Dear John: Barrowman Puts It All Together on Broadway

By Michael Portantiere
January 10, 2000

Unless you were lucky enough to catch him during his brief guest stint in the Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard, you probably know John Barrowman only as the rakish assistant district attorney Peter Fairchild on the short-lived CBS television series "Central Park West" -- that is, if you're an American. Reared in Illinois, but born in Glasgow, Barrowman is a big star in the UK for his string of appearances in such musicals as Sunset, Phantom, Anything Goes, Miss Saigon, The Fix, and Beauty and the Beast. He's also famous there as a concert artist, and as the host of two children's TV shows and a daily talk show. Now, as part of the Putting It Together ensemble, he's showing New York audiences what all the fuss is about.

Unless you were lucky enough to catch him during his brief guest stint in the Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard, you probably know John Barrowman only as the rakish assistant district attorney Peter Fairchild on the short-lived CBS television series "Central Park West" -- that is, if you're an American. Reared in Illinois, but born in Glasgow, Barrowman is a big star in the UK for his string of appearances in such musicals as Sunset, Phantom, Anything Goes, Miss Saigon, The Fix, and Beauty and the Beast. He's also famous there as a concert artist, and as the host of two children's TV shows and a daily talk show. Now, as part of the Putting It Together ensemble, he's showing New York audiences what all the fuss is about.

Playbill On-Line: Career-wise, you've done so much in so little time.
John Barrowman: I've been very lucky. But my mother always says, "You have the talent to back it up. They wouldn't hire you if you couldn't do the job." This may sound silly but, when I turned 30, I went through a period of depression because I felt I hadn't accomplished anything. Then I read my own bio in a program, and I thought to myself, "You have nothing to be depressed about."

PBOL: What's your citizenship?
JB: I became a naturalized American citizen in 1985; they made sure I was able to speak English, that I knew who the presidents of the United States were. I have something called a Certificate of Right to Abode in my passport, so when I'm in England I'm a British subject, and when I'm in the U.S. I'm an American citizen. If there had been a war when I was younger, I would have had to fight for America.

PBOL: What if America had fought against Britain?
JB: I probably would have been in the U.S.O. and entertained the troops! But my dual citizenship is great, because it allows me to work in both countries…

PBOL: …without worrying about all that nasty Equity stuff.
JB: Well, you can say "nasty." I'll say "uncalled for." In Britain, we allow Americans to perform; you know, a whole American company comes to do a show for three months, then they leave and we recast it. American Equity will only let British actors come over here and perform if they're names, or stars. I think it should be all about actors supporting actors, rather than denying people work.

PBOL: I've heard that your dialect changes according to who you're speaking with.
JB: It's very bizarre. When Carol [Burnett] and the other people in the cast hear me talking with my parents, their eyebrows go up. The Scottish burr is the tongue I grew up with; I learned the American accent because, when I was in grade school and junior high [here in the U.S.], kids used to make fun of me. I've been told that I speak with a mid-Atlantic accent. The midwest upbringing and the British background come together, so I sound like I'm from Providence, Rhode Island.

PBOL: How did you end up in Illinois?
JB: My dad at that time was manufacturing manager of Aurora Caterpillar -- the tractor company -- and, when I was eight, they moved us from Glasgow to Aurora. Then we moved to Joliet, where I went to high school with Anthony Rapp and Andy Dick. There must have been something in the water! Believe it or not, our high school has now cut all the money out of their music and theatre programs. I'm told that, just the other day, the principal said, "Why does the swing choir need to do more than one performance a month?" Well…why does the football team need to play a game every week? I really want to get involved in some kind of effort to bring finances back to arts programs in schools. Not everybody wants to be a lawyer or a doctor or a scientist or a teacher. Doing musicals and plays in school -- even if the kids are not going to become actors and stage managers, they learn a lot about dealing with people, and about organization. I went to a small performing arts university in San Diego that nobody's ever heard of, USIU -- United States International University. As part of a transfer program, I went back to England for six months to study Shakespeare. All of my relatives were still in Scotland, and while I was visiting them, my uncle saw on the news that there was going to be an open call audition for a leading man to replace Howard McGillin opposite Elaine Paige in Anything Goes [in London]. They needed someone who was British, could do an American accent, could do comedy, and could sing. They were doing a national search -- basically, to create some hype. I went to the audition the next day, thinking, "I'm being trained to do this; let me see how far I get." Within 48 hours, I was flown down to London, Jerry Zaks was flown over from the United States. I met with Elaine, Tim Rice, Jerry Zaks. I had my final audition with Elaine at the Prince Edward Theater, and I was given the job later that evening. I came to London with nothing but a suitcase. I did Anything Goes for about a year and two months, and then Cameron Mackintosh picked me up and put me into Miss Saigon. In Britain, they treated it as a Cinderella story -- one minute, a guy on the street; next minute, a West End leading man. In fact, two weeks prior to my getting the part in Anything Goes, I had seen the show with my parents. I was watching Elaine and Howard do it, and I think it was my mom who said to me, "You could do that."

