An Interview with Brent Barrett
Brent Barrett's current show marks a first for him. In other roles,
he has tamed shrews, been tamed himself by a female sharpshooter, and
given counsel to a certain notorious chorine. But never before
has be brought down the world's most famous chandelier.
Alternating with Anthony Crivello, Barrett is playing the love-struck, music-mad title role of PHANTOM - The Las Vegas Spectacular, which on June 24th, opened in a spectacular 95-minute production in a custom-built $40 million theatre at the Venetian Hotel-Casino. With a fervent tenor as smooth as burgundy, Barrett has been known for his ability to imbue a role with romance. And although his sanity might be questionable, the Phantom's romanticism certainly is not.
In fact, Barrett has long had his eye on the role. "I have loved the show since it opened, and I've been wanting to do it for a long time, but the situation never arose. I was always doing something else, and so I'm thrilled to get to do it out here. There are so few truly great roles in musical theatre and this is one of them."
Barrett certainly sympathizes with the character, and views him as a complex man. "You know, he is a total outsider and he is basically a child in a man's body. The way he reacts to things, it's very petulant, it's very childlike because he's never really had much contact with human society. But at the same time, he's a genius. He's created this entire world for himself...and so it's very sad; he lives a very sad existence, the way he's lived his life without any human contact. And then he finds this person he falls in love with. But there's no way they can actually live together because he can't live in the real world, and she is not going to return to his."
Barrett stated that the world of PHANTOM - The Las Vegas Spectacular prospered in previews. They were going "fantastically," he said at the time of our interview. "We've had a few technical glitches along the way. There are a lot of elements of the show that they are working out the kinks to, but the show looks spectacular. It is a beautiful production."
He also feels very honored to have worked with a creative team that includes composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Harold Prince. Barrett's interaction with Lloyd Webber has been limited; the composer was in Vegas for a day, and will most likely be back for opening night. Of Prince he says, "It's been wonderful working with Hal on this project, he is so psyched about it, and his enthusiasm really is infectious. It's just been a total delight, and it's really a very strong, talented group of people that he has assembled to do this production. I think we all feel very fortunate to be a part of it," he says, referring to a cast that includes veterans from the Broadway company of The Phantom of the Opera as well as several new faces.
Barrett admires Prince for encouraging both he and fellow Phantom Crivello to "bring ourselves to the role...we're different individuals, after all, so there's no way we could try to emulate each other...he just wants us to be the best that we can be." Yet he and Crivello watched each other during rehearsals, due to the show having been cut down to a lean 90 minutes. "They wanted us to be present so we wouldn't miss a cut or change when one was made."
Barrett says that the new length of the show hasn't really affected his performance, as 99% of the Phantom's material is intact. He's quick to acknowledge, though, that it's one of the most challenging roles he's ever played. "It demands every part of you, which is thrilling. As I said, there aren't a lot of roles like this in musical theater, and I think because they have a 10 show a week schedule, that's why they got the double cast...So they thought just to cover themselves, it would be smarter to have a double cast, and I think that they were wise in that choice." He also feels confident that with Phantom's name recognition and stature, it will avoid some of the box office difficulties that have beset other recent Vegas transfers.
Barrett's last Broadway appearance, in fact, was in a show that has attained a bit of fame of its own. Displaying his range, he charmed audiences as one of musical theatre's great anti-romantics--Chicago's Billy Flynn. He had a great time in the role, although he didn't particularly admire the attorney's morals. "There's nothing sympathetic about Billy. He's totally out there for himself, he's the ultimate self-promoter."
Yet in his Broadway debut show--the 1980 revival of West Side Story--he played a character who dies for love. Although he started out in the show as Diesel, he played Tony for the last three months of the run. And like the smitten Jet, Barrett was quite young. In fact, the actor (who had transferred from Ft. Hays State in Kansas) was attending Carnegie Mellon University in the first year of their now-prestigious musical theatre program when he auditioned. Naturally he was cast, and in his first show, worked with some of the titans of musical theatre. "It was incredible. I mean, here I am, fresh out of college..no, not even finished with college, with Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein...it was overwhelming. It was huge...I think back on it, and I wonder how did I even survive that? If I had really thought about it, I wouldn't have been able to do it."
Barrett more than survived West Side Story--he went on to play a featured role in a musical with a solid-gold team of writers. Dance a Little Closer, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics and book by Alan Jay Lerner, wasn't a hit on Broadway in 1983, but due to a truly memorable score, has gathered a cult following.
No one can say that the show wasn't ambitious. Strouse and Lerner took the 1930s romance Idiot's Delight, basically kept the Alps location, but transplanted the plot into an "avoidable future" in which the threat of nuclear-weaponed warfare looms large. Barrett speculates that this choice might have been responsible for the musical's having flopped: "I think maybe that in updating it the way they did, they tried too make it more important than it was, and I think if they had kept it in the timeframe in which it was originally written, it might have worked better." He also thinks that Lerner took on too much on by directing as well as writing the show: "It might have had a different perspective and it might have had a better shot."
