [of the Joe Gillises]. With a kept-boy pout that he strives to disown with scowls of self reproach and thwarted decency, he skillfully conveys the moral ambivalence of the character, a would-be idealist tempted into cynicism and bad faith. He also sings better than his forerunners."
During his run on the Boulevard, Barrowman was reunited with his Anything Goes star, Paige, when Buckley underwent an emergency appendectomy. "It was fantastic. [Elaine and I] were like two kids in a candy store again. We had a great time. They were both completely different Normas, which was also great for me because I got to play Joe differently. I could add different twinges to him--things that he would never do with Betty's Norma, he could do with Elaine's." And what does Barrowman think about Sunset's imminent closing? "It's sad because that show for me was a big part of my life in a sense. . .I grew an awful lot more as an actor, but I also grew in the public eye. My theory," he jokes, "is they should have kept Betty and me in it."
It was actually the calling of American television that forced Barrowman to leave the London production of Sunset, when he was cast as the quintessential young politician on "Central Park West," the dramatic series whose run on CBS was unexpectedly brief. "It was a lot of politics," Barrowman explains, "because CBS was being handed over to different management, and anything that was signed on before this new gentleman came in was basically axed. Granted it wasn't Shakespeare, but it was, I felt, good you-don't-have-to-sit-and-think-about-it entertainment." On the plus side, the series widened his visibility in America, and it also gave him a name in the U.S. television industry and in a handful of markets around the world, where "Central Park West" still plays.
About performing for the television camera, Barrowman admits missing the reactions of a live audience, and he also notes the different challenges that theatre and TV present: "In theatre [you] come in every night and re-create something that you've been doing for the last seven, eight months and make it look like you're doing it for the first time, [while] in television, you're getting something new every day, and you're trying to make it look like you've been doing it for six months. You have to look like you've been born with that character."
When Barrowman was 8 years old, his father transferred the family from Scotland to Aurora, IL, a town south of Chicago. The family resided there for six years and then moved again, this time to Joliet, IL, where Barrowman attended high school with another musical theatre performer, Rent's Anthony Rapp. As a freshman in high school, Barrowman's talents were already apparent, beating out a slew of seniors for the lead role in the school musical, and he is quick to give special credit to his high school friend Beverly Holt, whose encouragement and unstinting belief in his talents never wavered.
After briefly attending the University of Iowa and then DePaul University, Barrowman took some time off to perform at Opryland USA, where he heard about a school in Southern California, the United States International University. The university, which bestowed a full scholarship upon him, contained an excellent performing arts department, where Barrowman was able to hone his skills, performing in professional productions with Equity Actors. "My goal," said Barrowman, "was to be a musical theatre performer but also to be respected in the straight acting field because I feel that they're one and the same thing."
Unlike many of his previous musical theatre roles--Chris in Miss Saigon, Raoul in Phantom--Barrowman has the opportunity to create a role in a brand new piece of musical theatre, The Fix. Currently in rehearsals under Sam Mendes' direction, the show is set for an April 25 opening at London's Donmar Warehouse. The Fix (score by Zombie Prom's Dana P. Rowe and John Dempsey) focuses on the political aspirations of a dysfunctional family, and casts Barrowman as a young politician whose father just "died on top of a prostitute. . .And, rather than letting all their political dreams die," Barrowman says, "[the father's wife and brother] decide to groom the son to be the politician the father never was. But the son has a good side and a dark side. He's this wonderful political figure, [but] when he goes home, he has a coke and heroin problem. He's the lowest, baddest person that will screw you over in a second." The musical, which will explore both sides of the character and his ever-changing relationship with the American public, will require Barrowman to use his voice in a manner that he has not previously explored, as the show has a "very big gospel sound to it, a rock 'n' roll gospel feel."
Although Barrowman made a brief appearance on Broadway--a two week-stint in Sunset Boulevard when Alan Campbell went on vacation last year--he has yet to open a show on The Great White Way. "I'd like to do a musical that will transfer to Broadway," he admits. "Then I'd like that to lead to the possibility of doing another TV series, and then possibly going into film." Barrowman always dreamed of starring in a big Hollywood film musical and hopes that with the success of the film version of Evita, that door will open to him. "I thought the film was great because the way it showed her progression to power," says Barrowman. "I thought the cinematography was wonderful. Not that I thought the singing was fantastic, but I did think [Madonna] portrayed her beautifully. She really was committed to what she was doing."
But, for now, Barrowman is set to concentrate on his role in the upcoming Cameron Mackintosh musical, and it may just be the work that catapults him from the stage to the screen. If so, it will be, for Barrowman anyway, the perfect Fix.
Presented by The Donmar Warehouse in association with Cameron Mackintosh
A musical by John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe
Starring: John Barrowman, Krysten Cummings, Kathryn Evans
April 25-June 14
Donmar Warehouse, London
Monday-Saturday at 7:30pm
Wednesday and Saturday at 3 PM
£12 - £25
Box Office: 0171 369 1732
-- By Andrew Gans