Q: Technically, Putting it Together is not your Broadway debut. You did Sunset here, very briefly.
A: That was during a hiatus from "Central Park West." Andrew [Lloyd Webber] rang me up and said, "Alan Campbell would like to go on vacation for 10 days. Would you come in?" It had been nine months since I'd done the part in London. I had about a week's rehearsal. The show's box-office had been down but, I guess because of "Central Park West," it went up when I went in. I got a nice letter from Andrew and congratulations from Betty Buckley on my box office! It's interesting, the power of television: Even though "Central Park West" wasn't a hit, 40 or 50 million people a week watched it -- and some of them came to see me in Sunset. Plus there were theatre people who came because they'd heard what I'd done in London. But I consider Putting it Together to be my Broadway debut, because it's basically a new creation. Though the show was done before, Stephen has rewritten and adapted some things for us. I don't really know the original version; only certain bits. There was a "getting high" section that we cut out, because we tried that in rehearsals in Los Angeles and all of us thought, "This is so '70s or '80s -- we can't get away with it." Nowadays, these people would be doing crack or heroin. Carol said, "We can't be shooting up on stage!"

PBOL: You've already worked with some notable "divas" in your career, and I thought you might share your impressions of some of them. Carol Burnett?
JB: Carol is exactly like you think she'd be: warm, giving, and very supportive. And the thing I love most about her is that she puts a smile on my face and makes me laugh.

PBOL: Elaine Paige?
JB: Elaine calls me her boy. She's largely responsible for my career, because of Anything Goes. She has a place in my heart that no one else has.

PBOL: Betty Buckley?
JB: I used to sit on stage and watch her perform, and when she sang "With One Look," I was so whacked in the face by what she was doing that I just had to give over to it. I know a lot of people have had difficulties with her, but she was very gracious to me. In fact, she gave me a great compliment during a television interview: She said I was the best leading man that she'd ever worked with, and that I should open a school to teach leading men how to treat their leading ladies.

PBOL: How about the "Central Park West" ladies: Melissa Errico?
JB: I've never seen her on stage, and I don't know her as a singer -- only as a television actress. She was committed, always on the ball. She'll probably kill me for saying this, but maybe she thinks a little too much, rather than just getting out there and doing it. I think that stands in her way sometimes.

PBOL: And Raquel Welch?
JB: I'm sure she's a lovely lady, but she wastes a lot of people's time. Television is a very different thing. But the women I've worked with in the theatre -- Elaine, Betty, Tyne, and now Carol Burnett -- have all taught me something about myself or about the industry. The men, too. I can just stand and watch George Hearn, and I learn so much.

PBOL: Talk to me about Stephen Sondheim.
JB: I have always wanted to do Sondheim. In England, there's a real Sondheim cult. When you do his stuff, you're in a different class of people -- you know what I mean? That may sound like a snobby thing to say, but people in theater will understand. It's like, all of a sudden, you're in with the Mandy Patinkins and the Bernadette Peterses. When Stephen Sondheim comes up to you and says, "I really love the way you sing 'Marry Me a Little,' " I'm like [makes strangled noise of astonishment]!! Or I'm having a cocktail with him, and I think, "Stephen Sondheim's sitting across from me!" He's not what everybody assumes he is; he's not [assumes pretentious tone of voice], "Let me get out my thesaurus." He's like [yells], "What rhymes with focaccia?" Just a normal guy.

PBOL: "Marry Me a Little" was written for Company, and your performance made me think that Bobby would be a perfect part for you.
JB: You know, I was asked to do it while I was doing Sunset in New York. The Nederlanders contacted me when they were going to transfer the Roundabout production to Broadway. Boyd Gaines couldn't do it, because he was having vocal problems. I would have jumped at it, but I couldn't fit it into my schedule; I had a commitment to "Central Park West" for another six months, and I couldn't get out of it. Plus, television was paying a lot more than the Nederlanders were going to!

PBOL: What are your future plans?
JB: I used to be more goal oriented. Now I do things because I enjoy doing them. I want to do more Broadway, and -- I'll be perfectly honest with you -- I want to do another TV series. I would like to do a film, but not just any old film. You can get a three picture deal where the first one is good, and the other two are complete piles of poop.

PBOL: Your press packet includes past interviews in Vanity Fair and Us that focused quite graphically on your physical appeal. Does that ever become tiresome?
JB: Those interviews were done for the TV show, and the network told me to give them what they wanted. I generally don't talk about it anymore; I've found that I get into trouble because of my honesty. Other newspapers take snippets of those interviews out of context. I've been blessed with a package -- excuse the pun. But one of my greatest challenges over the past 10 years has been to prove that I'm not just a pretty face. If my looks ever go, I can still sing. I might not get hired for certain jobs, but I can do voiceovers. My voice and my acting talent are more important to me than my looks.