The man behind Barnum

Rehearsals for Barnum at Chichester Festival Theatre

Rehearsals for Barnum at Chichester Festival Theatre

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It was a desire to tell the true story of Phineas Taylor Barnum that spurred Cameron Mackintosh to buy the rights to the musical that bears the great showman’s name. But on one condition – if he could reconstruct it for the stage.

Cameron, who’s known worldwide for his involvement with Les Misérables (stage and film version), The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins, Oliver! and Cats, is the most successful theatre producer in history. And he’s presenting the production at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Running from Monday until August 31, it’s in the traditional slot of the theatre’s summer musical.

He says: ‘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.’

Composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Michael Stewart were both no longer with us, but Mark Bramble who wrote the book was still alive, and he and Mackintosh set to work on the great narrative restructuring of a Barnum for the 21st century.

Cameron explains: ‘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.’

He then made a new recording and hoped that Cy Coleman’s widow Shelby would give it her seal of approval. And the verdict? ‘She loved it and told me that her only sadness was that Cy was not alive to hear it.’

Barnum follows the imagination and dreams of Phineas T Barnum, American’s greatest showman. He lights up the world with colour, warmth and excitement and teams up with J A Bailey to create Barnum and Bailey’s Circus – The Greatest Show On Earth.

The new production, co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, will show us much more than Barnum the showman.

‘Although best known for the Barnum and Bailey Circus, he did not go into circuses until his sixties,’ explains Cameron, ‘Before that he had entered politics in his native Connecticut and fought for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights.

‘He’d 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.’

He was also famous in his day for Barnum’s American Museum of oddities such as “a mammoth fat infant”, 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 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.’

Playing Barnum is rising Broadway star Christopher Fitzgerald, with this his first job in the UK. 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.’

With a cast of aerialists and acrobats, actors and singers, his production team is typically top of the bill.

Director Timothy Sheader is artistic director of the Open Air Theatre Regents Park, responsible for hit shows such as Crazy for You, Into the Woods and Hello, Dolly! Co-director and choreographer Liam Steel comes straight from the film of Les Misérables while co-choreographer Andrew Wright was Olivier-award nominated for the CFT’s Singin’ in the Rain in 2011.

Cameron adds: ‘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?”’

Cameron started his career as a stage hand at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and soon began producing small tours in the 1970s. It was in 1981 that he produced Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, which became one of the longest-running musicals on both sides of the Atlantic.

Four years later he brought Les Miserables to the stage and he also produced the 2012 Hollywood movie version.

Cameron was knighted by the Queen in 1996 for services to musical theatre.

Today he’s resolutely hands-on with all his shows. Cameron Mackintosh had been talking to fellow Barnum enthusiast and artistic director of CFT, Jonathan Church, for several years about bringing it back nearly three decades after its last outing.

And now it will be performed in the Chichester theatre’s temporary space, Theatre In The Park, which has been compared to a tent.

‘The fact we can do it in the Theatre in The Park was never planned but it’s the ideal venue. Pure serendipity; but I always believe in the fates and the flip of a coin is one of the themes throughout the story of Barnum.’

Reconstructing a musical spectacular about the inventor of the three-ringed circus in a vast theatrical tent has been a great journey so far for Cameron Mackintosh and his team. ‘We are all looking forward so much to coming to Chichester.’

Barnum, in association with Cameron Mackintosh, is at Chichester Festival Theatre from July 15 until August 31. Tickets: £10 to £40 on (01243) 781312 or go to cft.org.uk.

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