Entertainer Brian Conley was thrilled two years ago when he got the call from Sir Cameron Macintosh to take on the role of a lifetime, that of show business entrepreneur and circus showman PT Barnum.
“Famously Barnum has to walk on a tightrope so learning to do that was a big moment in my life,” Brian tells Andy Howells, “ as was going to circus school, learning to walk on stilts, juggle, eat fire and do magic. There’s quite a lot of things you have to learn before playing him, He is without doubt one of the biggest roles in musical theatre anyone could take on.”
Following the imagination and dreams of Phineas T Barnum, America’s Greatest Showman, the musical was a smash-hit when it opened on Broadway in 1980. Then starring Glenn Close and Jim Dale, it went on to win three Tony Awards and a Drama Desk Award.
When Barnum later opened at the London Palladium in 1981, Michael Crawford took the lead, winning an Olivier Award for his performance. “Barnum was the very first production I ever saw in the West End at the Victoria Palace with Michael Crawford,” recalls Brian, “never in my widest dreams did I ever think I’d be playing it.”
The show which ends its current UK tour at Wales Millennium Centre next week has been updated by Cameron Macintosh and Mark Bramble. “It’s a lot more technical and far more of a spectacular these days,” says Brian, “its a big show, it has a lot more colour. What we’ve done is make the comedy work because it was very much stuck in the 70s.”
“The circus is the glue that holds it together,” Brian continues, “When he died he was the richest man in America. It’s very much about this entrepreneur, his amazing dreams and his wife, Cherie (played by Linzi Hateley), who guides him, so it’s a love story as much as anything else.”
Brian who is now back on television screens with his new TV series The TV That Made Me will be sorry to part ways with his dream role of which he has played since last September when he plays Wales Millennium Centre next week. “It’s been a wonderful journey, but I’m really looking forward to Cardiff as it’s a nice place to go out,” he says.
- The national tour of Barnum ends its UK tour run at Wales Millennium Centre from August 11-15. Visit www.wmc.org.uk for ticket details.
- A version of this interview by Andy Howells was published in The South Wales Argus entertainment supplement The Guide on August 7, 2015