Becoming the Barnums with Todd McKenney and Rachael Beck

A master showman known for his cunning, trickery, and outright charm, Phineas Taylor Barnum has left an undeniable mark in the history books.

Credited with revolutionising the modern day American circus, Barnum’s life story was the centre of the recent feature film The Greatest Showman. With this resurgence in Barnum’s life story, it seems only fitting that a production of the 1980 musical be staged. A musical like no other, Barnum is a fabulous mix of theatre and circus, showcasing performers from a wide array of skills and styles.

Todd McKenney as Barnum

Although an admirable man in some respects, there were many layers to Barnum and his work, and I had the absolute pleasure of discussing these with Todd McKenney, in the titular role, and Rachael Beck, playing his wife Charity, from the upcoming Melbourne season of BARNUM The Circus Musical.

Why do you think the story of Barnum is so popular now?

Todd: I think the movie [The Greatest Showman], which is nothing like our show, introduced a new audience to his story. And look, he wasn’t necessarily a great character as well, he wasn’t the glossy hero, but he left a legacy of stuff we enjoy today – the circus, museums, matinees. That’s worth celebrating, and it’s great to know where the idea of an audience coming to a theatre to see a spectacle came from.

Rachael: I also think that the whole circus era has really had a boom because of shows such as Cirq and The Illusionists, so it’s perfect timing for Barnum to come back and for us to have a look at the origins.

What are you drawing on to play Barnum and Charity?

Rachael: Fortunately this is a musical where we aren’t playing fictitious characters, but ones that actually existed and that’s really great for us. It’s exciting because it’s also kind of our story of why we’re performers.

Todd: When you’re playing a real person, the best you can do is a stack of research. You do your research, sink yourself into their world and do as much reading as you can so you get the vibe, the hook and the anchor of the person. And then you put your own stamp on it and play in that world. I’m in the middle of learning circus tricks – there’s juggling, a tightrope, a whole sort of stuff. It comes down to the research. I mean, we’re doing a period piece. So it’s got to be of an era and you have to get that right.

What can audiences expect of the upcoming production?

Todd: Well, I don’t know! It’s actually Tyran [Parke], the director’s vision for it which is slightly different. We’ve got the use of the circus performers from NICA. Back in the day, the early 1980s, the singers and dancers went to circus school for 6 months to learn the tricks. But now we’ve got NICA and access to these acrobats and jugglers and high wire acts who are really well rounded theatre performers themselves, they all sing and act, so there’s a much bigger pool to choose from. They’re no longer triple threats, they’re quadruple threats! That’s going to be really exciting, the circus aspect of the show will be much bigger than they ever have been before.

How has it been working on a period piece?

Rachael Beck

Rachael: I’ve worked on a few period pieces, it really depends on what style. I mean, you can call Les Miserables a period piece… Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a period piece… It’s wonderful. It’s one of the things I love about being an actor, the ‘body jump’ as I call it – you learn so much about the era, what they ate, the way they thought. My character Charity is quite progressive in terms of women’s rights and I studied that, the origins of that. I think it’s a wonderful thing to be part of a period piece. I think it’s very important, with me having kids, to know where you’ve come from where you’re connected to, and it’s a great thing for people to have that connection. Even my character [Charity], she’s quite uptight and religious, but earthy. And her costuming is quite in that manner. It’s quite tight, quite precise and pristine, much like how she acts.

Todd: I think in theatre everything from the past really dictates where we are now. Anthony Warlow and I always have this conversation about histrionics, so what you wear in a show and what people wore in that era, and how that dictated how they stood. And the way they stood dictated how they spoke to people and their manner, and it’s so important.

Why do you think it’s important to tell the story of Barnum and Charity’s relationship?

Todd: When speaking with Mark Bramble [librettist] on the show, he said that the show hangs on the relationship between Charity and Barnum – the audience have to believe that they just bicker, they almost lived to bicker, but they love each other. She just let him go, she couldn’t keep him in a cage, that’s how much she loved him. And I think he regretted going, but always knew she was going to be there. It’s a beautiful but dysfunctional relationship. It’s Charity walking out of my life, as Barnum, when he goes to have an affair with Jenny Lind, that forces me onto a tightrope. She backs me up the wall, literally, onto a tightrope and I find myself in this precarious situation, metaphorically being presented on a tightrope while I am singing. It’s a great theatrical premise, with Charity on one side, Jenny on the other and me in the middle going “shit, what am I going to do?!” I think the audience will be on the edge of their seats wondering if I’ll get across!

Reg Livermore as Barnum in the original 1982 Australian production

What makes these roles different to others you’ve played before?

Todd: What’s required of me in this show is to break the fourth wall and talk to the audience. So I start the whole show taking to the audience, and that I love. That’s something I learned in The Boy From Oz and is something I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. I’m really thrilled that I get the chance to do that. There aren’t many roles in musical theatre where you can talk to the audience and involve them in a non-threatening way. And there’s parts of Barnum’s character… he was an asshole. He ripped a lot of people off. But he had a passion. And you kind of forgive it because it was just in him, every atom of him was wanting colour and fun but also wanting to be rich.

Rachael: He’s a complex character, an interesting character. You need to have those levels.

Todd: He was blatant, I think. There’s a lot to hate about him but there’s a lot to love about him. He’s so charismatic. It’s going to take an incredible amount of energy to play him.

Rachael: I think there have been elements of this character [Charity] that I have played before. But certainly, every character is different because they come from a different era, different set of circumstances. What I love about this piece is our love story, and I think if that’s not true and not solid, not real and raw, the story doesn’t work. It’s got to be Charity is the earth to his colour. It’s a beautiful statement on relationships.

Why do you think people should come see Barnum?

Todd: Tyran’s visions are so great. Every time I have a meeting with him I sit forward in my seat and he really inspires me. he’s got detail, he’s a storyteller himself. He’s using certain characters in the show differently to how they’ve been used before. So, for example, the Ringmaster is acting almost like the devil on my shoulder, nudging him towards other women and bad decisions. I love the premise – it’s an interesting way of using the Ringmaster, rather than just as a means of introduction. It’s great because both adults and kids can come and see where circus began, where showbiz began, to a degree. Where modern day musical theatre has come from. And because Rachael’s in it. [laughs]

Rachael: Well, we have a really amazing relationship, Todd and I. We’ve done tours with symphonies, toured Hawaii together, had some really great times. We would do anything for each other and that’s a really exciting thing to see on stage because there are so many times you walk into a show and are disappointed because that’s connection isn’t there. You want to see the love story, you want to see the real stuff. I think it’s going to be magical.

BARNUM The Circus Musical opens at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre from April 2019 for a strictly limited season.

Tickets and more information can be found at barnumthemusical.com.au.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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