Brian Conley has spent a lot of his distinguished career playing Americans, even if there’s no mistaking the Englishman’s distinctively husky voice during an expansive interview one recent afternoon.
A native Londoner, Conley was a 1996 Olivier nominee for his performance as singer Al Jolson in the musical Jolson. He has also appeared on stage as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, and most recently Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh’s national tour of Oliver!.
Conley is touring the UK playing the title role in Barnum, the revival of the much-loved Cy Coleman-scored musical about Phineas T Barnum, the circus entertainer extraordinaire who was famously known as America’s greatest showman. Matt Wolf, London theatre critic for The International New York Times, caught up with Conley to talk tightrope-walking, travelling the country, and bringing his unique savvy to this particularly melodic slice of quintessential show biz life.
Congratulations on landing the role of PT Barnum, the legendary showman who teamed up with JA Bailey to create Barnum and Bailey’s Circus – the popular entertainment known in its day as the Greatest Show on Earth. Did you already know this 1980 Broadway musical when the offer came your way?
Yes, I saw Michael Crawford do it originally in the West End. It’s a show that I’ve always admired, just as I’ve admired everyone that has taken on the role. So now to be asked by [producer] Cameron Mackintosh to have a go myself is a wonderful honour. I saw this production in Chichester [in 2013] and just loved it.
The physical demands are quite intense, to put it mildly.
Yes, they are! But I started training before Christmas last year, I was at circus school twice a week and then we were had five weeks of rehearsals. It’s certainly physically demanding but no more so than doing panto twice a day. Sure, I have moments of thinking I’m too old for this, but then I think to myself – it’s as if I’ve been called up by the England manager of the theatre world in Sir Cameron Mackintosh so I can’t let him down. And the wonderful thing with Cameron is that there’s absolutely no skimping; you know everything will be done to the highest degree.
Sure, but you’ve got to walk a tightrope, among other challenges that you don’t find in most stage musicals [laughs]!
It’s one of the obstacles the show poses and I did find myself thinking initially when I was on the tightrope, “What am I doing here?” I’m not afraid of hard work, whether in this or any show. I do eventually cross the wire, not always on the first attempt but that’s what makes it so exciting, the whole audience appreciate that I’m not a professional tight rope walker.
And you’ve no fear of heights?
No. I broke my finger doing the tightrope a few months ago now and that was when I was all of one foot off the ground. I also sprained my ankle pretty badly on the second day of rehearsals when I was on the wire at its full height which is eight foot of the ground. I think you can say that I’m afraid of falling but not afraid of heights [laughs].
PT Barnum exists on a spectrum of comparable stage roles for you over the years.
Very much so. I played Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man in Chichester in 2008 and he’s a similar type of con man character, and Al Jolson in his own way was a hugely driven man whom you grew to love. In each case, you’ve got to play these roles without malice but with energy and charm.
What I’m hoping I bring to Barnum is a real contact with the audience where we play off and talk to them and keep them engaged. It’s important whatever you’re performing to be visually interesting so you don’t just stand there and waffle on [laughs].
You don’t seem to balk at playing Americans.
I don’t, really. As a kid I used to listen to American songs as I sang, and I always feel as if the energy of these great American roles is not a million miles away from who I am – or as if it is me, but with an American accent.
I remember when I played Al Jolson in Canada, I was really worried that the audience would see through me and realise that I wasn’t American, but they believed I was. Before Jolson I did Me And My Girl, playing a cheeky Cockney lad, and after Jolson was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and then Edna in Hairspray with a voice like that [Conley drops his voice several octaves]: It can take me a little while to get the sound of the character, but once I find that, then I’m there.
Nor is this production of Barnum a mere carbon copy of what has been done before.
Not at all. For one thing, we’ve restored So Little Time, which was dropped originally from the show. When I heard it, I said, “We’ve got to put it in.” [The number] is about how much he loves his wife Charity, or Chairy [played on tour by Mamma Mia!, Joseph and Carrie star Linzi Hateley], and about how much he regrets never saying “I love you” as much as he should have and cuddled her more. It’s the most beautiful song.
What about the vocal requirements of the part?
Well, don’t forget that Jolson was pretty full-on: that one had 26 songs, though some to be fair were quite short; they were never huge arias. But all you can do with a role like this is trust and hope that your muscle memory kicks in and that you settle into a routine. It helps, I think, that I don’t drink anymore – I packed that in 10 years ago –and that I know how important it is to rest. That said, I’m not afraid of putting the time in to get results.
You clearly have a strong sense of the stage as your natural habitat.
Very much so. When I’m on stage I feel very much as if that is where I belong. My commitment to taking an audience somewhere is important to me: being live on stage feels like home to me, and I always say that I was born to do it.
It’s lovely, too, that you’re so fond of touring.
The thing is, there’s definitely a buzz when you’re out of London. The audiences on tour are so warm and genuinely enjoy going to their local theatre. The audiences on the tour have so far been phenomenal!
Are there other musical theatre roles on your bucket list?
I would love to play Miss Trunchbull in Matilda: that’s a part I would be very interested in after this, but beyond that, who knows? I don’t have a huge game plan, and I’m very fortunate to be in the position that I can do what I want to do as opposed to what I have to do.
I suppose Barnum sets the bar very high – literally so, given the heights you have to scale each performance.
[Laughs] Yes, and I intend to walk that bar! Anything after this will be a piece of cake.