Yet he has fond memories of working on the show and is also proud to have helped introduced the bittersweet waltz "Why Can't the World Go and Leave Us Alone"--the first gay love sung performed in a Broadway musical. He applauds the courage of Dance a Little Closer's creators: "I think they wanted to make a statement with that because in the original play, it's a pilot--but they wrote in gay airline stewards. I really applaud them for doing that...it was really almost avant-garde." Barrett says that he loved the score; he, in fact, included "There's Always One You Can't Forget" and "Anyone Who Loves" on his "Alan Jay Lerner Album."
With his next show, Barrett found his breakthrough role. Playing the Baron von Gaigern, an impoverished German nobleman whose heart is stolen by a Russian ballerina and whose stealing of a wallet ends in a floridly romantic death scene. Although the tragic real-life death of the role's originator David Carroll cast a shadow over Grand Hotel, he remembers the production with fondness (he stepped into the role 6 months into the run). "It was a wonderful experience...I loved the show and I loved doing the part. It was certainly a vocal workout every night." Barrett, who loved Tommy Tune's stylish staging, also did Grand Hotel in London and on the road. "It was a really magical time, travelling the world with Lilliane Montevecchi!," he laughs.
He was also put through a dance workout each performance--he and co-star Michael Jeter stopped the show nightly with the exuberant Charleston number "We'll Take a Glass Together." He praises Jeter, who died of AIDS in 2003, as a performer and a person. He relates one story in which, during a rehearsal for the already-running show, Jeter sat himself down on the actor's lap. "I barely knew the man, and he was just going 'Okay, here we are, let's get to know each other.' He was just so open and giving, and that's why he made such a wonderful Kringelein--that was just his personality...he was just lovely."
In the years since, Barrett has taken on a myriad of roles in Broadway, touring and regional shows--among his roles are Tommy in the New York City Opera's Brigadoon, Sid in The Pajama Game at Encores!, King Arthur in Camelot at Paper Mill Playhouse, Maximilian in the 1997 Broadway revival of Candide and Frank Butler in the 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun--opposite the Annie of Reba McEntire. As that little list indicates, he's gone through a lot of the classic leading men roles. Indeed, there is something in both his voice and presence that invites comparison to classic leading men like Alfred Drake and John Raitt--men who were able to bring passion and dash to their roles, as well as hold audiences captive with their vocal prowess.
Yet Barrett, when playing the classic leading man roles, tries to avoid seeming too throwback to audiences. He explains, "I think that's the challenge of doing roles like that--to try to make them relevant to the audiences of today or to ourselves....both bringing a modern sensibility to them, and maintaining the style of the show of the time in which they were created." He cites Annie Get Your Gun's boastful Frank as an example. "He can be seen as a little one-dimensional, you know, but you try to bring as much reality to the situation as possible. There are still men out there who are just like him--they still think that all women belong in the home, raising children. As far as we've come in society, there are still elements of that that prevail."
After Annie Get Your Gun (Barrett says that McEntire will soon be catching a performance of Phantom), he morphed from arrogant, macho cowboy to arrogant, macho matinee idol in the London production of the Kiss Me, Kate revival. He says of the show, "It was so much fun, being able to work with Michael Blakemore who is one of the best directors around, and just working in London again..it was such a great experience."
In Princesses--his most recent musical--Barrett once again played a vain actor. In the Matthew Wilder-David Zippel musical, however, he wasn't a strutting Shakespearean but a Hollywood action star who aids a gaggle of school girls in staging a musical version of "A Little Princess." Princesses was seen in what was billed as a pre-Broadway tryout at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre in August of last year, but definite plans for a Broadway transfer have not been announced. "You know, they're still working on it, and I hope there still is a life for it, because I think it's really a worthy piece. It's you know, timing, it's hard getting a musical on these days that doesn't have a pedigree. Something like The Drowsy Chaperone came in, and it's like thank God...people are still willing to take a chance," says Barrett, who received glowing reviews for his work. He also says that he would love to be involved with Princesses if the show is granted a Broadway future.
As for other future plans, Barrett says that he is planning a follow-up to his Alan Jay Lerner and Kander and Ebb albums. This one, though, won't focus on a single composer or lyricist. "It's going to be idea-driven," he elaborates. "I'm taking a scene and an idea and doing a CD along those lines. I'll let the show open here first, and then I'm going to start working on it."
One can only hope that this accomplished performer will include "The Music of the Night" on the new CD. Fans of Barrett unable to make it to Vegas would find it a romantic gesture.