PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with James Barbour

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with James Barbour It's one thing to strive to be the Best actor on Broadway. It's quite another to be the Beast actor on Broadway - and if anyone has that distinction it's James Barbour, who's gone from playing Carousel's rough-hewn Billy Bigelow to Beauty and the Beast's hirsute hero to, currently, Jane Eyre's snarling, tormented tempter. Intense and imposing, Barbour no doubt struck producers as the right type to play virile males with big hearts - and layers of rage and emotional muck masking the beat.
Marla Schaffel and James Barbour in Jane Eyre.
Marla Schaffel and James Barbour in Jane Eyre. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

It's one thing to strive to be the Best actor on Broadway. It's quite another to be the Beast actor on Broadway - and if anyone has that distinction it's James Barbour, who's gone from playing Carousel's rough-hewn Billy Bigelow to Beauty and the Beast's hirsute hero to, currently, Jane Eyre's snarling, tormented tempter. Intense and imposing, Barbour no doubt struck producers as the right type to play virile males with big hearts - and layers of rage and emotional muck masking the beat.

Playbill On-Line: It's not hard to find similarities between the Beast and Rochester, who both hide their pain behind sarcasm and even a certain level of sadism. But aside from the obvious physical contrasts, what are the other differences between the two characters?
James Barbour: It's true that they are very similar in their journeys. The Beast finds himself through the eyes of Belle; Rochester finds himself through the eyes and heart of Jane. The difference is that with Beauty and the Beast, we were going from the text of the film, which is the text of the book and other incarnations of the story. With Jane Eyre, it's the text of the novel, with the brilliance of John Caird adapting it and being as true to it as he can be. For research, I'd go to the novel and then back to John Caird. Research for Beauty and the Beast was to make up some backstory and invent what was going on, as well as relying on Linda Woolverton.

PBOL: Is Beauty and the Beast more of a "children's" show, while Jane Eyre is merely family-oriented?
JB: The Beast was not a child's role, and I wouldn't consider it a children's show. This was a legitimate, tortured character. The young adults who came to the show responded to that... I got my Equity card doing shows at TheatreWorks USA. Talk about paying your dues! Two shows a day, every day. But children know if you're not giving a true performance. With Jane Eyre, we have yet not to have a standing ovation for the show, whatever the makeup of the audience. I don't know how many schools they've bused in yet. But when children go, they respond to it so viscerally. Some of that has to do with it being a romance. I remember doing Beauty and the Beast in L.A. And in New York with Tony Braxton. When they kissed, the kids exploded. They do the same thing in the proposal scene of Jane Eyre - it's the anticipation of the entire show, you're waiting and waiting and waiting for them to get together, and it happens, and they erupt. They're completely with a show. Ironically enough, John Caird has subtext upon subtext, so different audiences get different levels. Sometimes an audience you'd think would respond to, say, the fifth layer of the subtext doesn't get it, and audiences you wouldn't expect to go that far with you get it all. That's why theatre is so wonderful; you have that third character: Jane, Rochester, and the audience as a whole. If they're going in one direction, you can take them there, and then you take them somewhere they're not expecting.

PBOL: How was your audition for the role?
JB: Tara Rubin, from Johnson-Liff Casting, called. I was doing Beauty and the Beast and I'd also just done Dennis DeYoung's version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Tennessee Rep in Nashville. I walked in, sang the music (which was written for a tenor; I'm a lyric baritone) and Caird went "Uh, okay." He said, "How old are you?" I said, "How old are you?" And we shared information about our ages. He said, "Do you want to do a scene now?" I did, I walked out, and I had the job... John was so wonderful to work with and fun. He gave wonderful advice: "I don't want to see the same thing twice. Change it constantly," he said. "Do something new." Doing that, within the context of the show, allows you to grow... Remember that Marla [Schaffel] and Mary Stout have been involved in Jane Eyre for five years. I did eight weeks in La Jolla and then right to here. Only now am I starting to get the freedom to grow and learn about Rochester. Also, we had to change some of the keys in the songs. "Farewell, Good Angel," was lowered a half-step. They also changed the harmonies in "Secret Soul."

PBOL: Is there irony to the fact that you were trained as a classical actor but make your living doing musicals?
JB: Well, the first big show I ever saw as a kid was Dancin'. My mom brought us to it but didn't realize what she brought us to — these guys and girls bumping and grinding. But we had a blast. Later on, [Laurence] Olivier was my guru. Anything he was in on film, I watched. That allowed me to see Shakespeare with a more open mind as a young adult. So I grew up listening to musical theatre, opera, standards, Nat King Cole. Then my aunt took me to see Sweeney Todd, and I went, "Wow, this is pretty amazing!" I was hooked... My high school, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was mostly people who became doctors and lawyers and business people, but it still had a very supportive arts program. PBOL: Could Juilliard be far behind?
JB: Actually, I trained at Hofstra [University in Long Island]. I had no idea Juilliard and Carnegie Mellon existed at that time, so I got my undergraduate degree at Hofstra so I could have an academic background and be an actor. I majored in English and Theatre (with a minor in philosophy and physics). What struck me about Hofstra's program was that Francis Ford Coppola and Madeline Kahn went there, as did — I found out later — Christopher Walken, Joe Morton and Tom McGowan. Wonderful people. Also, when they built their playhouse and created a Shakespeare Festival, they built a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre. They fit this amazing structure into this proscenium stage. So I'd be allowed to work on a replica of the Globe! I went "Wow, I wanna do that." I also received classical training spending two years in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

PBOL: What if you hadn't made it as an actor; you'd be a...?
JB: When I was a kid I always did everything. I'd want to be an archaeologist or an architect, play tennis — something using my hands. But I'd had all these different ideas of professions: artist, teacher... I soon realized that as an actor I can be all of those! That said, I don't know how long I'll be in this business; it's such a volatile business. I imagine whatever I'd do would involve the art of creating, maybe being a producer or doing photography, which I love. I've got half a novel written, plus two plays and two screenplays. The novel is taking so long, maybe because it's the closest thing to my own emotional cycle and trying to break through that wall we all have as human beings. Or I've also thought about getting a degree in architectural design.

PBOL: You've already made inroads as a producer, though?
JB: I started a production company two years ago: Treehouse Entertainment. (My dad died two years ago; he'd built a treehouse for me when I was young, so I chose that name.) I read scripts all the time, and they're wonderful, but they just don't get done. So I thought I'd help these people have a voice. We had a couple of new play readings in L.A., and there's one play I'm particularly strong on, Zeke's Vision, that I'd love to do. It's hilarious; I did it at Mill Mountain ten years ago. It's a True West-y play about a family of taxidermists. They come home and realize that Zeke is long dead and they've stuffed him. The weird part is that the writer, Hank Bates, has disappeared. He's not registered with the Writers Guild or Dramatists Guild. His last known address was in San Francisco, but he's not there anymore. So Hank, if you're reading this, please contact Playbill On-Line!

PBOL: What about your own work?
JB: One of my plays, Splinters, got produced a couple of years ago. It's about a young man who meets this man in his 80s named Cookie. I based it on this old guy, with amazing leathery skin, working on the docks on the beaches in New Jersey. We're also producing an independent film, "Revelation," for my production company. And I'm doing the singing voice of Kevin Neelan for the new Adam Sandler animated comedy, "Whitey and Davey." But really, Jane Eyre is taking up my whole life. I'm not married, and all my friends who are and in the business say it's so tough to do. It's such a hard business, and It's so transient. This coming Monday will be the first full day off I've had in four months; it's been non-stop. I think I'm just gonna sit down and play with my dog.